Leave Our Libraries Alone

Oisin McGann, November 2011

This was an article I wrote for the Irish Writer’s Union newsletter, based on a slightly longer post on my blog.

On the 10th of October, Phil Hogan, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, announced that the Library Council (An Chomhairle Leabharlanna) was being dissolved. Bad as this news was for the council, it was a far worse omen for the future of the nation’s libraries. Particularly given the burnt-earth policy that is causing libraries to close all over the UK. In my view, the dissolving of the Library Council suggested that Mr Hogan, and the other people responsible for this decision, may not fully comprehend the value of public libraries.

A public library is no mere lender of books, or even one that has expanded to music, films, games and other products. It is more than a drop-in centre for people looking for information on education and training, local services, or for free use of a computer. A library, for me, first and foremost, is one of the few branches of the public service that not only supports everyday life, but enriches it.

One of the key ways it does this is in the way it offers a public space, where people can make contact – with the public service, with the state, and with each other. As shopping centres take over from town centres, as larger shops take over from local businesses and we build over the natural places people congregate, that public space is becoming all the more important.

Where else will you find a venue in the centre of a town, that is equally comfortable hosting a traditional music session, or events for Science Week? A place where parents can bring their toddlers on a Saturday morning; where teenagers can congregate round computer screens, safe, but unsupervised. Where a knitting group can meet every week over a cup of tea or coffee. It is a place to study for college, or plan a project, or start a business.

A library is a public space where things are allowed to happen, where new events and projects can be supported in a spontaneous, community-driven way that does not require pages of forms, or a grant application, or a business plan. It is a place where a community can develop, and engage with the wider world. Like many public servants, librarians are there to help, but their role allows them to be flexible in the ways they can help.

Libraries are one of the very few branches of the public service that inspire loyalty, and even love in the people that use them.

We live in a country where a sense of community is more vital than ever. We are governed by leaders focused on bleeding their citizens dry to reinvigorate zombie banks run by failed businessmen. There is so much emphasis on what we must have less of, but thinking small is no way to solve our problems.

If the government is serious about coming up with a ‘smart economy’ – if it wants to convince its citizens that its purpose is to do things for them, not to do things to them . . . then until it comes up with some wondrous institution that does more and does it better, it needs to leave our libraries alone.