Inis 67: The Helpful Library

January 2023
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Stock image of Irish library

In the latest issue of our flagship Inis Magazine, Joe Ó Ceallaigh describes the Irish language services available for schools at Donegal County Library.

There are many resources and services available to schools from public libraries all over the country. This article will provide an overview of these services, particularly with regards to Donegal County Library and new initiatives where efforts are being made to encourage Irish-language reading and creative engagement with stories in schools through the development of new resources in partnership with Children’s Books Ireland.

At the time that this article was written, the most recent public library strategy, Our Public Libraries 2022 stated:

‘The public library helps to preserve our cultural identity. The library service has a longstanding and important role in promoting literature and the Irish language. It provides access, not only through extensive collections, but also through an increasing range of festivals and events across the network of branches.’

There is an extensive range of Irish-language books in libraries across the country and it is possible to order books from any public library in the state and then collect it from your local branch. Fines are no longer imposed now either.

As well as physical books, eBooks – including Irish-language texts – are available from BorrowBox, while learners have the option of accessing free language classes through Transparent Languages, which are available from the website of your local library service.

There is an extensive range of Irish-language books in libraries across the country and it is possible to order books from any public library in the state and then collect it from your local branch. Fines are no longer imposed now either. As well as physical books, eBooks – including Irish-language texts – are available from BorrowBox, while learners have the option of accessing free language classes through Transparent Languages, which are available from the website of your local library service.

The public library is a welcoming space that people can access free-of-charge. It is also a shared, community hub where reading is put front and centre by a dedicated staff who cultivate an open atmosphere of learning with regular events for families, schools and many other groups.

With regards to the Irish language, the library is often where conversation groups, books clubs and parent-children activities – sometimes in partnership with Tuismitheoirí na Gaeltachta and Glór na nGael – take place. Without doubt, the link between the library and schools is of utmost importance in terms of cultivating a culture of reading and as we will see, this link begins with Early Learning and Care (ELC) services.

Stock image of Irish library

Little Library

First Five is a whole-of-Government strategy to improve the lives of babies, young children and their families. It is a ten-year plan to help make sure all children have positive early experiences and get a great start in life. As part of this strategy, books were provided to ELCs, afterschool services and childminders through public libraries to enrich their own collections. This year, as well as the books, there was a programme of events where pre-school children were provided with the opportunity to attend exciting events with storytellers and authors. In Donegal, among the Irish-language events that took place were workshops with the authors Gemma Breathnach, Patricia Forde and Ailbhe Nic Giolla Bhrighde.

It is of course important that young children have positive reading experiences as soon and as often as possible and that along with these, they also come to see the library as a welcoming space where they can express their creativity and imagination. We have a further responsibility in the library service to ensure that children who speak Irish, especially those in the Gaeltacht, have the opportunity to engage with stories through the medium of their first language.

The My Little Library Book Bag initiative this year, which was part of the government First Five strategy initiative, was a considerable step forward in the development of a national, family reading culture, in that thousands of free book bags were distributed to homes across the country. Children who were due to start primary school this year received an invitation to visit their local library to collect the books and join the library via their ELCs.

The picturebooks selected deal with themes such as starting school, making friends and being comfortable in yourself. English-language and Irish-language book bags were available.

We understood in Donegal that there would be parents and guardians with children about to begin school in Gaelscoileanna and Gaeltacht schools who themselves may not speak or read Irish. With this in mind, a concerted effort was made to draw people to the language and towards the Irish-language book bags with a resource we created especially for these specific titles.

The three picturebooks were: Ná Gabh ar Scoil!, Cócó an Colgán Cairdiúil and Percy Péacóg.

The first thing that we did was write a glossary for each book. The rationale behind this was that if parents and guardians had a basic level of Irish from school then there was a reasonable chance that they would be able to read and understand the book with this resource. We intended to print them out and attach them as stickers to the inside cover of each book. Denis McGeady, the librarian in Leabharlann Phobail Ghaoth Dobhair, designed the glossary in a way that the colours and style complemented that of each individual book.

Child reading an Irish language book against a yellow background

In order to make the books even more accessible, we decided that the provision of a recording of the story being read would be a huge asset. After some research, we found out that two of the stories had already been recorded for television by Cúla4. Futa Fata, who had published all three books, and Cúla4 agreed to allow us to share the recordings in the form of QR codes linked to each video, which were then printed on the glossary stickers and attached to the books.

Parents, guardians and others need only scan the code to access the recording of the book being read. Special thanks must go to Gemma Breathnach, the author of Percy Péacóg, who was happy to record a reading of the book herself. All three recording are available on YouTube and they were also shared on social media.

