Adjournment Debate. - Dublin Library Services.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this very important issue and the Minister for the Environment for coming into the House to listen to what I have to say on behalf of the many thousands of people in Dublin who avail of what I believe to be one of the best services among the vast range of services provided by the local authorities in the Dublin area. I am happy to have the opportunity to draw the Minister's attention to the very serious problem which has arisen and is now stalking the library service, which, according to recent reports by the City and County Chief Librarian, Miss Deirdre Ellis King, will continue to deteriorate.

I should prefer if we did not indulge in personalities. It is a convention of this House that we do not refer to persons outside the House. The Minister is responsible. No blame should be attached to officials or individuals.

Thank you. Perhaps the Minister in the discharge of his many duties in the House is not aware of the chaos in the library services in Dublin. It is important to bring the matter to his notice and to ask for his urgent and immediate intervention. I may well be speaking in the last hours, if not days, of the current Dáil but the Minister will be in office long after the dissolution of this House and I would ask him to take urgent action.

The Government embargo on recruitment in the public service generally has meant that by reason of career breaks and retirement — natural wastage, as it is called in the public service — there exist 67 vacancies at library officer grade in the Dublin area alone, that is, 67 vacancies out of 286 posts, and there are 28 vacancies out of a total of 104 in other grades providing support services. In the past two years 95 positions have been vacated and not filled by reason of the embargo. That represents a depletion by 23 per cent of the officer level of library staff and 24 per cent overall. Almost a quarter of all the staff have departed and not been replaced. How has this progressed?

In 1986 to 31 December the level of loss was 8 per cent; in 1987 it was 16 per cent and in December 1988 it was 22 per cent. It now stands at 24 per cent overall and because the embargo stands immutable, the indications are that the situation will inevitably become worse due to forms of natural wastage such as, for example, disaffection due to the low level of morale.

What has this meant in practical terms? In the past six months on 255 separate occasions because there were not sufficient personnel to staff the counters in libraries throughout the city and county the service has been obliged to close. On 255 occasions members of the public attended at one or other of the libraries to find unplanned, unscheduled and unannounced a notice stating that for reasons beyond the control of the Chief Librarian or the staff it was impossible to open the library for a particular period that day.

We have been advised at Dublin Corporation level by the Chief Librarian that the resources are there to recruit at least 20 additional staff. Consequently the embargo is the first major problem. The employment of 20 permanent staff would help to alleviate the problems; almost 100 are needed to replace those that are gone. It is not just a problem of embargo but a problem of additional finance. Over the last three years the resources have not been increased at all significantly. In 1986 the allocation available was £6.8 million; in 1987 it was £7.09 million and in 1988 it was decreased to £7.01 million. Even though there are plans for Navan Road library to be commissioned and Charleville Mall library to be re-opened, resources are at a standstill.

To try to cope with this problem the Chief Librarian has had to juggle staff about. With the co-operation of the unions, particularly the Local Government and Public Services Union, who have been forced to launch a public campaign entitled "Save Your Local Library" to make the public aware of the situation, the Chief Librarian has managed by juggling staff as much as possible. This has resulted in two serious problems. The first is that libraries must now close for a full month each year. Ballyfermot, Coolock and Walkinstown libraries are to close for the month of June; Drumcondra, Inchicore, Pearse Street, Rathmines and the school libraries will close for the month of July; Ballymun, Kevin Street, the mobile libraries which go to the remote and unaccessible areas, Pembroke, Phibsboro, Ringsend and again the school libraries, will close for the month of August. The mobile libraries, along with Raheny and Terenure libraries, will close for the month of September.

It means that in working class areas like Ballyfermot, Walkinstown and Coolock, because of over-crowding, people who are obliged to go to their public libraries to study for examinations and people involved in community work will be affected.

Libraries are not just places for the collection or reading of books. In Coolock the library is used after hours by the adult literacy group, by creative writing groups and by community play groups. Often the library staff visit community groups, such as child play groups, in their community premises and bring with them books that are relevant to the children, explain to the children how the library works, give them books and collect and return them on an ongoing basis. All of that stops on 1 June in Ballyfermot, Coolock and Walkinstown.

In addition to that, the Chief Librarian has been obliged to cut back by half the opening hours of some of the other libraries such as Terenure, Dolphin's Barn, Finglas, Pembroke and Donaghmede. They now must close two mornings and two evenings a week simply because there is not enough staff. If the staff were available the Chief Librarian would have all the libraries open all of the time; that is her objective. It is difficult to deal with the frustration of the Chief Librarian and her staff resulting from the position they are in. There is no increase in the allocation of funds. They are in a position where their finances would allow for some additional recruitment, but there is an absolute embargo and they can recruit no new staff whatever.

The VEC libraries in the Dublin area are manned and staffed by corporation and county council employees. In a national report entitled "A National Scandal" published by the Union of Students in March this year it is indicated that Kevin Street, Bolton Street, the College of Marketing and Design and Rathmines, to name but a few, have the resources within their college budgets to recruit additional staff and would not have to rely on further allocation of resources from the Minister, but they are not allowed to recruit new staff. It is recommended in the report that 92 staff are needed nationally, the majority in Dublin; currently there are 55 employed in this area and there is a need for 147.

