Call it professional curiosity, call it a tax break, others would say ‘nerd alert’, but I like visiting libraries while on holiday.
My last overseas trip in 2001 involved me visiting libraries in Scotland and the Linen Hall Library in Belfast. This time around, it was the Research Library at the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont.
It’s set in huge grounds in the suburbs, unlike many Parliaments which are stuck bang in the middle of the city. The reason for this is largely due to history (as is always the case in Ireland), when Ireland was partitioned in 1920, and Belfast was established as the capital. No room in the city for a Parliament, meant locating it out of the city proper.
It being set apart from the city, and for over 50 years, also being the seat of Unionist power , meant that my family were a little puzzled for my interest to visit (they’re Green rather than Orange).
It was a great visit. The library staff were very happy to show me around and talk about what they were providing for their clients, their MLAs, and demonstrate their current awareness service, and their visits to constituency offices. Speaking to their e- Services staff, I learned that they’re facing the usual struggles with getting the Assembly’s IT department to do anything for them. What they have been doing is forging relationships with individual staff in IT rather than going through official channels to get things done.
The library is also trying to remain in the forefront of the MLA’s minds as being useful, with the prospect of looming budget cuts. Still tied to the United Kingdom, the Assembly is reliant on the UK for its funding. As a result there is a concerted push to integrate further with the European Union in the hope of getting further funding and autonomy. They are already squeezed for space, with collection spaces also designated as meeting rooms. This has forced them to embrace e-books and digitize their collections.
On the brighter side, the Assembly has been going for three years without being dissolved. This has allowed the library to employ more than a skeleton staff, and the continuity of service has meant the library staff getting to know their clients better. The interest in the EU has meant staff training and professional development in leanring how what to collect in this new area.
It is also a place in which political correctness is at its height. I was shown the Assembly’s chamber, which was upholstered in a lovely dark blue. Noticing the Senate chamber across the way which was in the traditional red (the former Northern Irish Parliament from 1921-1972 was a bicameral system), I asked why the colour scheme wasn’t green as is the case in Westminster-style parliaments. “Green is too politically charged a colour,” I was told.
I should have known.