Changes afoot

By Juliana Adelman
[Apologies for lack of image, computer won’t do it. I hope to fix it later.]

I don’t like to be a curmudgeon who poo-poos anything new, but…I am finding all the changes at the NLI a little bit jarring and not 100% for the better.  Let’s begin with the new cafe, which I pointed out in this month’s recommendations.  I have now eaten there twice this week in between reading about railway abattoirs.  I am sorry to report that the prices have not come down nor has the food consistently improved.  The coffee is more than 100% better which is very welcome (especially when it costs €2.50).  The scones are lovely (€2.95 with jam and cream).  The salad plate (€5.95 for medium, couldn’t face meat after all the cow slaughter) was pretty lackluster.  It consisted of some rocket, a potato salad with zero flavor, a sort of waldorf salad with awkwardly large pieces of celery and equally little flavor and some kind of feta/tomato/cucumber salad which was, well, salty.  The best part was a lovely, fresh slice of bread that it came with.  I was given the reader’s discount which was supposed to be 10% but was calculated at 45 cents.  That said, the sandwiches (ham sliced off the bone, €6.70) looked nice.  They were the same sandwiches every day I was in, though.  Vegetarians get salad or soup (€5.50).  Aside from the food I was really disappointed not to see the familiar faces of the previous cafe staff.  Of course it should have occurred to me that change of management would mean change of staff, but it seems silly not to have retained the people who knew all the NLI staff and many of the readers.  And probably could have helped them to avoid the inevitable scrambling at the start.

My other bugbear is the new ‘pilot’ ordering system.  To be quite frank, I don’t like it.  For those of you who have not been to the NLI in  a while, here is how it works.  You may place orders for books by email or phone the day before you wish to come in.  These books will be there for you in the morning from 9:30.  This is very useful.  Otherwise you may order books during the day at 10, 12, and 2.  From Monday to Wednesday you can also order them at 4 and 6:30, on Thursday and Friday last order is 3:30.  As ever, the staff are very efficient at collecting the books once ordered.  But if you should find that it takes you no time at all to zip through books that turn out to be of no use then you better have something else to do while you wait for the next ordering time to come around.  And for those people who would drop in after work to look at a book you would be best advised to order it the day before.

I understand that this system is intended to deal with staffing and budget cuts and possibly even make things more efficient.  I also understand that many libraries use an advanced ordering system.  However, it does seem that it could be organized more sensibly.  Why not clump the times for ordering together in the morning and after lunch instead of just spreading them at nearly 2 hour intervals?  Has anyone else experienced the system and have further suggestions?  I’d like to send them a letter since they don’t seem to be collecting specific responses to the ‘pilot’ system anywhere in the library.

I love the NLI.  During my PhD, when I spent too many hours there to count, some of the counter staff bent over backwards to help me.  Many of them had an enormous amount of knowledge and experience with the collections and, as one staff member confided, this experience is no longer being used to assist readers.  When I have used special collections such as ephemera I have found the librarians enthusiastic, knowledgeable and helpful.  This new system, it seems to me, is not making the best use of their assets.

The sole person at the counter for much of the day yesterday was an extremely friendly and competent volunteer who had to deal with lines of readers.  I don’t know where the usual desk staff are, they must be in the stacks collecting orders.  I know the NLI is being financially squeezed and they are trying to make up for lost time on digitization projects, improving the catalogue and providing public activities (there were lots of children in yesterday afternoon listening to a story).  But in my mind the library is first and foremost a resource to researchers (not just professional ones) and a national repository; not a tourist attraction, not a place to read the newspaper.  What do you think?

23 Responses to “Changes afoot”

  1. Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Changes afoot Says:

    […] “I don’t like to be a curmudgeon who poo-poos anything new, but … I am finding all the changes at the NLI a little bit jarring and not 100% for the better. Let’s begin with the new cafe, which I pointed out in this month’s recommendations. I have now eaten there twice this week in between reading about railway abattoirs …” (more) […]

  2. Brian Hanley Says:

    I agree Juliana. Firstly I noticed that the usual cafe staff were gone today and having got to know them a bit I wondered if they still had jobs. Hope so.
    Secondly the NLI has spent big money on a new logo and advertising recently, as part of its revamping, yet it has also cut back on staff and is using the Croke Park Agreement to push through changes in work practices. The changes will be no doubt marketed, through a sympathetic media, as private-sector dynamism replacing public sector inertia, yet, as you say, the NLI functioned very well in terms of aiding scholars, and also casual visitors. I have worked there since 1996 and honestly have had no real reason to complain about anything in terms of service in that time. In fact several staff members have gone out of their way to help me on occasion. The new system actually makes things more difficult if anything. I agree about the tourists, but large numbers of people being marched through for ten minutes and out again, will no doubt be marketed as increased ‘footfall’.