What prompted me more than anything to raise this question was a brief look at the problem that exists in my own constituency of Dublin North East. Coolock Library faces the prospect of closure for the month of June. The staff will not be going on holidays but will be deployed in other libraries so that staff there can take their holidays; part of the time the Coolock staff will be afforded annual leave. This library is one of the largest in the city. It was spared having to close last year because of its significance and importance as a community facility, because so many community groups avail of these premises and its fine library facilities. At a meeting last Monday morning group leaders, teachers, public health nurses and day care workers in the constituency indicated that they would not stand idly by and see the library close on 1 June because they consider it an essential service. As a public representative I tried to convey the difficulties faced by the Chief Librarian. They simply argued that it must be taken to the highest level, that the Minister must be made aware of it. It is on their behalf that I am asking the Minister this evening to look at the problem of this facility and to ensure that Coolock Library does not close for the month of June. I would ask the Minister to meet with the representatives of the community who were so incensed by the facts presented to them at the meeting. Here I must pay tribute to the position taken by Alderman Haughey, one of the representatives. I hope I paraphrase correctly his views expressed at the meeting when he said clearly that the economies — I prefer to call them cutbacks — visited on the Corporation by Government in the last Estimates would seem to have gone too far in the case of library services and to be now working against the better good of the services and the community at large. He supports the campaign, and the request that the Minister might meet with him, myself and the community leaders from Coolock to discuss this very urgent problem.

Donaghmede, the library next to Coolock, at the heart of the constituency, is one of those libraries staffed by two shifts with the result that should one member of the staff be unable to attend at work through illness or for other personal reasons the city librarian has no alternative but to close the door. One of the problems with the reduction in staff is that there is not the traditional pool of relief workers available to the chief Librarian. In October in Dublin there will be a relief pool comprising one person, on present predictions. The situation is impossible and is brought about by the embargo and because so many people have left on retirement or on career break. I had understood that in the area of career breaks there was a discretion available at local authority level, if services were being threatened. However, we were given advice at local authority level that there was no discretion available and that once a person applied he was entitled to be released from duties.

Baldoyle was visited by members of The Workers' Party in a survey of the services over the last week. There an old RIC barracks has been converted to library use. At the moment its windows are boarded because there are no funds to provide for the installation of proper windows. The only light is from an electric bulb and the library is utterly inappropriate as a reading room. Because of staff numbers there, on many occasions it has been forced to close. The same position exists with regard to Howth. There is a major problem with regard to staff who feel embarrassed when having to deal with irate members, who are annoyed because the service is not there, when the library reopens. The Howth library particularly is used by many elderly and retired people. Something of the order of 60 per cent of its users are elderly or retired and they find it extremely frustrating when they arrive at the doors and find them closed. There is no advance warning of closure because no one has devised a system to deal with that. Many of these people have difficulty travelling to and from libraries. The library in Raheny also faces full closure for the month of September.

If the embargo is not lifted the position will deteriorate and some Dublin libraries will be entirely closed on a temporary basis with the staff being sent to the bigger libraries in the city where people will be advised to go. It is sad to have to report this situation to the House and perhaps one could say it is a matter that could be dealt with at local level. However, the library service is crucially important. The library service in Dublin is one of the best services delivered by the local authority. The quality of our-libraries is second to none in the country. The Ilac Centre library is probably the finest public library in the country. We have a willing and eager staff committed to the expansion and development of a comprehensive service, so it is very sad that we have to talk today about the possibility of the closure of libraries on a temporary basis.

The Deputy might now bring his speech to a close.

I urge the Minister in the dying days of this session to address this matter urgently. There must be a way out of this. The embargo was imposed by the Government. It is a creature that can be molded by Government, by order of the Minister. I urge the Minister to deal with the urgent problem presented by the imminent closure of Ballyfermot, Coolock and Walkinstown libraries on 1 June next.

Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá maidir leis an Rún seo ar Athló na Dála agus aontú leis an Teachta ar an tábhacht atá ag dul leis na leabharlanna poiblí, comh héifeachtúil agus atá siad agus ar an seirbhís atá tugtha acu leis na blianta anuas.

I agree with Deputy McCartan on how important is this matter of the public library service and on how the public libraries have over the years provided such a fine service of which we can all be proud. Not only do they provide a source of recreation accessible to all members of the community but they put at the disposal of ordinary people a means of furthering their education and self-improvement. The library service also furthers appreciation of cultural matters and of our heritage and history.

In many areas the public library provides an important focal point for the community both as a general amenity, and through the provision of facilities to local groups for meetings, lectures, the provision of local information services and other community-related "outreach" activities. The library service has placed special emphasis on the needs of the young. The old-fashioned image of rows of books in a silent room presided over by a stern-faced librarian is long gone. Many of our libraries can now boast the most modern facilities, presented in a pleasant and user-friendly environment.

