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Support Public Libraries, Support Communities
In recent years, libraries have greatly expanded their offering, with a rollout of digital services including e-books, and access to journals and catalogues online. They also provide affordable internet access and support for people who may not own a computer. 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 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 the 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 local communities.
A new strategy for the public library service was delivered last year. 'Our Public Libraries 2022' 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. Social Justice Ireland welcomes, in particular, the dedicated Strategy Enabler for Library Teams, focused on their development and support and enhancing communications across teams. The library strategy will only succeed with the commitment of library teams, particularly in the areas of community engagement and education. Their central role to this success should be 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. 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.