A recent article in The Irish Times drew attention to a new proposal to extend public library opening hours in Ireland. This move would allow users to access the physical library and borrow items on a self-service basis outside of staffed hours - an excellent idea for those who work full-time or other hours which preclude them from accessing library services. It has always disappointed me that many public libraries are not open right throughout the weekend for example, when to me, this seems like a prime period for attracting new and existing users. I understand of course that this would involve more staffing, something that is impossible in today's (and indeed tomorrow's) climate. A secondary piece in The Journal also discusses the issue, and some of the comments make interesting reading, particularly in terms of how people see public library services today. There are a lot of positive comments regarding the value of library services, staff and librarians.
Of course, alongside the obvious advantages of this proposal, is the very real threat that the out of hours service may become so successful and popular, that users (and further still, local authorities and the Government) may perceive that there is no need for libraries to be staffed at all. One commenter raises this concern:
Beware folks, this could be a slippery slope. In the UK many County Councils are trying to divest themselves of responsibility for running public libraries saying they are too-little utilised, cost too much etc. Their preferred alternatives are to hand them over to businesses or community volunteer groups to run them. Of course, they are offering some financial support but nothing remotely in line with the real cost of employing professional staff. Libraries run by unpaid volunteers is a strong, and worrying, possibility for the near future.
And this, I believe, is a very real threat to the future of public libraries in Ireland: closure and/or deprofessionalisation. There is no simple solution to stemming this potential tide, as recent examples from the UK have shown. However, I do wonder if there is more (perhaps a lot more) that we can do as a profession to assert our visibility and value.
Teaching has traditionally been a very respected and valued profession in Ireland, and one that is essential for the development of our economy, culture and society in general. Even with the escalation of elearning, free YouTube videos, downloadable Powerpoint presentations and MOOCs, not many people suggest that we may not need teachers anymore, given that there is a wealth of free material available with which one can teach oneself. In fact, in Budget 2014 Minister Quinn announced the provision for 1,250 extra teaching positions in a time of a public sector recruitment embargo. Sadly, there is no such chink of light on the horizon for Irish libraries, and it is unlikely that there will be any time soon. Of course it is right that education be protected in this way, but why do library and information professionals appear to hold such little power or value compared to teachers? I wonder what difference 125 (nevermind 1,250) school librarians could make to our children's futures? Perhaps we need to follow the example of our teaching colleagues and be more forceful and ardent in articulating and demonstrating our value, to ensure our voice is both heard and listened to?
Whilst we can often do very little in the face of budget cuts and library closures, we can help to some (however slight) effect by advocating for our profession, something which I feel that we (the profession as a whole) often do not do enough of. The role of a librarian today requires being able to communicate the unique value and expertise that we offer, not just to our user communities, but to management and even the Government. This may require changing our focus and approach in some cases, to highlight concrete benefits to stakeholders in their terms, rather than simply showcasing our services in our own library language. We also need to look at what we currently do, and what we can do in the future, that is truly unique (content creation and publishing is a big one here I feel). And we need to make sure we start doing this before the Irish library landscape irreversibly changes for the worse.