Throughout the years, libraries have been an essential staple at the heart of our communities. While they remain a vital source of education and information, the core services provided by libraries have grown well beyond their basic function of collecting and borrowing books. Recent years have borne witness to a slow metamorphosis in the function of libraries, and gone are the days of stern librarians and stuffy, painfully quiet atmospheres. Instead libraries have grown into places of activities, services and resources all of which are designed around the needs and desires of people in their community. The way we consume reading material and entertainment and how we pursue our hobbies is a developing cycle, and one which libraries are constantly re-evaluating in order to preserve their place as an important outlet for our communities.
Many libraries have been completely revamped in recent years, with state-of-the-art self service machines, all the latest computer technology and areas for study, reading and activities as the government acknowledges the essential role these buildings play in our community. This year saw €500,000 invested in the refurbishment of the Market House which houses the Granard Community Library in Longford. Rosemary Gaynor, librarian, has said that the transformation has rejuvenated the community, adding “it is a very exciting time for the community library here in Granard.”
Recently Donabate-Portrane Community Library re-opened having been re-designed “as a community space to meet the educational, cultural, and leisure needs of the public”. While Dublin City Library, currently located in the Ilac Shopping Centre, is being moved to Parnell Square as part of a €60 million cultural quarter re-development, where it is hoped it will be a place to learn, create and participate.
With libraries around Ireland now containing an array of free services to suit a wide range of needs, they have become a place which offers something for everyone. Books are but one of many items available to rent. Now DVD’s, e-books and games can also be rented along with internet access, daily newspapers, audio books and computer facilities. They also provide a huge online support service.
Once you have a library card you have access to 400 free online classes, everything from accounting to photography to spiritual studies. There is also a choice of 80 language courses to choose from. Their online support is geared for daily usage with e-newspapers and online magazines updated daily and if you don’t see a book that you like, librarians can specially order individual titles in for you.
The fast moving nature of technology has had an influence on all areas of life, but never more so than on books – and libraries are constantly being challenged to address this. E-books can now be rented both online or in the library and their on site computers come equipped with office suites, internet access and multimedia computer facilities, while students can avail of their online databases and catalogues.
It also provides free WIFI for those who want to use their own devices. This summer saw the introduction of SeeSearch to libraries across the south of Dublin. SeeSearch is the latest in advance search functions and it can perform a single search across all resources. The technology has many applications and could be the future of retail and company data bases, Irish libraries are staying ahead of the curve by being the first to use it.
For those computer technophobes out there, the library has joined forces with Irish Internet Association (IIA) to run classes for their campaign called “Digitising the Nation”, the aim of which is to get everyone online no matter what your age or computer abilities. Their belief is that there is no “digital economy” but rather that there is a society of which we are all part and that internet technology is about community, inclusivity, communication and access.” You can keep an eye out at your local library for classes or check out www.digitisethenation.ie
Libraries are also a place where you can meet new people and discover new interests. Many libraries now run book clubs, language exchange groups, film clubs and history clubs. They’ve become a hub for exhibitions, lectures and workshops. A libraries demographic covers all age ranges and this is a responsibility they take very seriously.
Many libraries have incorporated toddler groups, children’s activities and storytelling hours into their daily schedules. It’s not just technology that has influenced libraries’ development, the economic downturn has also had it’s effect. Since the recession there has been a surge in the demand for the free services that libraries provide.People no longer have the money that they once had for entertainment so have turned to places like the library for support during this time of upheaval.
Libraries now stand firm at the heart of communities. August saw Heritage Week take place all over the country with up to 400,000 people taking part. An event set up ‘to provide opportunities for families to come together to explore their heritage’, Heritage Week saw libraries all over Ireland right in the centre of it all.
Many provided the rooms for talks, workshops and lectures that allowed this event to happen. Other past events that have captured people’s imaginations have been Writers festival, Dublin: “One city, One book”, short story competitions, Mythical Maze Summer Campaign, Visiting Writers’ programs and book launches.
Libraries have always shaped themselves around the needs of the people, and despite the fast-changing times that we live in, libraries will continue to stand firm as places that offer support and education to everyone within the community.
The Council Journal spoke to Yvonne O’ Brien, Senior Executive Librarian with Fingal County Council to discuss the evolving role of libraries in Ireland.
Fingal Libraries has been nominated for Best Library Services in the Chambers Excellence in Local Government awards for your digital strategy. Could you explain this strategy?
It’s our on going vision to enhance digital communication between users of Fingal Libraries and non-users. The big challenge is trying to get people in but I just feel that with all the technological developments, it’s very difficult to keep up with them. We needed to put ourselves out there and ensure that we were trying our best to use the media that everybody’s using around us.