In recent years, despite financial constraints or economies in the service, there has been considerable development in the library service in the Dublin area. In addition to the Ilac Centre and Dalkey, new libraries have opened at Ballyfermot, Ballyroan, Deansgrange, Balbriggan, Coolock, Finglas, Donaghamede, Swords, Blanchardstown and Castletymon during the past ten years or so, not to mention the Dublin Youth Information Centre at Sackville Place operated by the Dublin Public Library Service. A new mobile library was brought into service last year. The library service in Dublin is now computerised, a very big advance which is not available to many other library services throughout the country. When one allows for a more efficient method of operation and a better standard of service to the public, computerisation is more cost-effective.

These developments have been brought about through sizeable investments of public funds by my Department and the local authorities. My area of responsibility is the provision of capital funding for library development. The total capital allocations from my Department for the facilities which I have referred to above amounted to over £4.6 million. This does not include the annual subsidy paid to local authorities towards the cost of loan and leasing charges on library facilities which, in the case of the Dublin area, amounted to £440,000 in 1988 alone.

Further development of the library service in parts of the Dublin area may be desirable. However, I would point out that the share of annual national allocations for libraries going to the Dublin area averaged 25 per cent over the past ten years and has been as high as 43 per cent. No doubt every local authority would like to have access to increased resources for development. I only wish that the progress which has been made in Dublin was reflected equally throughout the country. It is not. Deputy McCartan, being the fair-minded man that he is, would agree that the people outside of the Dublin area are entitled to as good a service as that which exists in the Dublin area. The state of development of the service is not even throughout the country, and it should be. This fact was highlighted in the report of the Public Library Service Review Group published in February 1987. Deputy McCartan will appreciate that the people in other parts of the country have as much right to knowledge through the public library service as those in Dublin, but it has not been evenly distributed during the past few years.

This is a problem I inherited on coming into office and it is one I would like and hope to address as resources permit. Despite unavoidable retrenchment in public expenditure I have kept State funding for libraries at a consistent level in recent years. Almost £3 million is being allocated for libraries this year, the same as in 1988. There are not too many services about which this can be said. Because of my special interest in libraries they have retained the same level of funding as last year. I regard this as something to be considered carefully when we talk about making available scarce resources for other services.

Expenditure on libraries in Ireland compares quite favourably with other countries. Often it is stated otherwise, but the facts speak for themselves. For example, library bookstock per head of population is higher than other countries, except Denmark and the Netherlands, and only Denmark and the United Kingdom have more libraries per head of the population. Therefore, in one way we are well served and well serviced by the libraries and the books which reside in those libraries.

While the State has an important role in the development of the library service, nevertheless, the onus is, of course, as Deputy McCartan rightly said, on the local authority to operate the service in the most efficient and cost effective manner. Only the local authority itself in each case can make judgements in the light of local circumstances and determine priorities having regard to available resources and needs and demands generally.

With regard to the effects of the embargo on recruitment I should explain that the Dublin local authorities are responsible for the staffing arrangements in the libraries. This would extend to the provision of necessary finance, appointments, development of staff and so on. While I have certain functions in the personnel area, for example, in relation to qualifications, procedure for appointments, creation of offices and so on, the main responsibility rests squarely on the local authorities.

The corporation and county council are of course subject to the recruitment embargo in the public service in common with other local authorities and public service bodies. I am aware that there have been reductions in the level of staffing in the corporation and county council, including the library service. It is, however, incumbent on the local authorities to ensure that their services are operated in the most efficient and effective way within the resources available to them.

I understand that it has been the practice in recent years for certain libraries in Dublin to close temporarily during the summer months and for many years this was the normal practice during the holiday periods. This arrangement is carried out on a planned rota basis. The implementation of these arrangements is entirely a matter for the local authorities concerned. I am satisfied that the authorities will have full regard to ensuring that resources are deployed in the most effective manner possible and that every possible step will be taken by them to ensure that the arrangements are carried out in such a way as to cause the minimum inconvenience to the public.

I am a supporter of the public library service. I have given evidence of this in one simple way, the way in which everybody in this House judges everything. I have provided money over and above that which was available for other services and I have maintained the level of funding for the library service on a par with what was made available last year. I cannot say that I was able to do this in respect of every other service, but because of the importance attached to the library service and the opportunities it gives to people to improve themselves, I would like to think that I could maintain my attitude and provide as much funding as possible in the hope that I will be successful in providing the best service possible throughout the country in a balance way.

A Cheann Comhairle, would you allow me to ask a brief question?

A brief question, Deputy.

Would the Minister be prepared to meet with the Chief Librarian and other representatives to discuss the problems further? There is a clear difficulty in terms of those libraries particularly in working class areas, which provide a wider service than mere book deliveries, having to close during the summer months. There are resources available but because of the embargo staff cannot be employed. That aspect needs to be explored——

The Minister's reply concluded the debate. I permitted the Deputy to ask a question.

Would the Minister meet the Chief Librarian to discuss it further?

I have looked at my diary of engagements for the immediate future and I am afraid I cannot accede to the request this evening. Perhaps the Deputy could raise the matter again in, say, one month's time.

The deadline is 1 June.

I cannot give a positive response about meeting the Deputy's people before 1 June, regrettably, but I certainly will bring to the attention of my staff in the library service section of my Department the matters raised by the Deputy.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 24 May 1989.