Country focus - Ireland

Liam Ronayne, President of the Library Association of Ireland 1995-1998, reports on Ireland's libraries



Preparing for the New Century
Are Irish libraries suffering from the onset of pre-millennial tension? Not really, but the library and information sector in Ireland is certainly going through a period of intense analysis and renewal. We have three separate reviews currently in progress - the National Policy for Library and Information Services, the Review of Public Library Policy, and the Public Libraries 2000 project - all discussed in detail below.

Is it not both extravagant and a recipe for disaster to have three separate reviews in such a small country? Hopefully not, as thanks in part to Ireland being a small country, there has been quite a lot of synergy and cross-fertilisation between the three.

Information Society in Ireland
Ireland, like every other EU member state, has had much talk about gearing up for the Information Society, but how has this affected libraries? Government has acknowledged the role that libraries can and must play, but in truth the main emphasis has been on the technological infrastructure and on the business oriented aspects of the IS. The National Policy for Library and Information Services will seek to position libraries right at the heart of the IS.

National policy for Library and Information Services
A project team based at An Chomhairle Leabharlanna (The Library Council) is formulating a framework for the future development of library and information services. The push to formulate such a wide-ranging policy began when it became clear that Irish projects submitted for EU funding were being judged individually against a sketchy or even non-existent policy context. The initiative has outgrown its initially modest aim of providing such a context, and is now set to guide the development of all library and information services in the early decades of the new century.

The national policy will cover public libraries, academic libraries, health science libraries, school libraries, special libraries, as well as library and information services in statutory agencies, businesses, voluntary bodies and community organisations, and should be in place before the year 2000. []

The policy of the Library Association of Ireland (LAI) is to identify libraries as key partners in the local implementation of the Information Society, and in the achievement of the crucial objectives of Ireland's Information Society Strategy. These objectives are to ensure that:

  • There will be a high level of public understanding of the full potential of the Information Society in working and living.
  • Every citizen will have affordable access to information networks and services.
  • An inclusive society will be fostered, with lifelong learning oriented to the Information Society, and special provision for disadvantaged groups.
  • Advanced technologies will be fully applied to public library services.

Using the terminology of the Information Society Strategy itself, the LAI is proposing that public libraries should be designated as 'Cyberlibraries / Knowledge Resource Centres', and is, as a first step, seeking funding for Internet services in all public libraries.

Library Co-operation in Ireland
One of the most interesting things about libraries in Ireland, from an external viewpoint, is the high-level of co-operation between North and South - Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland.



While politicians strive to create workable political structures within Northern Ireland and on the island as a whole, librarians are well into their fourth decade of working together. Two examples of practical co-operation are the annual joint conference - held in the Republic on two out of every three years, and in the North on the other year - and the publication of 'An Leabharlann. The Irish library', Ireland's library and information studies journal.

All-Ireland co-operation in the library sector has not been driven by a political agenda; rather by two imperatives: firstly the conference, the journal, and the other initiatives should be fora for listening and sharing and learning from one another, and secondly in such a small country it is no more than common sense for us to combine.

Irish libraries of all types are making use of EU funded programmes, and the resultant collaborative projects are regularly reported on in this journal.


Ireland's Libraries

National Library of Ireland
How does Ireland, a country which puts great store in literature and writers, treat its National Library? Compared with its sister institutions - the National Museum, the National Gallery and the much younger National Archives - it could claim to be underfunded and undervalued.

The National Library of Ireland (NLI) dates from 1877 and is primarily a research library for literature and the humanities. It aims to collect, preserve, and make available material on or relating to Ireland, provide an accurate record of Ireland's output in manuscript, print and other media for present and future users, support scholars and researchers, and exploit fully its resources through research and publications.

While it by and large carries out its collection and preservation roles, it is, through no fault of its staff, less successful in its aims of providing access to materials and providing an accurate record of Ireland's output. The NLI launched a well-received strategic plan in 1992, but many of the key recommendations, relating to buildings, staff and technology, remain to be implemented. Recent changes in legislation may be the opportunity the National Library needs to become the resource that the library community and scholars wish it to be.