There’s no point in us being the centre for information and learning and life long learning, which we are, and not using the channels that people are using every day in their lives. It’s extremely important that we are out there with Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and all the others. We have done Twitter and Facebook from 2009. Since then 12 staff have certificates in public relations. So I think again that it’s very important to have staff trained in how to use this stuff.
What do you consider to be the role of the Library and how has it changed over the years?
The role of the library is the same as it ever was. It’s all about empowerment and supporting people. The context has changed, you have all these different media channels that are totally different and new to a lot of the staff but I think we have a role there, and then there’s the community focus and the integrated potential for that. I think that’s in the background all the time but it’s important to know that’s what we’re about as well.
I think libraries still have value despite all this information and access to information at people’s fingertips. Digital literacy skills are still extremely important, not everybody has them. For example how to evaluate online information. So digital literacy skills are as important as traditional literacy skills and we see a role for ourselves there.
Could you describe some of the services available in your library district that people may not be aware of?
We do everything from the traditional role of lending books, but we also lend DVD’s, CD’s, prints. They’re probably the core collections. Now libraries are more of a connection in that we have free WIFI and internet. We’d have a numerous amount of public access PCs so that people can come in and just book a PC for an hour. We would have training classes for PC skills, social media skills and job-seeking skills. We have meeting rooms in our bigger branches which people book for a very nominal amount.
A lot of our stuff ties back to fostering a love of reading or some kind of a skill-set. So at the moment we have Heritage Week. There’s lots of activities going on related to that. We have self service in most branches. So people have the option of using self-service or else asking staff to do the transactions for them. It affords a privacy, convenience and choice for people.
We have staff circulating around the machines. They’re available then if people want to have a chat with them about recommendations or just a chat in general. You often have people coming in just to chat, especially older people. We tap into the schools quite a lot. We offer class visits. Arts and Crafts through the Summer. We try to be creative in how we engage the youngsters as well as their teachers and parents.
Tell us about the staff who work in your branches.
We have fantastic staff which is really our best resource. They are people who are focused on what they’re doing in their branches, some are good at engaging the children and then we have other people who are trying to take the leap into digital media. We have two people recently who were awarded a diploma in digital marketing and 12 people have received Certificates in Public Relations so that I think it is very important to actually up-skill staff and give them the opportunity to up-skill all the time. Then we just try and put that into practice. It really is about connecting with the community and it really needs staff that are going to put themselves out there and make an effort.
The Library is aimed at a huge demographic. How did you set about meeting the needs of such a large age range of people?
We are very clued into what’s going on in each area. We would partner with community groups and agencies and we just have to scan the environment all the time. While the staff might be older we have people interested in different things. So you’d have the people interested in the children’s collections and children’s activities. You have other people interested in the digital who have taken the leap and decided they’re going to tackle it. That’s our training.
You have to cater for people from babies right up to old age pensioners and by that I’m also taking about people who are house bound. Again the key is I think to partner with local community groups. We are uniquely placed in the community in that we have ties with the local organisations and with the schools, different community groups, citizens information and a lot more.
That is our training, we have to cater for everyone because the library is probably one of the last spaces where we have an unconditional welcome for everybody. It’s for every group in the community.
What do you consider to be the biggest challenge to face the libraries in the last few years?
Well there’s been a few, all running in parallel. Technological has been the big obvious one, I suppose. Then we had migration, Fingal has experienced a huge amount of inward migration from all over the world. So we probably have at least a hundred different nationalities of origin within the Fingal area and the libraries are a fantastic space for people to find a sense of belonging in the community. It’s an opportunity for us to make sure we live up to our ethos of ‘equality for all, equality of access for everybody’.
I think the library has been a space where anybody can come in, it’s unconditional, you can be from anywhere in the world. You don’t even have to be able to speak English and I think gradually people from all over the world have realised that. Again if you are socialised in using a Library from any country, the library is one space that people seek out. I call it a trans-locational space as it’s the one space that people can identify with wherever they go in the world.
Have you noticed a difference in the way people view the library since the recession?
There was a huge difference, particularly up to 2011/2012. There was a spike and since then it’s sort of eased off a bit. Our figures show there’s a slight reduction in book borrowing since then but that could be explained by people using E-books. Reading books has taken a bit of a dive but at the same time that is our staple. The library is definitely still there as a community space and it has that sort of hidden role because it is integrative.
It’s one that pulls everyone together in the community and it’s informal. People meet each other and greet each other and get to know the faces, everybody gets used to each other and if you walk around the library here you’ll see people from all nationalities, all backgrounds.
Do you treat your libraries on an individual basis or do you have a blanket approach to the standards you want to achieve across them?
