Transforming Libraries Into Community Hubs

9th June - Marie-Claire Grima 

Malta Libraries CEO Cheryl Falzon talks all about increasing visibility, boosting the number of library patrons and the changing role of the library in society.

What is public library use in Malta in 2017 like?

In 2017 the average number of book loan statistics per month was 69,567. There was yet another 4.1 per cent increase over the same period of last year which we’re obviously very happy about. Every public library, be it central, regional or branch circulates books in the traditional way, as well as providing Reference Sections for the public to consult within the premises of any given library. Malta Libraries are making sure to introduce more types of books that target specific audiences or learning conditions, such as dyslexic-friendly collections and audiovisual works. The Central Public Library then hosts a wider range of services over and above those mentioned above such as the popular graphic novels and comics collection and group-work stations with access to free WiFi to name but two. CPL also hosts regular reading sessions for ages 0 to 80+ and it also acts as headquarters from where the Talking Book Service is administered.

You have been the CEO of Malta Libraries for a year and a half – what were your priorities when you took on this role?

My main priority was to increase the overall visibility of Malta Libraries as an entity which is made up of the National Library, Public Libraries and now also the National Bibliographic Office, as well as to see a marked increase in library usage both for educational and recreational purposes. My dream was and still is to help bring about a change in the outlook on public libraries; to give the general public not simply book stores but a community centre for them to gather at and learn. Finally, to also help cultivate and, to a certain extent, restore good team-spirit amongst the ML Staff whilst providing them with further training so as to upgrade the quality of service to our patrons.

How has Malta Libraries made libraries more accessible and inviting to the public?

The process of upgrading public libraries collections to meet with every library’s respective clients’ needs is ongoing and we’re putting a lot of focus on acquiring dyslexic-friendly books. In April 2016 we also introduced an e-books service which may be easily accessed via our website. The general effort is to make it possible for our modern library patrons to access our services online - borrowing, reserving and renewing books has never been easier and these facilities are already bearing fruit. Accessibility is indeed key, so much so that we have also invested a lot of our funding and effort into uploading digital content from the National Library collection into an online Digi-Vault. Our latest large scale incentive towards accessibility and inclusion was the refurbishment of the whole Junior Library at the Central Public Library as well as the launch of the upgraded Talking Book Service which is now open to all rather than solely being restricted to the visually impaired.

What is the Talking Book Service?

The Talking Book Service has replaced the former Services for the Blind to render a more comprehensive service. The previous audio cassette collection, which has been in place since 1968, has been updated and converted to mp3 format and new material has also been recorded to meet the ever-growing demand and standards. This service is not only available to library members with visual impairment and the housebound but also to those who are more responsive to audio rather than the visual format. Great efforts are being made to compile a varied mp3 catalogue which users may then order and have delivered to them on pendrives.

Social media plays an important role in Maltese people’s lives – how has Malta Libraries utilised it to keep in touch with its patrons and attract new ones?

Malta Libraries’ website ( www.maltalibraries.gov.mt ) has been up for a while now and through that we offer the general public access to all our online catalogues and E-book selection. Facebook proves to be a very useful tool for us – our demographic of followers are most receptive to the format and our following is steadily growing there. On Facebook, where we manage pages for the National and Central Public Libraries, the National Bibliographic Office as well as a general page for Malta Libraries as an entity, we cross-share information about events with collaborators and similar entities in the Department, thus creating a stronger and more focused network of information. We’ve recently also launched our @MaltaLibraries Instagram and Twitter accounts where we not only promote our events and services in libraries across Malta and Gozo but also document some behind-the-scenes moments and bring to light some curious objects from our archives.

Can you tell me more about the renovation of the Junior Library in Floriana, and its programme of events?

This renovation had been a long time coming and we’re so proud of how it all turned out. A talented Malta Libraries employee, Carlo Zammit O’Dea, has painted a magnificent wrap-around mural on a marine theme to liven up the Play Area where junior readers are free to play and learn in a fun and safe environment under their parents’ supervision. The idea is to introduce play and lightness to a place that is often misconstrued as stuffy and reproaching. The revised layout of the Junior Library has made space for carpeted reading hubs by the windows where one can sit and browse through the updated book collection, the ever growing selection of graphic novels and comics and audiovisual material targeting different age groups. Moreover, Malta Libraries continues to collaborate with the National Literacy Agency on free weekly educational reading sessions for ages 0-3 and 4-6 in this new colourful space. We look forward to hosting more workshops and events in the coming months.

Aside from the constraints of funding, what is the biggest obstacle facing Malta Libraries?

I’d say, hands down, the lack of space in a number of branch and regional public libraries. This hinders potential development both in the libraries’ respective book collections and facilities. It is not merely a lack of funding, or initiative, or even ideas – most libraries are simply too small to host events or support adequately furnished reading nooks. 

What is the most satisfying part of being in charge of Malta Libraries?

Definitely seeing results and receiving positive feedback both from the staff as well as Malta Libraries patrons following all the efforts to upgrade libraries to their full potential even if on minimal funding. When projects come together – projects that started out as mere options or suggestions only a number of months or even weeks prior – that is truly satisfying and drives one to aspire for more.

What kind of role would you like to see Malta Libraries play in public and social life?

I should hope that in the foreseeable future Malta Libraries becomes an authoritative and consultative entity on all issues relating to professional librarianship and libraries in general. Additionally, we not only hope but are working towards remoulding public libraries in such a way that they start acting more as community centres rather than simply one-dimensional service providers. Call us big dreamers but that’s exactly what books turn you into!


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