Academic & research libraries
The higher education sector in Ireland comprises (a) universities and (b) other third level colleges such as institutes of technology, art and music colleges, and other specialist institutions. Libraries in higher education follow this model, with universities being the better off in terms of holdings, staff and the application of IT.

All higher education institutions have seen a massive increase in student numbers; in some instances numbers of students have virtually doubled in little over a decade. This increase in student numbers has not been matched by an increase in provision for library services, although there have been some notable new libraries, including those at the Institute of Technology, Cork, and the University of Limerick.

The problems caused by the increase in student numbers are compounded by the increase in demands made by students - the need to use study spaces for longer periods, the need for better access to IT within the library, and more support from subject specialist. Academics are using digitised documents, and accessing library databases via the Internet, rather than going into the library. Libraries no longer have a monopoly; academics and students now have even forcing, librarians to teach information management and to promote outreach to users in their own labs and offices.

Special libraries, in businesses and in state agencies and private sector representative organisations, are the fastest growing sector in the Irish library world. This phenomenon brings its own problems as mots of them are one-person operated services with little support.

Public libraries
The Local Government Act of 1994 identifies county councils and corporations of county boroughs as ‘library authorities’, while allowing authorities to combine as joint library authorities. There are 32 such library authorities - 30 of them councils of counties and cities with two joint authorities.

The 1994 Act consolidates and modernises public library legislation, but while comprising only a relatively short number of sections, gives library authorities wide powers to provide library and information services, and to provide premises for library and for social and cultural uses. The Act also requires them to prepare five-yearly development plans with clearly defined objectives and priorities. Central government support for libraries has three elements - legislation, policy, and funding. The second element, the preparation of a national policy for the new millennium, is currently under way.

Review of Public Library Policy
The review of public library policy began in mid-1997, and is expected to be ready in late Autumn 1998. This review was set up by the Department of Environment & Local Government, the government department responsible for local authorities in Ireland, in a context of accelerating change in Irish society, in information and communications technology, and in local government structures and practices.

The review has attracted a huge response from the public at large and from interested organisations. Among the issues that must be tackled are the need to state the case for the value of the public library service; the need for increased investment in infrastructure, information technology, and media; flexibility in opening hours; staff training and development; and more effective marketing [] Librarians see three main functions for public libraries in the new millennium: to be a Resource for Children and Young People; to be a Resource for Learning and Information; to be a Resource for Culture and the Imagination. These are the pillars on which the expected national policy, and the development programmes of individual public libraries, will be built. To show the way librarians started the Public Libraries 2000 project in 1994.

Public Libraries 2000 - National Network: Local Service
This is an initiative of the LAI, and has been established to prepare guidelines for the delivery of public library services in the new century and millennium. The emphasis in this document will be on using information technology and a common sense of purpose to link all public libraries together in one network. The project team will not aim to be prescriptive in setting guidelines, but will acknowledge local strengths and special needs, while emphasising the potential of a genuine national network. [] To enable the LAI's vision to become reality, librarians are seeking an investment of more than IR£40 million (51 MECU) in new and refurbished buildings, an investment of IR£7 million (8.9 MECU) in IT, as well as a comprehensive programme of staff training and development, covering technology upskilling, managment



training, marketing techniques, and customer service and facilitation skills.

School Libraries
Ireland has the youngest population in the EU, so how are its school libraries faring? Sadly, they are the poor relations of Irish libraries. In academic and public libraries the emphasis is on improving existing services and making full use of the opportunities offered by IT, but in the case of school libraries the emphasis is on actually creating a network of libraries in primary and secondary level schools. Many schools do have libraries, but outside of a small number of larger, and better funded, secondary schools, these could not be considered modern libraries in any meaningful way.

A particular worry is that a recently announced IR£250 million (320 MECU) special investment in IT in Irish education is quite likely to bypass libraries. The LAI has lobbied to have the school library seen as the learning resource within the school, and to have investment in IT, and computer literacy programmes, channelled through the library, but there is much work to be done to convince government and teacher's unions alike.

