The Times, 12th October, 2012
Amid the hurly-burly of possible elections dates, parliamentary mischief and wage freeze circuses, various issues tend to lose their place in public discourse. This does not mean that such issues are less important than others but simply that they are not successfully articulated in sites within the public sphere such as the media.
The issue concerning libraries is a case in point. I had three significant encounters with libraries.
The first was when, last year, the responsibilities assigned to me in the newly-elected Sliema local council included overseeing the locality’s public library. When I previously was a councillor between 2003 and 2009, this area was not under my responsibility.
Now, I am doing my best so that our library, managed by a very dedicated librarian, is given as much support and resources as possible by the local council, within current constraints.
My second encounter was when the same library introduced a new initiative, a few months ago, namely story-telling for children, which I proposed within the local council. Hopefully, this initiative will attract more children than is the case at the moment but I know for sure that children have much to learn from it.
What better proof do I need than seeing my own son, David (four), looking forward to go to the library every Saturday morning?
The third and most recent encounter was a meeting I had a few days ago with MaLIA, the Malta Library and Information Association (www.malia-malta.org). This association is putting forward proposals for the forthcoming election, which deserve support from political parties, policymakers and local councils. It has also produced a document with guidelines and standards for the development of the Malta public library service.
I for one, can guarantee that Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party supports such proposals.
Something of utmost importance is the need to have more funds for Malta’s public libraries and all other government-funded libraries such as the National Library, the University of Malta library and the Mcast library.
It is positive that a national and public library authority exists and that local
councils have allocations for their libraries but this surely does not suffice. The same can be said as regards the national library.
Calculations by MaLIA show that Malta lags far behind in investment in libraries when compared with other countries in a similar socio-economic situation. This is even more worrying when statistics show that many Maltese people are not particularly fond of reading. In this regard, it is perhaps symbolic that despite the wide support for having a public library in the new parliamentary building, this proposal ended up being shelved.
An increase in investment in libraries can work wonders. Take the University library. When I was reading for my bachelor’s degree in the late 1990s, the internet was a distant dream and full access to academic papers was more a question of charity from generous authors. Now that I am lecturing full-time at the University and my doctorate is in viva stage, I can witness a quantum leap in various areas, especially usage of information technology and access to academic papers.
The hefty increase in investment in the library and the diligent and professional work of its staff explain this shift.
Beyond the required need of increased funding, it is also important to promote local public libraries as community centres in a context of everyday democracy.
In this regard, it would be important to ensure that all libraries have internet access and that their architecture, furnishing, equipment and, of course, collections are inviting to members of the community. They should be fully accessible, should have comfortable sitting facilities and should also have periodical publications - such as newspapers and magazines - that can encourage people to visit regularly.
Unfortunately, many local libraries have very small premises. This does not only include existing libraries but also planned libraries. For example, I have been informed that the library in the new Swieqi community centre will be very small in size.
From an information technology perspective, it is also important that all the different publicly-funded libraries and archives are connected together through an electronic catalogue. This can be of great benefit in the search of books, research and other material. There could also be a unified purchasing system enabling libraries to make savings in their purchase of software and other IT requirements.
Such standardisation should also take place with regard to library staff. The professionalisation of librarianship in Malta - for example, through University qualifications - should act as an incentive to ensure that all libraries include such specialised personnel in their staff complement. An important step in this direction is to ensure that all public school colleges have a head college librarian.
Libraries can also extend to various spheres in culture and the arts. In this respect, the Green party is proposing that a cultural centre at a prominent site should be considered, including a permanent museum of modern art and state-of-the-art central public lending and reference library with information presented in all its possible formats be it print, multimedia, audio-visual or digital.
Private sector operators in artistic productions such as cinema, books, records and artistic products, should be involved in this project.
It is impossible to have all these improvements at one go, especially given the lack of available funds. However, it is vital that libraries are given the opportunity to blossom to proper cultural and educational hubs.
Michael Briguglio, a sociologist, is chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party and AD local councillor in Sliema.