It soon became apparent from the amount of interest expressed in the glossaries and videos, along with the feedback we received from library users, that people considered them to be useful. It is intended to repeat the initiative if My Little Library Bag continues into the future. Indeed, a case could also be made to provide similar resources for the books in English considering that many parents and guardians do not have English as a first language.

Schools and the Irish Language in Donegal

According to figures from 2018/19, 14.7% or 2,770 students in Donegal were receiving their education through the medium of Irish. These figures take into account both predominantly rural Gaeltacht schools and urban Gaelscoileanna.

There are thirteen public libraries in Donegal with two of these in the Gaeltacht itself and another four providing services to Gaeltacht communities within their catchment areas. The award-winning Taobh Tíre project is an initiative of Donegal County Council that seeks to improve library services to rural and isolated communities across County Donegal.

The Library Service works in partnership with local community groups, and other agencies, to provide access to books and information services in areas that are too small to sustain a branch library. Six of the Taobh Tíre centres are situated in the Gaeltacht. It is important that we acknowledge our responsibility to provide resources, books and events in Irish to these Gaeltacht communities and Gaelscoileanna.

Stock image of Irish library

It is fair to say that Irish-language books – especially those for children – are more visible now thanks to the work carried out by Laureate na nÓg Áine Ní Ghlinn. High-quality books are available and almost annually, these make the shortlist of the KPMG Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year Awards.

When Nóinín by Máire Zepf won the overall Book of the Year Award in 2020 it certainly caused everyone to sit up and acknowledge the high standard of Irish-language publishing and writing. However, because of the sheer volume of books that are published in English each year, an extra effort is required to put Irish-language books into the hands of young people.

We understand that not all children visit their local library. With this in mind, teachers and care-providers can borrow more books for a longer period of time (40 books for 84 days). This allows children to access books from a wide and varied collection. As well as that, the library service is more than happy to facilitate visits from schools.

Events are organised by the library service for young people, families and schools as part of festivals such as Seachtain na Gaeilge and Science Week. Along with these festivals, there are four seasonal initiatives that form part of the national Right to Read programme where reading and storytelling is celebrated – Spring Into Storytime, Summer Stars, the Children’s Book Festival in the autumn (Wainfest in Donegal) and finally Family Time At Your Library in December.

Opportunities are provided for children to engage with writers and storytellers. The creative process with words and form, the thrill of discovering how interesting the past can be, and that joyful moment of discovery, are all at the very core of how Donegal County Library delivers our services to children and young people. 

Children sitting in their school library, reading

Class Sets

Sometimes, it can be easier to encourage the reluctant reader to engage with books when everyone in the class has the same text as it is possible to work on reading skills together as a group. It allows the teacher the opportunity to encourage discussion and debate through engagement with plot and character while oral language skills can also be developed. It’s almost like a giant book club and when the book is finished, the children will have shared a creative experience together.

The reluctant reader can rightly claim that they have completed a book – which they may not have achieved on their own. Positive self-perception as a reader is the destination we want all young people to arrive at, however we must remember that this journey takes place incrementally, step by step and book by book. There may be times when it feels like we aren’t making any progress and this is when reading with others allows us to maintain our momentum.

Donegal County Library already had many class sets but we wanted to add to the Irish-language selection. Read DL, where schools and communities across the county all read the same book, has achieved great success in recent years and we hoped that we could tap into this culture of collective reading to the benefit of the Irish language.

Initially we made contact with Gaeltacht schools and Gaelscoileanna across the county seeking advice on the type of books that they would like to read. In one case, the principal of the school sought out examples and recommendations which we provided in the form of personal suggestions and reviews from Inis.

As well as the books, there is a demand from teachers, librarians, parents and guardians for the resources that accompany them. Sometimes these resources are there to assist in the develop of comprehension skills, other times they can be used to encourage creative writing and often they generate discussion, debate and further engagement with the texts.

Children’s Books Ireland have compiled a raft of these resources over the years that are available from their website. They are available for the books that have been nominated for the Book of the Year Awards going back to 2009. Apart from that collection, there are also resources available as part of the Class Reads initiative. The questions that you’d usually expect are there but there are also reviews, biographies of the authors and illustrators and tips on how to engage with the books.

Contact was made with Children’s Books Ireland and Jenny Murray who said that she was happy to collate the resources for the books that would form part of our collection together in one place online, in order to facilitate ease of access.

