Libraries are a vital community resource – before, during and after Covid-19

Posted on Friday, 7 May 2021
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The temporary closure of libraries due to the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted just what an important community facility they are. Students of all ages had no access to resources, those who borrow rather than buy books and those who use the meeting spaces to gather together were now without. However, they have adapted to the closures by facilitating online sign up and by providing other online services such as free access to eBooks, newspapers, magazines, online courses and audiobooks.  

Libraries provide an important social and educational role in Ireland, with over 17 million visits annually by 1,195,909 registered members across 330 branch libraries and 30.5 mobile libraries.1 Operated by Local Authorities, they play an important role in ensuring access to information, reading and learning material. In recent years, libraries have greatly expanded their offering, with a roll-out of digital services including e-books, and access to journals and catalogues online and, in between 2012 and 2017 added 45 new or extended library branches. They also provide affordable internet access and support for people who may not own a computer, an important service, particularly in areas with low connectivity and/or high numbers of older people.  

Many libraries also offer exhibition and meeting spaces, specific activities such as book clubs, parent and child reading events, local history lectures and act as an information hub within in a community. In addition to the fixed venues, they offer a mobile service for schools and in rural areas. As part of their commitment towards equity of access, library membership is now free for core services. Social Justice Ireland welcomes the broadening of the scope of the library service, the introduction of Libraries Ireland, the availability of e-learning and electronic resources etc. However, it is important that these developments do not result in a closing or downgrading of smaller branch libraries, which play a significant role in supporting communities.  

A new strategy for the public library service was delivered in 2018. Our Public Libraries 2022.2 sets out three strategic programmes for the delivery of the library service. The first is Reading and Literacy, which includes rolling out Right to Read programmes for children; the second is Learning and Information, which seeks to establish libraries as a key resource for the promotion of and access to lifelong learning and health and wellbeing; and the third is Community and Culture, which intends to establish libraries as central to communities, providing inclusive spaces for cultural, community and civic events. The plan to enhance the position of libraries as community hubs is a welcome one. It contains ‘Strategy Enablers’ – specific actions underpinning each strategy, which include enhancing library buildings to meet the needs of the surrounding society, expanding the capital build programme, increasing staffed library open hours and ‘My Open Library’ (that is, the unstaffed opening hours) to more libraries across the country, introducing universal access to library services and removing fines and upgrading library ICT systems.  

The Libraries Strategy will only succeed with the commitment of library teams, particularly in the areas of community engagement and education. Social Justice Ireland recommends that their central role to this success should be well supported through resources allocated to their continued professional development and wellbeing.  

Achieving the vision within the strategy will require significant investment in our library infrastructure, their collections, their staff, their civic and cultural programming, their technology and their outreach services. We recommend a particular focus on encouraging new and disadvantaged communities to avail of the benefits of the library for broad education and recreation purposes. Emerging from Covid-19 restrictions, libraries have an opportunity to collaborate with local stakeholders, become vibrant information hubs and centres of enterprise, culture and learning fit for the 21st century.