Working out of Library Headquarters in Island House, Galway county librarian Peter Rabbitt oversees a service that comprises 29 libraries across the city, county, and islands, one which has a membership of some 40,000 regular users. The City Library in Hynes Building alone issues some 90,000 books each year, while the total for the county is some 600,000.
While the library service has endured cutbacks in staff and funding in recent years, it has ambitious plans for the future and is already busy putting these in place. These plans will see libraries extend their appeal well beyond their traditional book-lover user base, as Peter explains over an afternoon chat in his office.
'Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.' –Neil Gaiman
Peter Rabbitt comes from one of Galway’s best known families; his father is Murty Rabbitt of the celebrated and much loved bar in Forster Street. The family also have a long association with St Patrick’s Brass Band; Peter’s grandfather, also Peter, was one of its co-founders in 1896. Peter himself has played in it since childhood and remains a stalwart presence in the band.
With a background in bars and brass bands, how did he gravitate toward a career as a librarian? “There were always books in the house and people used to be coming into the bar with books,” Peter begins. “I was brought up serving the public you could say, that’s what germinated the idea of looking in that area as a career. I didn’t see myself going into the bar work because it was tough work.
"Teaching was in my mind for a while as well, but I used always take note of what was happening in the college library here in NUIG when I was a student there. That formed the idea that maybe is what I should be looking at. I decided to do the library course in UCD. I then had to decide between academic or public libraries but my interest in public service from my bar background led me to the public library service.
"After finishing my course in Dublin I was lucky in that a job came up in the library in Galway which at that stage was still upstairs in the Courthouse, a totally inappropriate location for a library! I used to go there for years as a user, ever since I was a boy, and now I was on the other side of the desk.”
'Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.' -Walter Cronkite
The Courthouse years finally ended in 1981 when the City Library relocated to Hynes Building, where it remains to this day. However Peter points out that the premises are not entirely suitable and there are strong hopes that the city can soon get a proper public library; “Hynes Building is totally inadequate for the people using it, it’s too small for a city like Galway,” he declares. “It gets up to a quarter of a million visits throughout the year making it one of the city’s most visited sites.
"Not only can you borrow books, you can use the internet, consult the reference library, read newspapers and magazines. There’s also the children’s library section which gets a lot of kids coming in. With the Galway 2020 bid coming up, we are once again looking at the issue of a proper public library for Galway city. We’ve put in a proposal to the Dept of Environment for a €20 million community library for Galway which would encompass all these and other services, such as exhibitions, readings and more.
"We are aiming to have it in a prominent site in Galway. It might be a cultural centre with other facilities there as well. There are people working on that actively already and we are hopeful of it happening. As the city has expanded we have tried to expand our library service,” Peter continues. "We now have a state of the art library in the Westside. Once you provide facilities for the public they will be well used, we have a huge membership there and brilliant staff.
"The Westside library is a service to its local community. Galway Bay FM were there last week and people from all parts of the community came in to tell their stories. We also have libraries in Ballybane and Oranmore. We are in the process of upgrading a lot of our libraries –we have a new library that will be opening in Ballinasloe soon.
"After the abolishment of local town councils, there was some money left in Ballinasloe and they came up with the idea of putting up a new library in the old Convent of Mercy site, which is a fabulous building. The old chapel will now be a state of the art community centre which will be able to host exhibitions, shows, readings, and so on. A public library encompasses the whole community not just one section so everybody benefits.”
'A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.'- Andrew Carnegie
Some of the developments Peter is describing are part of a much broader project to enhance library services across the country. “There is currently a national plan called A Public Library Strategy 2013-2017, and the core of the plan is the community library and it is aiming to bring library standards up nationwide,” he explains. “We are trying to gear that network of libraries for community usage and involvement.
"Public libraries are changing, they are no longer just a place where you get books, they are becoming places where many activities can take place. This strategy which is being developed is aiming to develop local libraries as community centres and as part of that they intend to bring book funds up to the same standards throughout the country. By 2017 the aim is that in Galway annual library be spending would be 3.77 cent per head of population which would permit us to have a decent stock of books and reading material.”
Catering to younger readers comes high on Peter’s list of priorities; “Children’s activities are among the most important aspects of what we do. Reading is one of the most important things you can encourage children to do, it stimulates their mental development greatly. This is actually the library’s busiest time of the year, especially with our children’s activities. We have been running this Reading Buzz scheme which takes children into the libraries. They have to read ten books of their own choice over the summer and in September they get a certificate. Throughout the county that scheme has been a huge success and our numbers have shot up for the summer.”
Finally, one has to ask, what writers does Peter himself enjoy reading? “I do like the Galway authors, Liam O’Flaherty and, of course, Walter Macken whose centenary it is,” he replies. “We’ll be putting on events to commemorate him this Autumn. Also in the Autumn we will be doing a project on ‘Galway’s Changing Landscape’, which looks at changes in the political, cultural, and physical landscapes of the city and region over the past hundred years, and that will include some of Walter Macken’s writing.”