Bid to block staff-free opening for libraries

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An idea to make it possible to open libraries even when staff isn’t there is about to be rejected by the majority of Dublin’s city councillors.

The initiative makes it possible to open the buildings without staff, so the libraries could work early in the morning, late at night, and even during the weekend. The idea was called “staffless opening”, and it’s operational in 3 local libraries by now. 22 more may start working like that by the start of the next year.

An opposition to the initiative was met from Dublin’s 14 members of the city council who are responsible for arts and culture policies. They said they will provide the staff of the respective libraries with all support if they have an intention to protest staffless opening.

The idea was initially suggested by the local government management agency (LGMA), to increase the access of libraries to the public. Yet, there are fears that by following such a scheme most libraries will end up working without staff at all.

“People enjoy going to a library because they can engage with the staff, get assistance and recommendations. When you remove that, even for a limited amount of time, you are attacking the very idea of a library,” John Lyons, a People Before Profit councillor and member of the arts committee, said.

Mr Lyons said he wanted the LGMA to discuss how more hours could be made available to current staff with trade unions and local authorities.

“We have to send a message now to library staff and the Dublin community that we will not support measures that refuse to acknowledge the important place that libraries and librarians have in our society,” he said.

The open library scheme has been trialled over the last two years in Co Offaly and Co Sligo and Mr Lyons said the results showed very poor attendance rates during non-staffed hours.

“I was told that the final number was 91 per cent of people used the library only when members of staff were present,” Mr Lyons said. “Just going by their own pilot system, this policy is not effective and should not be implemented.”

A spokeswoman for the LGMA said that the feedback they received from the pilot scheme was extremely positive.

Earlier this month, councillors in Sligo forced three of the county’s libraries to remain open after the threat of closure because of low staff numbers. The councillors passed a section 140 motion, which allows elected representatives to compel the county council chief executive to carry out their wishes. The threat of closure led to protests by residents and an online petition received over 3,000 signatures.

Mr Lyons said that he and his fellow committee members did not want to have to invoke similar powers in Dublin.

“Staffless libraries will erode the very service they provide and will not facilitate greater access to programming, classes, exhibits, or workshops,” Fintan Warfield, a Sinn Fein senator, said.

Yesterday Mr Warfield launched the “stop staffless libraries” campaign. He called on the public to contact their political representatives and urge them to protect local services.

Mannix Flynn, an independent Dublin city councillor, said that while he believes a form of automation is inevitable for some libraries, he did not want staff to lose out.

“Nobody is railing against technology or the right of an industry to be progressive in its functioning. This move is none of those things; it is a forceful attempt to cut corners that will cost people their jobs. It is unfair to extend opening hours and remove the workers from the equation,” he said.

Owen Keegan, chief executive of Dublin city council, said that he had a very high degree of confidence in the skills and expertise of the library staff.

“Provision has been included in the 2017 budget for the recruitment of library assistants, which is the first significant recruitment of new library staff for a number of years,” Mr Keegan said.

He added: “The possibility of extending opening hours on an unstaffed basis in certain branches has not been ruled out.

Earlier this year the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government invested €1.6 million to facilitate the rollout of the open library initiative. Users gain access to the library via an automated system by using their membership card and an authorised pin number. Children can use the service if accompanied by a registered adult member.

A spokeswoman for the LGMA said: “The usage of the open library service is growing rapidly. Prior to its introduction, Tullamore and Banagher [both in Offaly] libraries were open 47 hours a week and 14 hours a week respectively. Each library is now accessible to the public 98 hours a week. Many users have commented that the library is now much more accessible for commuters, students and families.”