  3. Jonathan Says:

    It is a pity that these changes are being brought in, but the library was seriously neglected always. The library was in a catch 22 situation. there were times when the staff behind the counter were doing nothing when it was quite and there were times there were not enough, and you can be sure there were people giving out about ‘the public sector do nothing/they are so inefficient’. Then if you are in the library doing a spot check on footnotes for an article/thesis and calling up a whole load of books finishing off your thesis, you can’t do that. Then again, you have the option of your college library for that.

    I was shocked to hear that Dev et al were out of jobs in the cafe. Some people make a big deal out of the fact that the people that had gruel etc are now running the cafe, but seriously, Dev was a fantastic asset to the library. He just knew people, but was wasted there. He would be a brilliant maitre’d in a plush eatiere.

    However Julia, I take serious issue with your idea about the library being, to use your quote ‘a resource to researchers (not just professional ones) and a national repository; not a tourist attraction, not a place to read the newspaper’. Please climb down from the tower that you are in. It is a national institution that anyone is entitled to use and visit and if there are kids listening to a story, so what? People are entitled to go there to read the newpaper. Isn’t it great that they are in a library doing that and not watching mind numbing TV. Education and learning starts from the cradle and it is brilliant that the library is engaging with young people in such a manner. To use Gay Byrne’s cliche, ‘a book is for life’, so if you are inconvenienced for an hour, so what, these kids will get so much out of that and as a reader of the library and an educator, I think that is a fantastic thing for the library to do.

  4. cormac Says:

    Interesting post.. be useful to spell out what NLI stands for the first time it is mentioned

  5. Juliana Says:

    @Cormac, sorry I should not have assumed. National Library of Ireland, as I am sure you guessed
    @Jonathan, no problem with the kids hearing stories or with people reading the newspaper. I completely agree that the library should be open to all. However, there are lots of beautiful (and some not so beautiful) public libraries for reading the newspaper. The reason the NLI is special is because it has books that other places do not have. Because anyone can get into it by getting a reader’s ticket it is all the more important that it does not stray too far from its core business as a research repository. There are lots of independent scholars, geneologists and the just plain curious who would not be able to access these materials anywhere else. University libraries are not obliged to be open the public and it can be quite difficult to get in. The National Library serves those that are not served by the university system.


  6. Sean Kelly Says:

    “These books will be there for you in the morning from 9:30”

    Actually I’ve found that a book or microfilm (sometimes ordered a week in advance) may not be there until 10:30 and then the wrong book is brought out or its missing altogether!!!

    Jonathan is right that you would often see staff twiddling their thumbs when it was quiet. He’s equally right when he says at other times it was so busy there were to few of them but sure, it’s the same now!

    The usual desk staff can be found (most days) out on the front steps of the Library. They tell me that between the new front of house team and the one behind the scenes (who used to be one in the same) the new system saves only one person, and that the Library aren’t actually down numbers on any one who’d work the desks (I’m in there often enough at night to know this is true).

    Still, I’ve seen the Reading Room staff getting some verbal abuse from people looking for stuff and that’s not on.

    No harm in updating the Library but I think it would have been better to have just tweaked the old system rather than try and copy what works for other Libraries and call it “best practice”.

    It really is a shame about Dev and Catherine in the cafe but I suppose a company that’s happy to food poison it’s customers can’t be expected to treat its staff well. (A pity too about the Library shop.)

    But it’s worth complaining lads – the Society of Genologists were kicking up a fuss and now they all have jobs in the advisory service!

  7. National Library Employee Says:

    None of you have any idea just how horrible and stupid that place has become.

  8. Terry McDermott Says:

    In a few months time there will be a big spread in one of the Saturday or Sunday papers about how great the National Library is, about how it was all transformed by the driving force of private sector trained genuises, who have packed the place with tourists wondering around the reading room aimlessly.
    As for the old people who never came in before, but decided to pop in and ask for a bok or newspaper, and who the staff had the time to show theropes to, the people who came in after work and could work until 8.45, the researchers who could check a load of facts anf figures by ordering maybe up to 20 books in a hour, well never mind them.

