PUBLIC LIBRARIES ARE special places. They have been part of the social fabric of Ireland for more than 100 years. A staffed public library is a safe, welcoming space, open to all; a space where no one needs an excuse to just “be”. These qualities alone make the public library a valuable enriching asset to any community.
Unfortunately, decision makers tend to measure the contribution of staffed public libraries in numbers: gate counters, internet sessions, attendance at events, items borrowed, etc. The true value that a staffed public library brings to a community is immeasurable. Each one is a wonderful space, with a life and soul of its own. It is an oasis of calm in a busy world, a place of learning, a provider of information, a helping hand, a kind word spoken, a place where human contact and chat are guaranteed, a place of inclusivity and equality, a steady touchstone in an increasingly troubled world. In fact, it could be said that a staffed public library is a microcosm of everything that a democratic society aspires to be.
The positive impact that a public library has on people, young and old, is something that librarians and library staff experience every single day and its one of the reasons why they love their work. Library staff know that every day they make a difference in someone’s life.
Why are staffless libraries being considered?
Tomorrow, staff at the public library in Dun Laoghaire in Dublin will protest over a decision to open the library on Sundays without any library staff present.
A pilot scheme to trial staffless libraries was undertaken by Offaly and Sligo County councils from 2014 to 2016. On the basis of the final report of the pilot by the Local Government Management Agency (LGMA), up to 12 (and possibly more) counties are planning to introduce staffless library hours in the immediate future.
The report itself has a number of flaws. For example: the report states that “there were no anti-social or other incidents in any of the three branches and all users complied with the terms and conditions”. However, further on in the report we see that “very few anti-social incidents have occurred and those that have were of a minor nature”. Perhaps the LGMA could clarify what is deemed as an anti-social offence of a minor nature? Later on it is stated that there were “no incidents of note”.
In addition, the UK’s experience of staffless libraries is not referenced at all in the report. Why not? Rather, the report repeatedly references the Scandinavian countries (where, in fact, the choice for the public was one of no library at all or a staffless library). Staffless libraries in the UK have not been successful from the public’s point of view and have led to closures, reduced staffed hours and thus the intrinsic loss of a valuable community asset. The real question is, does the government in the UK regard this as a successful cost-saving exercise?
The introduction with little or no public consultation of staffless library hours in Ireland will most certainly have the same result as that of the UK. It is the first step towards the dismantling of the public library system as it is known and cherished. We are in danger of blindly allowing one of our most powerful community and social assets to be eroded away.
What happened in Offaly and Sligo?
Using data taken from the LGMA report into the pilot schemes in Offaly and Sligo, we see the numbers from Tullamore Library 2015 showing that only 8.97% of visits took place during 51 staffless hours provided. During the same period, 92.03% of visits took place during staffed hours – 47 per week.
Given that these statistics are taken from year 2 of the pilot, any logically minded person would conclude that investment in providing staffless library hours brings a poor return. The stats for issues during the same period are astonishingly low for the staffless hours: 95.69% versus 4.61%. Again, a logically minded person would regard these figures, and, given that the government only measures the value of libraries in statistics and numbers, seriously question the intentions behind the planned investment in provision of staffless library hours throughout the country. “It seems that , given a choice, people prefer to use libraries staffed by professionals,” reads one conclusion based on the recent experiences of Danish public libraries.
The public library service is in desperate need of advocates. Advocates that will ask why the government is prepared to fund the retrofitting of security cameras and card swipe technology to provide staffless libraries, when their beloved numbers show that the returns are small, and that the space is used mostly for fast internet access and study? Is it because the intention is to maximise monetary savings down the road with reduced staffed hours and closures? I certainly think so. Is it the intention to ignore the obvious health and safety issues around this and deal with them as they arise? Has the Children First Act 2015(Law) even been adhered to? Has anyone even taken into consideration the fact that women may not feel safe in a staffless public library? Have any statistics been produced around the ratio of women to men visiting during staffless hours? What of the more vulnerable in our society? Those that are suffering mental anguish? Those for whom the staffed public library provides a safe non-threatening space. Are those that are making this monumental and far-reaching decision being properly informed about the loss our nation faces? Is this the legacy they want to leave for generations to come?
We are a literary nation with Dublin being awarded UNESCO status as a City of Literature. We have a long and proud heritage of producing world-class writers and we should hang our heads in shame if we allow our public library system to be thrown away as a monetary cost saving measure. Our 1916 signatories would be ashamed of these values and actions.
The authors of this piece are the Staff our Libraries Community Group which wants public libraries to be staffed, safe and open to all