Graphic of children reading

We hope to expand the collection in years to come but initially we selected fifteen titles and purchased 30 copies of each of these titles. The knowledge and expertise of the librarians who have read a wide range of Irish-language children’s books was the starting point in our selection process. Feedback from teachers was also taken into account as we chose the books. Another consideration was that the titles would be suitable for a range of ages.  

Without doubt, the KPMG Children’s Books Ireland Awards shortlists influenced our choices as we understand the titles on the list are always of a high standard due to the rigorous judging process that allows equal opportunity to all eligible books. At the end of it all, out of the 15 books that we selected, ten had made the shortlist before and out of the other five books, three were translations, one dealt with a very important theme – refugees – and the final book was chosen by a school principal.

Donegal County Library had to compile questions for four of the titles ourselves and we made sure to use the same structure and layout that Children’s Books Ireland had used for their resources. A librarian wrote learning materials for three of the books and one of them was written by Pádraig Mac Congáil from Líonra Leitir Ceanainn.

We knew that parents and guardians had found the glossaries useful for the Irish-language books in the My Little Library Book Bags so we made sure that they were also included for the picturebooks in this collection. We received permission from the publishers to make video recordings of the books and links to these were included in the pack. Again, this was an attempt to encourage those who don’t usually read Irish to engage with the books. We hope that schools in our own county find the resources useful but of course they will also be available to teachers and students all over the country.

If this small project is able to complement the work that Laureate na nÓg Áine Ní Ghlinn began, to lift the ‘invisibility cloak’ that hides Irish-language books and can set just one young person off on a reading journey then our efforts will have been justified.

Language Planning Areas

The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has identified 26 Gaeltacht Language Planning Areas (LPT) for the purposes of Acht na Gaeltachta 2012. There are eight LPTs in Donegal with a Language Planning Officer appointed in each area. As well as that, three towns have been recognised as Gaeltacht Service Towns. Letterkenny and An Clochán Liath have been approved as having achieved this status.

Donegal County Library makes a concerted effort to cooperate with these organisations on different projects. As we were writing the resource for schools, we received editorial assistance from Póilín Uí Ghallachóir, the Language Planning Officer for the North Donegal area. Póilín also recorded readings of a number of the picturebooks for us.

In Central Library Letterkenny, events were organised in collaboration with Líonra Leitir Ceanainn over the summer including storytelling sessions for families and the ‘My favourite line from a book’ competition. As Bairbre Uí Chathail from Líonra said herself: ‘Líonra Leitir Ceanainn is the lead planning organisation in Letterkenny and it is our responsibility to implement a language plan in the area for the community of the locality and also the Gaeltacht population.

Community development work is our primary strategy and that is why the relationship that we have developed with Central Library Letterkenny is so important to us. We share some of the same aims – to encourage people to read, to nurture the development of language and to put the Irish language front and centre.’

Photo of primary school children reading books

In the Gaeltacht, there is a very strong link between Leabharlann Phobail Ghaoth Dobhair and Dónall Ó Cnáimhsí, the Language Planning Officer for the Meitheal Pleanála Teanga group in the North West Donegal region. An initiative was organised by the library in partnership with Dónall last summer where school children drew a picture of the cover of their favourite Irish-language book which generated over 240 competition entries. An Irish-language book club is coordinated in partnership together also.

At the moment Donegal County Library and Dónall are working together to establish ‘Fighting Words Ghaeltacht Thír Chonaill’ where young people in the area would have the opportunity to take part in creative writing workshops through the medium of their first language.

Scoil Náisiunta Éadan Fhionn Fhraoich

With the publication of the new resource for schools we hope that there will be an increase in the number of class sets that are borrowed. Indeed, before the resource was even published, some schools were already reading the books and making use of early versions of the materials that we created to accompany them. Oilibhéar Mac Fhionnghaile is principal in Scoil Náisiúnta Éadan Fhionn Fhraoich.

When we initially made contact with schools about the resource, Oilibhéar responded and suggested that we include O Am go hAm by Patricia Forde in the collection. He also made use of the questions and materials that we wrote specifically for the book.

Oilibhéar is a teacher who understands the cultural value and the opportunities for engagement with creativity that are provided by books and stories. He organised a whole-school day of celebration which was linked to the book. A librarian was invited to speak with the students and the author Patricia Forde had a conversation with the young people via video link.

This event provides an excellent example of the work that is currently being carried out in schools to encourage creative engagement with Irish-language stories and books with support from Donegal County Library.

Joe Ó Ceallaigh is an Executive Librarian with Donegal Library Service. He is particularly interested in reading in the Irish language and the development of opportunities for writing for young people.