Galway County Librarian, Pat McMahon, believes that there are only two requirements to being a good librarian: you must love people and love books
Originally from Limerick, Pat started work in the City Library there in 1971, having been an avid library user prior to that.
After a spell training as a librarian in University College Dublin, he returned to work in Limerick, before completing stints in Clare and Mayo and eventually arriving in Galway as County Librarian 17 years ago.
His role involves managing the maintenance, funding and administration of the library service in Galway City and County. However he applies a simpler definition to the role of a librarian.
“The most important thing we do is putting a book into a person’s hand. Everything else supports that moment of putting a good book in a person’s hands,” he explains.
For that reason, from time to time, he still takes a turn at the main library counter just to re-engage with books and with the public.
Despite the proliferation of the Internet, easily accessible knowledge and the advent of Kindles and e-books, libraries are one of the few sectors that are experiencing growth in this recession.
Pat attributes some of this success to his staff, who describes as “really great” and also to the support of both Galway City and County Councils.
“In difficult times, they’ve maintained good funding for us,” he says.
In Galway, library usage has, in fact, increased by 23 per cent since 2008 and there have been 600,000 library visits in Galway in 2012.
“Our libraries are beating with the lifeblood of community more than they ever did,” Pat enthuses.
One reason for this is the fact that “it’s the one place where people can visit without having to put their hand in their pocket”.
“The traditional role of the library – buying on behalf of the community that which individual members could not personally afford – is more important now when disposable incomes are being restricted,” he says.
Another reason for libraries’ enduring popularity is the vast array of events and services they offer. Apart from books, of which there are many, there are newspapers, magazines and Internet access as well as a plethora of events, ranging from readings and lectures to children’s events and lectures.
From Monday, 12 November until Sunday, 18 November, this tradition will continue and a host of events will run in libraries throughout Galway and nationwide.
Galway City Library, for example, will host a documentary exhibition on the role of libraries as well as talks on authors as diverse as Dante and Agatha Christie.
The Limerick man’s enthusiasm for his job and for books is infectious. While speaking to the Galway Independent, he holds in his hand an impressive tome, ‘Atlas of the Great Irish Famine’, edited by John Crowley, and explains why it can never be properly reproduced in digital format with a conviction that’s hard to deny.
“The e-book will never reproduce that experience, that beauty, that size, in your hands. The smell of it, the texture of it.”
The library is a welcoming place, but also a private one, and Pat describes how on occasion he has had to restrain his enthusiasm for books to respect that privacy.
One particular evening a young man returned a copy of Roberto Bolaño’s ‘By Night in Chile’. Pat had to resist the temptation to quiz him about his experience with the book.
“One couldn’t do that,” he explains, “because the library is a neutral place. It’s a private experience.”
Pat maintains that all reading experiences are important, but he also feels that it is incumbent upon librarians to ensure that there is a good selection of books and as broad a spectrum of tastes and styles are catered for as possible.
Pat’s feelings on the role of the library are perhaps best summed up by an old, dog-eared copy of John Steinbeck’s ‘The Winter of Our Discontent’, which Galway County Council purchased in March 1972 for £1.50.
“There is…a sense of community. This is the community’s copy. And there is the sense that the book, like the community, has survived many tribulations and joys over the past 40 years.”
See www.libraryassociation.ie/events/library-ireland-week-2012 for more information on Library Ireland Week and for local events.
Name: Pat McMahon
Occupation: Galway County Librarian
Newsworthiness: Library Ireland Week runs next week from 12-18 November and Galway’s 29 branch libraries will be running events throughout the week.