Life Health & Wellbeing

Sunday 26 May 2019

Public libraries still have the write stuff for enriching lives

Image: Getty
Image: Getty

Patricia Casey

Some might argue that in this digital age public libraries have no role. After all, we can download books to Kindle and we have instant access to any information we want online. Yet those who use libraries speak very highly of them and rather than belittle them as outmoded or old-fashioned, we should regard them as part of our social capital.

It is tempting to see the world through the prism of the internet user or the lens of the latest iPad owner. There are many who either cannot afford these gadgets or if they can, are unable to master their use. Many booklovers cannot afford to buy books, yet get simple joy for holding the hardback and manually turning the pages. This is what libraries are about, and CDs and DVDs have now been added to their repertoire.

Most libraries run book clubs for people of all ages. Some cater for mothers and children, others for adult readers, still others for those who like story telling. Knitting groups commonly meet in these venues and most libraries hold public lectures on a range of topics, from looking after your health to discussing the work of local artists. Many have conversation groups in various languages. These programme enrich the local community and assist in warding off loneliness, disconnectedness and emptiness.

So the image of libraries as terse, drab, austere buildings, oozing silence and disapproval from a stern librarian, is no longer real. They too have moved with the needs of the changing world.

These services are unique in that they are diverse and target a multiplicity of needs that the human person has - the need for companionship, for intellectual stimulation, for hobbies and so forth. And activities such as these can play a definite role in promoting positive mental health as a consequence of reducing social isolation.

An initiative that may have a direct and definite impact on mental health was launched in Dublin's North Inner City by psychologist Elaine Martin about eight years ago, and it is still running. Called the Book Prescription Scheme, it aims to encourage general practitioners to consider prescribing reading material, in the first instance, for those who present with certain emotional problems. The books will be kept in local libraries and can been accessed even by those who are not members, on producing the "book prescription".

The appeal of this scheme is that the person becomes an agent in their own therapy, particularly at the milder end of the spectrum for conditions like phobias, stress, anxiety and sometimes depression. A further attraction is that this approach recognises the possibility of true self-help since the focus is on action and on practical help. As with any psychological treatment, it does require insight and motivation.

There is still a large group of people who are technologically illiterate, and browsing through some of the local libraries near where I live, I noted classes on getting the most from your smartphone, introducing the internet and enjoying your iPad. Most run adult literacy courses.

Those who are socially disadvantaged derive special benefit.

Teenagers from homes that are not conducive to study can frequently be seen in our libraries in the evenings after school, preparing for their exams.

The homeless use libraries not just for shelter and warmth, but also as a way of trying to normalise their lives by reading newspapers, magazines or listening to music.

Backpackers and travellers use the emailing facilities and many people just break the boredom of being alone by surfing. Recently immigrants have been shown by researchers in the US and Britain to use library resources in significant numbers to deal with a broad range of needs, from tasks as basic as downloading forms and receiving assistance in completing them to searching for schools or for shops selling second hand clothes.

Libraries serve people of all ages, from diverse ethnic backgrounds, with a variety of needs in an atmosphere of social engagement and continuing education.

And it's all for free. Long may they continue.

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