Shelf Life: Under the covers at the library

Close your eyes, and picture a library. What do you see? A forbidding place, with rows of cobwebbed old books, patrolled by stern horn-rimmed librarians, saying “Shhhhhh!”? Maybe that’s what libraries used to be like, but these days, they have gone through something of a revolution. So what’s a day in the life of a library like? I took a trip to Louth County Library in Dundalk to find out…

Close your eyes, and picture a library. What do you see? A forbidding place, with rows of cobwebbed old books, patrolled by stern horn-rimmed librarians, saying “Shhhhhh!”? Maybe that’s what libraries used to be like, but these days, they have gone through something of a revolution. So what’s a day in the life of a library like? I took a trip to Louth County Library in Dundalk to find out…

“Libraries really are for the people and of the people”, says Local Councillor Mark Deary, who until recently, was the Head of the Library Council of Ireland. “More people visit libraries every year than go to sporting events. We had 17 million visits to Irish libraries last year, it’s quite an amazing cultural phenomenon.”

Dundalk Library itself holds a very special place within this phenomenon. “Dundalk Library was the first public library to be provided by a local authority in Ireland, so it goes back a long way, something of which we are rightly proud”, says Amanda Brannigan, Senior Executive Librarian. “It opened officially as Dundalk Public Library in 1858. Gradually over the years, it grew, increasing it’s collection with donations, and then, for many years, was housed in a building in Chapel Street.”

Many Louth people have fond childhood memories of the Chapel Street library, of the winding stairs up to the reading room, the local newspapers on stands, and the picture books for children. “I remember the old library in Chapel Street really well”, says Mark Deary, “I was a serial reader of Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton when I was young. I remember the smell of the library, I remember the stairs going up to the wee room. But it was a miracle when this new library opened. ‘Charming’ was one word for the old library, but it was well past it’s time. It was great to see the old distillery buildings rescued and restored to house our new library”

Louth County Library is now housed in a converted distillery in the centre of the town. The building had lain derelict for years, a symbol of bygone industry, before it was renovated, and opened to the public in 1994. “The library in Chapel Street had reached it’s capacity in terms of age and size”, says Amanda. “It was some task to renovate the building, but they did a great job. All the wooden floors upstairs in the reference library are the original timbers from the distillery. The beams and stone walls are all original as well. The void in the centre of the building proved controversial, but it had to remain. That was where they would lift up the bags of hops and different ingredients that were being distilled, so there is actually a preservation order on that. It’s always been a talking point in terms of the library. But it’s a beautiful library, and a lovely place to work”

County Librarian Bernadette Fennell agrees. “I really enjoy working in the library. The old days style of stuffy old libraries, with people telling you to shhhhhhhhh! Are long gone. We have play areas for kids, you can borrow DVDs, we have quizzes and board game evenings, storytelling events and computer classes. There really is something in the library for everyone”

“People think that libraries are about books”, says Isobel, who has worked as a Librarian in the Louth County Library for many years. “And although they are of course about books and reading and literacy, they are also about people. As a librarian, I work with people, first and foremost. You get to know the regulars, you know about their lives, and develop a relationship with them. It’s really a social thing as well as being about books, and that’s the part of my job that I really enjoy.”

“The staff here are marvelous”, says local man, and long-term library user Christopher McAreevy. “I suppose I’d call into the library five days out of the seven. You nearly always meet someone with whom you can have a conversation”. Seamus Tiernan, another regular who lives a few doors down from Christie agrees: “The library was always something live. Both of us were teachers, but we’re more in the library since we have retired. To me, the library would be a kind of a home from home”.

Retired schoolteacher Teresa Sweeney is also a regular. “I’ve been coming to the library for over forty years now, and it has proved invaluable to me. I come in now with my granddaughter, and it’s great to be able to pass on the love of books and reading to a new generation.”

As my day visiting the library continues, I hear tales of long-overdue books anonymously returned from far-flung countries; of visitors from abroad researching their roots in the reference library; of retired people’s obsession with Westerns and Romance novels, and of the dark days of censorship in the ‘80’s, when “we had to colour in bikinis in the photography books, so that the young lads from the Christian Brothers School wouldn’t be checking them out!”, laughs Isabel.

I meet school children returning their books, and older people researching their local GAA team in the old newspapers. One by one, they tell of their connection to the library, and I come to realize that this place truly is the centre of this community.

“If we lost our libraries, we would lose somewhere safe for people to go”, says Alan Hand, Reference Librarian at the Louth County Library. “Society would lose a place of social interaction, and the transference of knowledge. It would also lose part of it’s culture and part of it’s heritage.” “The library is the commons at work”, agrees Mark Deary. “The library is open to anybody, and it’s like fencing off land that had been enjoyed by generations when a library closes. You lose a community asset, something that the community itself has contributed to. I think we need to resist that kind of thinking. There’s no entry requirement for walking through the door. Anybody can come in. And people do come in who are struggling with their mental health, who find the days very long. And the library is a sanctuary for them, and a place where they can explore the riches on the shelves. We need to understand that as the materialism that took hold of the country through the last decade gives way to something hopefully more sustainable, that the libraries of Ireland will be to the absolute forefront in that”.

As I leave the library to return home, after a day full of stories and characters, I make one promise to myself. Tomorrow, I renew my library card. And I’m going to make sure that everyone I know does the same.

Shelflife will be broadcast on LMFM on Monday 29th October at 1.10pm