We have an overall strategy so every library offers the same core services. It is depending on the area that the library is in of course, there’s going to be a bespoke service for that particular community because the needs are different and then the resources are different. Generally we offer the same over-arching scope of books. All of the E-services apply uniformly right across the board.
They can be accessed once you have your library card. In relation to events, it’s surprising how many events go on in the smallest of libraries in Fingal. Garretstown library is a hive of activities in relation to engaging with the children. Sometimes if we can’t do something that we want to do in the branch because it’s too small, we go into the local school and offer them the event. We have ten library branches and then we have the local studies and archive section.
That’s another branch in itself. It would be different to the public library system in that you wouldn’t go in to borrow items as it’s a reference collection of local history and archives. We consider this the memory bank of Fingal and that’s another area we’re trying to digitise.
We have a postcard collection that’s been put online and have done a series of interviews speaking to Irish people and getting their memories and that’s online as well. We’ve also scanned Fingal burial ground records.Access to our online stuff can be found through Askaboutireland.ie.
Can you describe some of your past and future Events?
Heritage Week ran from August 23rd to 31st and ‘its aim is to build awareness and education about our heritage thereby encouraging its conservation and preservation’. Then we have summer reading challenges. Summer Reading Buzz 2014 has been short-listed for the Chambers Ireland Excellence Awards. It’s a collaborative project with six local authorities including Fingal this year. So that’s been going on over the summer very successfully.
During school then we have a national program of events including Children’s Book Ireland (CBI), Science Week and Maths Week as we would place a huge amount of emphasis on literacy and numeracy. Science Week is about getting children to realise that science is around you every day.
We’ve a new initiative this year, the Laureate na nÓg 2014 ONCE UPON A PLACE with Irish Railway Preservation Society of Ireland. Eoin Colfer was looking for different ideas to raise the profile of literature and reading for young people from different authorities and schools and we submitted an idea which has been picked as one of the projects.
Our idea was to have a group of storytellers including Eoin Colfer on a steam train as it travels through Fingal with all the lovely scenery along the coast. We’ll pick schools along the way to take part and we’ll try to get some disadvantaged schools. The storytelling steam train will happen next March. Children’s book festival will happen in October and we’ll have a huge range of events for that. We’ll have author talks, visits, arts and crafts sessions, anything you can think of that will light up the imagination for children.
Also develop relationship via events / literacy/ storytelling with Fingal’s Dunsink Horse Project in Collaboration with Parks Department and Irish Horse Welfare Trust is an ongoing project. The club are producing a calender with photos of the events and participants and an anthology of the writing will be launched at the end of October.
There are also a number of forthcoming exhibitions. Our Fingal Libraries Early Years Literacy Strategy (FLEYLS) has been implemented and will be rolled out in the next year or so. There’s so much going on, it’s all about inspiring people.
What future plans do you have in development?
In terms of plans for development we have an app coming up called ‘Fingal Library App’. So that will be great for really loyal users and our existing users because it gives added functionality. It will be a smart library card. People will be able to download the App, then when you go to the library you will be able to use your mobile phone to use the self service machines.
As most people won’t generally forget their mobile phones, while they can forget their library card. It will make life easier for everybody and that has loads of potential. It will have GPS features and for staff then it will allow us to check whether we have an item in stock. So we’re not doubling up, it’s more efficient that way.
It will linked in with journey planner so people can get to and from the library easily. We opened up Donabate library recently which is a new model. It’s a co-located library in a community centre. We opened it in April so it was just before the exams and all the students in Donabate were in using the study space.
There’s a huge amount of study space which is really important even though everybody has information at their finger tips at home. Sometimes the intrusion of all these devices is difficult to get away from, so a library is a good environment in which to work.
Baldoyle library is being remodelled . We want to enhance what we have there. We’re opening up the hallway to make a room out of it and it will have better circulation and a dedicated children’s area. We’re putting in a bespoke unit which will have up to ten study spaces for teenagers and students.
After Baldoyle, we’re currently looking for a new space for Swords Library and that’s on going. We’d ideally love a big library that would include the traditional library with the lending stock, PC’s, WIFI, hopefully some coffee services and then rooms to do other types of learning, because libraries are all about lifelong learning. Learning isn’t all about books and academia.
It’s about social skills, it’s about doing things. You are going to see a lot more training for users and staff and an engagement with users as well so TY classes are fantastic for teaching older people how to use their smart phones and other devices. We have those classes going on all the time. Skerries library needs to be upgraded so we have plans to do something with that.
These are the areas we are working on for development and we keep on trying to explore social media and all the different channels there to try and get users to engage with us and for us to promote our services while at the same time keeping to the traditional.