Thursday, 5 November 2020
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
I wish to ask the Minister about her Department's work to support our public libraries. I ask her to make a statement, particularly in the context of the impact of Covid on the operation of libraries.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Department leads on the implementation of the public library strategy, Our Public Libraries 2022, which aims to improve access to, use and visibility of the library as a community hub and a focal point for cultural development. In 2020 alone my Department has allocated over €8 million to support public library services. This includes the libraries capital programme, which will invest some €29 million in 18 projects and in the My Open Library service over the next few years. The programme has six completed projects and five more under construction. The My Open Library service, which in normal circumstances allows access to the library on a self-service basis from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., 365 days per year, is available in 19 branches and is under development in a further 49 branches. In addition to this, nine new libraries are being funded through my Department's rural regeneration and development fund. Earlier this year almost €700,000 was approved to support the provision of sensory facilities and equipment in libraries and last month I approved over €713,000 for the provision of library supports for marginalised, socially excluded and disadvantaged communities.
I have also provided significant funding to public libraries during the Covid-19 pandemic. In September I approved €3 million for a small-scale capital works programme that will help adapt libraries to facilitate social distancing and other measures in order to comply with Covid-19 guidelines. My Department also provided funding of €400,000 to support the provision of additional online ebooks and e-audiobooks.
Libraries the length and breadth of the country are doing an absolutely wonderful job. There are so many more people using their local libraries, which is really encouraging. I compliment the staff in every single library. They really are a credit to us all in the great service they provide. Libraries are innovating, adapting and evolving and my Department is delighted to support them on this.
I appreciate the Minister's answer, particularly insofar as it relates to the strategy outlined in Our Public Libraries 2022: Inspiring, Connecting and Empowering Communities, to which she referred. Libraries are closed now, however. I know she is a very keen supporter of libraries. I do not think there is a public representative who is not. The library has always been one of our favourite community hubs. The view of communities, however, is that local retail stores and supermarkets are open and people are stacking shelves in them and customers are going into them in large numbers. There are never large numbers in libraries, a fact which should be taken into account in anticipation of any future lockdown, semi-lockdown or other measures that may have to be taken. Libraries play a critical role. The Minister knows that many people sometimes cannot afford to buy a daily newspaper. They call into the local library to read their daily newspaper and for the opportunity to interact with other people. They were denied that during the previous lockdown. It was a sacrifice many of them made. What is the Minister's thinking in this regard? When we come out of this, hopefully on 1 December, and if we ever have to restrict movement again, will libraries be pinpointed as one of those public places where we can be a little more flexible and a little more agile in enabling public access?
I take the Deputy's point that libraries can be controlled fairly well and I know that the Local Government Management Agency, LGMA, and the local authority chief executives have asked for libraries to operate contact and collect at level 4. They have made proposals and we are happy to bring those proposals to the Department of the Taoiseach and NPHET for consideration. I absolutely accept the point the Deputy makes, that it is hard to see the risks in click and collect. Since the beginning of the pandemic the Department has provided €400,000 for the purchase of additional ebooks and e-audiobooks to meet the rising demand for these services. Library users now have access to an extensive online catalogue: more than 48,000 ebooks and 33,000 e-audiobooks, 4,000 magazines, 2,400 online newspapers from over 100 countries, more than 500 elearning courses and more than 100 online language courses. I myself did not realise the libraries were offering such a wonderful service - it is fantastic - but I take the Deputy's point that not everybody is online.
I thank the Minister for that and I hear her openness to my suggestions. I think we can see the sense in this, as she said, given the low risk and somehow analysing it. She announced €3 million to support a small-scale capital works programme in some of the public libraries. Given that they have been closing, is progress being made on that during their closure? In addition, the Minister's strategy, which I very much welcome, sets out an ambition of increasing library use and growing active membership from 6% of the population to 30%. Has she any update or news on reaching out to an increased membership?
Library membership has gone up considerably since the lockdown and that is really good. As for online material alone, in March 2020, 17,865 new users registered to use the online BorrowBox service, which provides access to ebooks. That was a 702% increase in the number of new users. There has also been a 122% increase in the number of ebooks borrowed this year and a 111% increase in the number of audio ebooks borrowed. We will continue to engage, particularly with those marginalised communities to try to get them to use library services more. As I said, when I was reading out the list, I thought, I must go online and look up some of these wonderful services the library has. I know libraries are doing great work but sometimes, as Deputy Calleary and I know, we just do not have as much time as we might like to avail of their services. I know the Deputy is a big supporter of the libraries in his own area. In his constituency €1.9 million has been allocated to libraries.