24 Sept 2022

Sam Matthews: We must nurture our libraries - a vital community resource

Library’s success can’t be measured by number of new memberships or books loaned


Kilkenny libraries are under-funded compared to the rest of the region per capita

Those who have not visited their local library in some years, or who are not members of one, would likely get a bit of a surprise if they were to darken the door of any of the libraries open in Kilkenny today.

They may have in their head a picture of what the library used to be. Some have the idea that libraries are a kind of antiquated irrelevance in the age of smartphones and Google.

However, thousands of people in Kilkenny are regular library users, and they will know the modern library is a hub — a thriving safe and friendly space at the heart of many communities. Best of all, membership doesn’t cost anything.

As noted by our county librarian Josephine Coyne, what is there today compared to even ten years ago is a very different service.

Libraries in Kilkenny have all manner of different activities taking place at any one time — knitting and crafts groups, homework club, MABS, book clubs and more. They link in with important initiatives like Heritage Week and Creative Ireland,and various exhibitions.

Ms Coyne revealed that one in ten children leave primary school with a literacy difficulty, and the library has identified this as an area where it can help. Libraries here ran a programme where each child reads eight books over the summer. An incredible 996 children took part.

A key way the library has managed to stay relevant and encourage young people to use the service is through the provision of wifi and easy computer access. This has also become an essential resource to rural communities.

So too has Kilkenny’s mobile library service, which visits around 50 different communities. These links to rural Kilkenny help reduce isolation and reaching out to people in areas who mightn’t have a service, empowering them to access information.

People are voting with their feet. Almost 300,000 items were borrowed last year, and around 296,000 people came through libraries’ doors. There is high usage on the library website.

However, the measure of a library’s success can’t be found simply in the number of new memberships or of books checked out.

Ms Coyne spoke of one local woman in Slieverue, whose husband passed away, leaving her no longer able to get around as easily. The mobile library staff then arranged with the local shop to drop books in to them, making things much easier for her.

Another person, this time from Ballyhale, gets so much value out of the mobile service that the famly came down to meet the staff to thank them.

These are the stories that the numbers and the statistics don’t show us – but considered in the context of what a modern library is, they are a compelling argument to protect our library service, and indeed, strengthen it to its full potential.

With all this in mind, it’s nearly hard to believe it was only last summer when the threat of amalgamation of services loomed over local library staff.

Staff here and in Carlow balloted in favour of industrial action over the proposed merger of the two counties. The IMPACT trade union warned that a thriving library service would be gutted thanks to a ‘number-crunching exercise’.

Staff perservered through those difficult times, and they have managed to maintain a high-quality service that is flourishing despite threats and despite chronic under funding.

It’s shocking to discover that Kilkenny has the lowest per capita spend on stock in the south-east — less than half that of the figure for Wexford. We must do more to protect and nurture our libraries.

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