  9. Katherine McSharry Says:

    As in many places, we’re going through challenging times at the Library, with fewer staff and diminishing resources. The pilot projects in the Main and Manuscript reading rooms have been running since January (in Manuscripts) and May (in the main reading room), and we will be reviewing their operation with staff and users. In the meantime, as Head of Services I would be very pleased to hear from, or meet with, anyone who has feedback. I can be contacted by email at kmcsharry at, or by phone on 01 6030281

  10. Terry McDermott Says:

    Nothing to do with the library staff, but I suppose there’s no way that the change of cafe [EDITOR DELETED]

  11. Juliana Says:

    @Katherine: Thanks for the message and I do hope that commentators here will take you up on your offer. I certainly intend to!


  12. Michael Seery Says:

    I think this post raises some good points, although the most important are lost a bit after the preamble about the cafe (but then what’s a blog for if you can’t have a bit of a rant?!). I’m surprised at some of the comments though, even more so that some were let through! What’s common to all, with the exception of the anonymous “employee” is that everyone shares an affection for NLI.

    Regarding the tourists/kids/etc, I assume the NLI invests a lot of time (and hence money) on these aspects because they are probably an important metric when they go looking for money. I’d be only to glad, as a researcher, if a “sympathetic media” ran stories on the library as if it raises the profile of the library, then it is good for them and subsequently good for researchers. Who knows how many of these non-researchers return having been introduced to the nature of the collections available in the library. (An analogy for me is to consider the National Gallery as a place only for people who know a lot about art. It would be a quiet place!)

    For me the important issues are the opening hours and the ordering system. Regarding the hours, there’s no doubt it is a pain for those who worked later (including me), but I guess the library has had no option, in light of costs. They say that very few people used the library in the last hours of the day, and having been there a good bit at those times, I can agree that it could be a very quiet place.

    Regarding the ordering system, I think a lot of frustration is probably just around getting used to the change. In honesty, even if all the books you pre-ordered were useless, by the time you realised this it would surely be close to the next ordering time. Even if not, most researchers have a long list of back-reading to do, which will quickly fill the time! Actually it is in manuscripts where I think the ordering system will have most effect, as very often you can order a manuscript and not have a clue about its value or volume. For me, that’s the first place I would lobby for any reversal. However, I suppose it will just take a change of research approach to get used to the system.

    As most people have said, we can only assume the good people at the NLI are trying to manage a large and complicated institution with dwindling resources as best they can. I love the new look, and very much appreciate the large efforts the library make to engage as many people as possible in a wide variety of ways with this unique national institution.

  13. Brian Hanley Says:

    The National Library is the national repository for literature. It is not a business and we, the readers/researchers are not ‘customers’ as I believe we are now designated. Treating it as such will have a knock-on effect in terms of collections and their care. What other days might be seen as less busy? Saturday mornings? Why not close then as well?
    On the grapevine I hear the former cafe staff were treated very poorly, which given the attitudes of our restaurant industry is not very surprising.

  14. Anne Lawlor Says:


    The new logo; the public activities and the NLI’s intentions of engaging with as many people as possible are completely open to scrutiny as the stated reason for the reduction of the NLI’s services are financial cutbacks.

    Michael suggests that the public activities and logo are necessary to help the NLI secure future funding but the question must be asked: Are these activities really the best use of the NLI’s current financial assets?

    What is more valuable to the institution when lobbying the government for money – ten minute tourists or regular long term users who find the NLI an invaluable resource to their work?

    The National Library still does not offer a facility to cross reference something on the internet.

    At what point are the metrics gathered used to highlight the failings of Library management? It would appear to my eye that reader numbers have fallen since the introduction of the new system. The microfilm reading room once full on a daily basis now offers readers a row of microfilm machines to themselves.

    Celebrities reading poems and children hearing stories aside, long term investments like the “Discover Your National Library” exhibition don’t appear to offer anything of real interest to the public at large (in my visits to the manuscripts reading room I have never seen this exhibition with more than two people in it).

    The real question surrounding the “public activities” is when does it cross the line of being a thing in and of itself and become a hindrance to readers.

    I’ve been in the Reading Room attempting to work while a noisy, disruptive photo shoot took place to promote an event. This shows exactly how much the NLI values the research time of their readers or respects the space and service they provide.

    An example I can bring to hand is the NLI’s Facebook page:

    Does the tone with which this is written suggest the behaviour of a PR department looking to promote an institution to garner future public monies or [EDITOR DELETED] (Please compare it against the social media of any other library / institution.)


    Alternatively, perhaps in the NLI there is simply a lack of common sense.

    Michael, to expand on your allegory to the National Gallery I would suggest that the National Library comes short when providing the same basic level of service.

    People visit the Gallery because they have an interest in the Gallery’s collections which are advertised, curated and findable.

    The NLI fails at informing the general public about the extent of its holdings and why the public should visit to make use of its collections. The work of doing this is likely less fun than befriending a Corr or Day-Lewis but I feel it would ultimately be of greater value in securing long term funding.

