Libraries – A New Age of Learning

Sunday Tribune, 10th October 1999.

Clare County Library and the World Wide Web

The library service in Ireland has played an important role this century in providing the means of imparting knowledge to the masses. As we move into a new millennium the role of libraries is expanding and it is only through embracing new technology that they can continue to provide the type of service now expected from them.

As centres of learning, it could reasonably be argued that the library service in Ireland has a primary role to play in introducing society to the new technological methods of information retrieval that now pervade society.

Books will never (hopefully) be replaced, but innovations such as CD-ROMs and the Internet now play a significant and growing role throughout our schools, colleges and workplaces and there is no reason why the Irish library service should be exempt from the information revolution.

Just last month the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Noel Dempsey, announced that he had secured an extra 0.5m for the library bookfund for this year. This may not sound like much, but compared to the amount of funding which comes directly from the Government every year it is a sizeable increase. The vast majority of funding comes directly from local authorities themselves. In 1998 that amounted to approximately 38m, while the Department of the Environment and Local Government contributed 3m of National Lottery funds. But the 318 public libraries in Ireland are attempting to do a lot with the funds they do receive.

A major Government sponsored review of the public library service published late last year indicated that two of the Government’s major overall policy objectives are to :

Tom O’Mahony of the Department of the Environment and Local Government and chairman of the group established by the minister to review the service said the report "demonstrates that the public library system has the potential to make a major contribution to furthering both of these objectives".

In the same month as the report was published last year the minister announced a 1m stock grant to enable local authorities to purchase books, CD-ROMs and other electronic media and said last month that he would be increasing that fund for 1999 to 1.5m.

There is a concerted effort to bring the Irish library service into the technological age and this can already be witnessed in many locations throughout the country. Indeed, the Government also provided 1m towards the installation of Internet access points throughout the library network.

"This initiative", said Minister Dempsey, "will be crucial to the public perception of libraries in the months and years ahead. While the initiative will be an important demonstration that the library service is there to facilitate access to the Information Society, it is but a first step towards a wide range of online services".

Many libraries have taken up the gauntlet and have already made serious and impressive inroads towards providing their local communities with the type of access to Information Technology that is essential if Ireland is to play an influential role in the major global societal and business changes that are occurring and will occur well into the next century.

Together with libraries in Limerick and Mayo, Dublin Corporation’s Ballyfermot library has become the European starting point for Microsoft’s Libraries On-Line programme. The programme, which was already in operation in the US and Canada, was established to provide public Internet and multimedia access in public libraries there. Its main aim is to redress the problem of potential exclusion from the fast developing Information Society in areas of high unemployment and social deprivation.

Users of the Ballyfermot public library can now avail of the use of a number of PCs with fast, ISDN connections to the Internet as well as a range of CD-ROMs. The facility has been, and is, widely used by the local community since its inception in September 1997.

Blanchardstown library introduced a "CyberSkills" programme in 1998 which is designed to provide access to Information Technology, support lifelong learning and foster community awareness, and to date it has proved very successful. To date, there have been 10,000 bookings to use the facilities provided.

Time is allocated to individuals with little experience to encourage progress and confidence. In the self-learning centres users can access CD-ROMs, online services, the Internet, email and other such modern learning tools. Many local groups have also increasingly availed of the services, such as a local photo group, an arts group, the Scouts, and the YMCA. The library’s association with the Blanchardstown Active Retirement Group has proved very rewarding, with the group holding weekly sessions, coffee morning awareness groups and workshop participation, attracting other elderly, and age and opportunity groups from around Dublin.

Many of the programmes in progress in many of the country’s public libraries underline the fact that there have been many serious successful attempts made to fully and effectively utilise new information technology. Back in 1995, the South West Action Project (SWAP) was inaugurated after being developed by Cork County and City Library services in conjunction with An Chomhairle Leabharlanna, Forbairt and the County Enterprise Board. It offers electronic access to business information to local SMEs and individuals interested in business enterprise. The motivating factors for the establishment of SWAP were manifold.

Prior to its establishment the dissemination of business information had proved to be expensive and inefficient, while at the same time under utilised, as it was not marketed as a distinct service or specifically targeted at a potential distinct clientele. Financial constraints meant that a comprehensive business reference collection could only be held at Library Headquarters in Cork city and this had major consequences for potential users, especially in a county as large as Cork. The SWAP project means that there is now online availability of a wide range of information that can be accessed on demand. Searches can be tailored to the particular and specific needs of the client and prompt delivery, by fax if necessary, is possible. The project has now introduced the library service to an array of people that may not have previously considered using it for their business needs and underlines how a library service can change to meet public demand by utilising the technology now available on the market.

It’s clear that libraries are changing, but much remains to be done to make them the type of learning centres that will be needed in the next millennium. They have an important role to play in ensuring that every citizen of the country can benefit from the sweeping technological advances that have been made in the past decade and which will continue to be made well into the future. As a means of narrowing the technological divide across all levels of society, the library system has a distinct part to play in the advancement and inclusion of every person, no matter what their age or background, into what cannot be allowed to solely become a benefit accorded only to the richer sections of the community.

Financial investment now in the rapid upgrading of the library service will pay massive dividends in the future and will enable those libraries already at the fore of technological change to continue apace with developments, while at the same time permitting those now lagging behind to join the technological revolution.

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