HAVING started his career in Cork’s libraries before working in recent years as the RAPID co-ordinator on Cork’s northside in the communities of Mayfield, Blackpool, the Glen and Fairhill/Farranree, David O’Brien is returning to the library service.
He has been appointed as the new city librarian, replacing Liam Ronayne who retired at the end of 2020. David, 60, a west Cork man from Lisavaird, was a key member of Cork City’s Covid Community Response Forum over the last year.
Overseeing libraries in ten locations in Cork, he is excited about the plans for a new library building on Grand Parade that will be four times the size of the current building, coming in at about 7,000 sq metres. It will be developed over the next five years.
Located in what will be called Grand Parade Quarter or the Viking Quarter (because of excavations in the area that revealed Viking remains), the library will be the focal point of a community hub that will include an arts centre and other amenities.
“The whole quarter will be renewed,” says David. “It’s not just about one building. There will be an upgrade of Bishop Lucey Park and a whole lot of other developments within the footprint that is Grand Parade.”
David praises his predecessor, Mr Ronayne, who saw the possibilities of the library space, making it a welcoming place for writers launching their books and giving readings to the public. As David says, the thinking behind the library development plans is that the complex will be a place “where you can browse, borrow, chat.”
But with Triskel Christchurch nearby on Tobin Street, off the Grand Parade, will the development be competing with that arts centre? David doesn’t see it that way.
“Triskel has always been a very good partner with City Council,” he says.
“The Cork City Library and Triskel are where the Cork World Book Festival takes place. We ran it virtually this year. There were about 23 events, some international, and about 1,600 people logged on.”
David adds that the Triskel will be very much at the centre of the Grand Parade development.
Asked why he was drawn to library work, David says that on the day he was offered a job in the library service, he was also offered a clerical officer job by Cork County Council.
“In terms of a start date, the librarian post came up first, so that’s where I started.”
David was 21 at the time. He had spent a year at UCC, having a great time but not doing much work. He was supposed to be studying science. Looking back, he says he would probably have been more suited to arts. He went on to work in a bar and on the family farm, while trying to decide what to do. He can now say that library work is very satisfying.
“I don’t think I’ve ever gone a whole day in a library without enjoying it. When it comes right down to it, it’s helping people.”
For his first six years in the library service, David worked in the county library.
“Before we had computers and mobile phones and all the rest of it, we got a lot of mail. People would write letters looking for genealogy records to research their family history.”
David’s job was “to find stuff for people and show them how to resource what they were doing. For me, the buzz was showing people how to actually access material. That is at the core of an awful lot of what you do as a library worker. It could even be showing people how to use audio books or find a particular book.”
The digital age has changed the library service in a lot of ways.
“People have an idea of a library with a female librarian in her mid-fifties with glasses and grey hair, behind a counter stamping books. But now, libraries, as well as for reading, have so many events.
"There are cultural activities, art exhibitions and the whole online presence which has been the salvation of many people during lockdown. People could source books, magazines, videos of documentaries — all sorts of things.”
While non-digital natives may have problems using the library service in all its technological glory, David says “the challenge for us going forward is going to be facilitating learning that gets people using digital technology. But there’s no substitute for actual social contact which is what we’re about”.
The emergence of the Kindle ought, in theory, to have sounded the death knell for printed books, but David says that hasn’t happened. He points out that ancient naysayers predicted libraries such as the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt thousands of years ago would never last.
The Kindle did enjoy a boom initially “but then it went flat”.
“Some Kindle users also use printed books. The Kindle is just another method of accessing words if you like reading.”
Thanks to technology, a library service called Bolinda “links into a thing called Press Reader where books, magazines and journals can all be accessed in a way that was probably never anticipated before. Press Reader gives access to a lot of regional newspapers.
"If you want to go very far back, there is micro film. We have a newspaper archive at the top of the building (on Grand Parade) with papers going back to the 1820s.”
Familiar faces come into the library every day to read the newspapers, in hard copy.
David is married to Mary, a nurse, and is the father of 24-year-old Eugene, an apprentice electrician, and 22-year-old Gabie, who is studying languages at UCC.
Looking back on his career, David says he always wanted to spend some time working outside the library service. Now that he’s back there, “it has made me understand what a good team of people are here. They’re very solid and there’s a caring ethos to the whole place. The library has the reputation of being a very good service and a place where people can go.
“We can see that in the number of calls from people who wanted to know when the doors were going to be open again.”
A job in the library service is a possibility, with Cork City Council having launched a recruitment campaign for library assistants. Library assistant is an entry level role that has “an excellent career path and opportunities for further training,” according to the library service. The expression of interest stage has a closing date of May 21.
Look out for short videos on social media shot in libraries across Cork city featuring library staff. “We hope to show how varied the role of a librarian is with these videos, demonstrating it’s not just the stereotype of stamping books and telling people to ‘shhhh’.”