    To continue to weigh the Library against the other cultural institutions; the new restrictions have made it harder for people who might decide to pop in after visiting the Gallery or Museum to find something of value to them in the Library.

    Readers are met with a variety of catalogues to search through before having to order via a convoluted system only to ultimately discover that they will have to return to the NLI at a later date.

    I feel it could be argued that the changes to the NLI’s service have diminished its value as an institution.

  15. Juliana Says:

    I’m really glad this post has generated so much discussion and hope that many of you will direct suggestions to the NLI as well. I’ve had to cut a bit from some posts, which I really hate to do and almost never do. However, I don’t think it is appropriate here to impugn individuals or make suggestions that could be construed as personal attacks. Please stick to discussing the NLI and its services and everything should be fine.

    @Anne Lawlor: Have a look at the NLI’s online catalogue, which does now have links to scanned texts of some items available through other online sources. It’s a start.


  16. Anne Lawlor Says:

    Juliana as a regular NLI user I’m aware of the functionalities of the NLI’s three online catalogues.

    I apologise for posting content you found inappropriate.

    It was not my intention to attack NLI staff but to expand on the arguments that were presented. It is my personal feeling that staff are open to criticism as they are in receipt of a salary from the tax payer while they reduce the service (work) to the public that pays them.

    Perhaps the place for such a discussion is the main stream media.

    Or The Office of The Comptroller and Auditor General.

  17. Juliana Says:

    @ Anne: Please explain exactly what you mean about internet cross referencing. I plan to make a submission to the NLI of suggestions and I would like to add something on the catalogues. I am a regular user of the NLI catalogues as well and I had barely registered the links to sites for e-texts.

    I removed some of the content of several posts because making assertions about actions and motivations of individuals requires hard evidence, even in the mainstream media. I am being overly cautious, but I have to look out for Pue’s.

    As I have already said above, I appreciate all the comments and I do think that the NLI should be open to criticism.


  18. Anne Lawlor Says:

    I agree Juliana, the catalogue’s not that clear. A member of staff pointed the links out to me after they told me a book I was missing.

    The point I was making was that the NLI provides no internet access. I was trying to express this in such a way as to differentiate the invaluable use of the internet for research from someone simply wishing to check Facebook. (For instance, if I were to find something of interest in a book from the NLI’s collection and wanted to check this information against Google / a peer website / a different library catalogue etc.)

    It seems to me this, and other resources should of been brought to the fore to make up for the reduction of service.

    Lack of internet is an easy jab to make against the NLI but I feel it is symptomatic of the bad planning surrounding this effort.

    (I enjoy Pue’s greatly and completely understand your caution. Again, I apologise for overstepping the mark.)

  19. Tom Walsh Says:

    Juliana … I met two most fascinating people today, your parents. I’m a science writer at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, and I doing a profile on your father and your family’s close ties with the extended family of the late Dr. Chai and his wife, Ling. When we sat down to talk in the Lab’s library, your mother pointed to my shirt and said “Burt: Look at his shirt.” I was wearing a DCU polo shirt, as I had both taught journalism there and earned my master’s there. I, too, have a degree in science communications from DCU. Presume we know many of the same folks. John Horgan is a close personal friend, and everybody (in Ireland, it seems) knows John. He now works right across the street from Trinity, as the press ombudsman. In fact I’m headed to Dublin in a month to spend a week with John and his wife, Mary Jones, sailing in Baltimore. Should be fun.

  20. Terry McDermott Says:

    The Irish Times magazine reviewed the cafe on Saturday. I get the impression that is actually more expensive than the old cafe. A sandwich and coffee costs nearly 10 euro. It also seems more cramped and a bit chaotic. Are Brambles still in the National Museum?

  21. Ciaran O'Brien Says:

    The new cafe is not fit for purpose. It is too expensive and seems to be in a bit of a mess, service wise. A triumph of style over substance?
    More seriously the library counter staff are doing a good job, as usual, but seem to be under more pressure. Often one person is left dealing with a load of queries. Does anyone know who the ‘volunteers’ are and does this mean that some people are working the counter and not being paid?

  22. Ultán Says:

    Presumably the people who wish to pursue a career in the library one day will now feel under pressure to volunteer there first, putting extra financial pressure on students doing postgraduate courses on archival/librarian studies, or qualified people who would be better off looking for paid employment while waiting for an opening to come up in the NLI.

  23. Dermot Snyed Says:

    The problem is that more cuts are being sought and funding is also under threat. The interns are effectively being used to provide cheap labour. Please do give your opinions, because this blog is being noticed by those at the NLI.

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