The LAI is seriously concerned at the lack of progress in developing school libraries, and is calling for a statutory obligation to provide libraries in schools at all levels of education. At present much, perhaps too much, depends on the goodwill of teachers and parents. The LAI's policy is that public libraries should maintain close contact with all local schools, and that library authorities should maintain regular and close liaison with educational services.

National Organisations
Responsibility at central government level for library and information services is split between three government departments: Education & Science is responsible for libraries in schools and in higher education; Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht & the Islands is the parent department of the National Library; while Environment & Local Government is responsible for public libraries. This is a less than satisfactory situation, and two of the hoped-for results



of the National policy for Library and Information Services will be to increase the profile of library and information services at governmental level, and increase coordination and cohesion.

The one body with cross-sectoral responsibilities is An Chomhairle Leabharlanna (The Library Council), which has been around for half a century. An Chomhairle has two main functions: to advise the government Department and library authorities on the development of public libraries, and to further library co-operation within Ireland. Its board brings together representatives of higher education libraries, the National Library and the public library authorities - elected representatives, chief executives and librarians. Its advisory function on public library development involves providing an overview of the sector as a whole, and advice and assistance on individual new library projects - buildings, technology or innovations in services such as business information, services for visually impaired people, etc. []

Professional Association
What can a small organisation - just 650 members - achieve in a small country? A founder member of EBLIDA, the Library Association of Ireland this year celebrates its 70th anniversary as the professional body for Irish librarians. The Association's current priorities all have one underlying theme: how to get the maximum return, as a small professional body, from its activities.

The LAI has opted for partnership and co-operation, and has restructured itself to make sure its policy-making and lobbying is as effective as possible. It has put in place new policy-making structures - panels concerned with issues such as the Information Society, Childrens's and School Libraries, European and International Affairs, Public Library Development, Education & Training. It will shortly publish a report on consumer health information, prepared in partnership with the Department of Health. The Association has also sought to build links with sister associations such as those for archivists, museum staff and the arts.

The LAI has no direct role in professional education, but monitors and accredits courses of which there are two in Ireland - in the National University, Dublin (UCD) and in the Queen's University, Belfast. The Association plays a more direct role in arranging and providing courses for junior staff, and in seminars and one-off courses in relevant subjects.

To see how these initiatives work out, why not keep an eye on the LAI's website at


Library Association of Ireland

The Library Association of Ireland was founded on 28 October 1928. In 1952 the Association was incorporated as a Company Limited by Guarantee which enabled it to set up courses and hold examinations for the Fellowship of the Library Association in Ireland.

The objectives of the Association are:

  • To promote and develop high standards of librarianship and of library and information services in Ireland, and to secure greater co-operation between libraries.
  • To represent the profession of librarianship in Ireland, and to promote the professional interests of members.
  • To maintain the profession of librarianship in a proper status among the learned and technical professions by requiring the observance of strict rules of personal professional conduct as a condition of membership, and by ensuring that a qualification in librarianship is an essential requirement for all professional posts in libraries.
  • To promote a high standard of education for librarianship in Ireland by evaluating and giving recognition to degrees, diplomas or other professional qualifications in librarianship, and by conducting courses of study, setting examinations to test the proficiency of candidates, and issuing diplomas.
  • To examine and assess any legislation affecting libraries and the profession in Ireland, and to assist in the promotion of any legislation as may considered necessary for the advancement and extension of libraries, and to act on behalf of the profession of librarianship in Ireland in dealing with the Government and other bodies.
  • To keep a register of members.
  • To inform, collect, collate and publish in the form of transactions, journals or otherwise, information of service or interest to the members of the Association, and to form a library of books, works, or manuscripts on librarianship and to promote and encourage bibliographical study and research.
  • To organise such conferences, social and other functions as may promote the interests of the Association.


This article was published in the EBLIBA magazine “Information Europe”, vol. 3, no. 2 (summer 1998), p. 25-29.
It has been reproduced here with the kind permission of both publishers and author.
URL hyperlinks were updated where necessary. Copyright © 1998 by EBLIDA,
Beishon Publications Ltd., Liam Ronayne and the Library Association of Ireland.

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