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Part 5: Assessing Ireland’s Open Library Initiative

Is the open library initiative simply another cost-cutting Fine Gael policy and do you trust your local and national political representatives?

There is always a right way or a wrong way to do things in any endeavour. Given that open libraries in their current guise of 4/5 hours extra opening are not cost effective, we have to question whether or not the government are telling us the truth about their future intentions for libraries in Ireland? Given that the designated users are better served with remote access to electronic resources, we further have to question the level of research and thoughtfulness that has gone into this government plan? Given that open libraries  exclude children, the elderly and adults who are not computer literature, and  also fail to provide as much access to information as staffed libraries, we must question why so much public money is being invested in the open library initiative? Given that the government has not considered the more practical problems and implications on service level and the additional cost of these problems, we have to question the level of planning as well as the lack of professional and public consultation that has been undertaken in rolling out these open libraries? As well as these considerations, we also need to examine some more questions about how the government have co-ordinated the open library initiative.

Why are there contradictions in the report?

In relation to instances of anti-social behaviour, the government report contains the following three sentences: “there were no anti-social or other incidents in any of the three branches and all users complied with the terms and conditions”; “very few anti-social incidents have occurred and those that have were of a minor nature”; and, “no incidents of note”. So, clearly the report is not objective. What exactly were these instances of anti-social behaviour and what impact did they have on the library service and the patrons using it? How did the libraries in question deal with these incidents and what safeguards were put in place to ensure they were not repeated in the future? And more importantly, how did the CCTV system/ technology and procedures work in highlighting the incidents, and what, if any, changes were made to library policy in light of the incidents? Were the incidents reported to the Gardai and was anyone prosecuted?

Can we really trust a report that attempts to gloss over such problems? And why would the report do this? Are there other such contradictions or omissions of information from the report? Does the report further suggest that there is a bigger political agenda at play, one that extends beyond the interests of serving the community?

Why is access to library development funds conditional on establishing an open library?

It emerged this week that libraries will only be allocated access to a 2 million euro fund to upgrade services on the condition that they agree to set up open library facilities in the process. So, if a library is run down and in desperate need of upscaling, this can only happen if the library is transformed into an open library, meaning that the money will not be spent where the service needs it, but on technology for the open library. This takes the control of library development out of the hands of librarians who know their communities best and places it into the hands of a national scheme. In many ways, it is similar to what has been happening to our hospitals and post offices. The government, then, seem to be bribing county, executive and branch librarians who desperately want to upgrade their buildings and services. These exceptional people seem to have little choice – go along with open libraries or be starved of funding. Could this be the reason why some librarians are not speaking up against the initiative?

If the open library pilot was successful in Sligo, why are they facing closures due to staff cuts?

The government report indicates that open libraries are a valuable additional service to the community and that open libraries will not force staff cuts and library closures. However, in the Irish Times, it was reported that ‘Sligo libraries face closures due to staff cuts’. The government, as well as Sligo County Council need to clarify exactly what is the relationship between open libraries and the current threat of staff cuts and library closures? Could it be that so much was spent on setting up and servicing the open library that the council has run out of money and cannot afford to pay staff or provide services to the community? This is not such a far-fetched claim when one considers what has happened to libraries in the UK that have faced closures and cuts after open libraries were introduced. One such example can be found in Norwich in which staff protested the open library initiative when it resulted in the problems Sligo now appears to be facing.

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Did the government take an honest look at similar initiatives in Europe and what impact they have had on the communities involved? Why not survey the public on the issue more completely? And this means not just asking people if they want the library to be open for longer hours, as they did in Dun Laoghaire. But rather asking them if they agree with open and unstaffed libraries and whether they would be happy to have open libraries only in the future?

These are again, just some of the issues relating to a lack of transparency by the government. When Sean Fleming raised the matter in the Dail, he was ridiculed by Fine Gael’s Damien English. But if the initiative is genuinely attempting to serve the community, why ridicule the opposition rather than having an intelligent debate?

Part 1: Assessing Ireland’s Open Library Initiative

This is the first of a 6 part series on Ireland’s current Open Library Initiative….

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In principle, I am not necessarily against having open libraries in our communities. We live in a very diverse society in which people have all kinds of different lifestyle patterns and needs. Having our libraries open 24/7 in this context can only be a good thing. The core function of a library is to provide access to information and if open libraries provide greater access to information then they may not be all doom and gloom. However, a serious and considered examination needs to be undertaken in order to assess whether the current open library initiative in Ireland is a  positive or negative move by the government. In order to achieve this, some questions need to be asked and answered.

Is the open library initiative cost effective in its current guise?

The current plans are to open the library for additional 4/5 hours each evening. In order to do this, libraries will need a serious upgrade to its facilities. Considering the current outdated technology currently in our public libraries, this will be an expensive venture. Security gates need to be full-length from ceiling to floor to prevent people stealing items. All computer access, photocopying/ scanning, check in/outs, entry/ exit gates, and also item returns will ideally need to be automated. CCTV in the libraries will need to updated also. Added to this, will be the ongoing servicing and maintenance costs of operating the service. This operation will not be taken over by IT Departments already working in County Councils, but will be carried out by the company supplying the technology. What all of this amounts to a very expensive venture. And if money is not spent wisely by choosing technology that is fit for purpose and reliable, along with a servicing contract that allows for efficient problem solving and technical support, then the cost of this will run into tens of thousands of euros per year per library.

So, the question is, is it really worth the cost in order to open the library for an additional 4/5 hours in the evening? And besides, if you have the technology in place, why close the library at all when 10pm comes? Why not open it all night? I will return to this question a little later.  The cost question is very important. A Library Assistant at the beginning of their contract, earns 21,500 euros per year full-time and works on a salary scale that reaches 37,000 euros. If the end goal here is to simply open the library for a few extra hours in the evening, why not create a job for someone like myself who is currently surviving on the scraps of temporary part-time work?

Why spend all of this money when access to the information in the library can be provided so cheaply by creating a job for a young newly qualified librarian? This calls into question the real motives of the government with this initiative. The bottom line is that this project in its current guise of 4/5 hours extra opening is simply not cost effective. And worryingly, the only way to make it cost effective is to reduce staff and have an Open Library all of the time. So when librarians express concern for the future of the profession, they are being realistic about where the open library initiative is heading.

Nice new self-service machine at Sligo Library, although why is everyone wearing coats? Perhaps the money would be better spent on heating?
Nice new self-service machine at Sligo Library, although why is everyone wearing coats? Perhaps the money would be better spent on heating?