Alison, you have had a long career with Dublin City Libraries, tell us a little bit about it and the different roles you have held over the years.
I started out as a library assistant with Dublin City Libraries in 1996 and, aside from a one-year stint with the Rehab National Training and Development Institute library in Sandymount, have been with the public libraries ever since. I’ve been a librarian in various public libraries – Ballyfermot and Walkinstown on the south side and Donaghmede and the Central Library, Ilac Centre, on the north side. I’ve worked in the Open Learning Centre of the Central Library and also in Library Development, organising events and annual programmes across the network.
In 2010 I was seconded to work for the Dublin Prison Library Service, which is an agency service provided by Dublin City Council to the Irish Prison Service and I had a very interesting five years at the helm there, managing nine prison libraries across Dublin’s prisons. We also helped out in Portlaoise, Castlerea and the Midlands Prisons and visited most of the others around the country. I was very sad to leave that position and would probably have stayed forever if the opportunity to be director of the UNESCO City of Literature office hadn’t come along in 2016.
And your current role as Director of Dublin UNESCO City of Literature - tell us about the projects you work on and what they involve. Do you have a typical day?
This role has been the most hectic of my career, probably because there is no typical day!
We do certain very structured things like organise the annual Dublin One City One Book initiative, along with the children’s citywide reading campaign and Words on the Street, as well as St. Patrick’s Festival events, World Book Day events, and other regular annual happenings. But there’s also the unexpected, such as requests for input into literary anniversary celebrations, grants for literary projects small and large, and very many requests for meetings to discuss all sorts of ideas related to the literature of Dublin.
A large part of our work is to communicate with the other 36 Cities of Literature around the world, and to collaborate on projects with them as much as possible. The best thing is that our small team of four gets around a lot and we are in contact with a huge number of people involved in Irish literature, so it’s usually easy to put the right people in contact with each other when requests come our way. We know the journalists, writers, publishers and academics and that’s a great privilege.
Apart from your current role, which library stands out most in your memory and why?
Mountjoy Prison Library was pretty interesting, as you can imagine. There probably aren’t any other libraries that are for men only and this was reflected in the stock on the shelves and made the place look very different to a regular public library. The really surprising thing is that my small team of staff at the time said they would far rather work there than in many public libraries, as the patrons were more respectful and appreciative and had better manners! It makes sense, when you think about it, as prisoners have very few services or perks and wouldn’t jeopardise something as wonderful as library privileges by being unruly.
Name one of the most inspirational/ interesting people you have met in your work with Dublin City Libraries?
No hesitation there – it’s undoubtedly Edna O’Brien, probably the most intelligent person I’ve ever met and the most articulate and impressive. And I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet her and work with her if it wasn’t for my job! We worked with her on Dublin One City One Book 2019 as we had chosen The Country Girls Trilogy as our title that year. She was actually very moved to have the book featured in this way and I think really enjoyed the fuss and the ceremony attached to our launch event in the Mansion House with the Lord Mayor of Dublin. Hearing her speech on that day was a truly memorable experience for all who were present.
What was your favourite book or author as a child? Tell us about it.
As a child I absolutely adored the Willard Price animal adventure books. These were written in the 1960s and 70s and involved two brothers, Hal and Roger, and their adventures around the world finding and trapping various wild animals for the family zoo (not so acceptable these days!). Through these amazing books, I learned all sorts of interesting facts about Africa, the Arctic, animal behaviour, native peoples and more. They were so entertaining. Every library visit I’d hope there’d be a new unread title from the series on the shelves. In those days we didn’t dream of asking the librarian to reserve a book or hold something for us – at least I was far too timid to do that and it didn’t even occur to me.
But that made it all the more exciting when there was a new book waiting on the shelf. Particular favourites were Gorilla Adventure, African Adventure, Safari Adventure and Amazon Adventure. It’s lovely when I meet someone else who also loved these books.
What are you reading right now?
There’s an absolutely wonderful small publishing house in Dublin called Swan River Press and they produce the most beautiful hard backed fiction, mostly ghost stories and eerie tales from past and present. At the moment I’m reading a collection of short stories by Mervyn Wall (a Dublin writer who died in 1997) called A Flutter of Wings. These stories date back to the 1940s and are so entertaining and well written. He also wrote The Unfortunate Fursey, which is a fabulously satirical story about a medieval Irish monk!
Which of your books is battered from using again and again?
My copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White is in an awful state. It’s actually an ex library copy that was destined for the recycling bin when I rescued it. We’re grammar fiends in my house and like to have chats about words and their usage and my son really keeps me on my toes by challenging me to be as specific as possible with my language at all times!
I have to add that Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome is my most-read work of fiction and I highly recommend it to everyone. It’s about three young guys on a river trip down the Thames in the late 1800s and it’s absolutely hilarious – but don’t just take my word for it! Oh, and it’s also got a very badly behaved dog along for the trip too. I actually own a first edition, though it’s not in fantastic condition, but it was interesting to find that something like that doesn’t cost as much as you might think and makes a great present for a book-lover!
Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us?
I’m a total introvert and would far rather be alone in my own garden with a book than at a large gathering or surrounded by people I don’t know well. People are usually surprised to hear that as I do enjoy good conversation and like public speaking – just in very small doses and I like to know when the end point will be! I’m sure I have that in common with many book lovers.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I once bought a Beatrix Potter privately printed first edition of Peter Rabbit for €3 and sold it at Sotheby's London for €8,000! It’s probably my best ‘dinner party’ story. I was a great expert in identifying Potter first editions, as I was quite obsessed with them about ten years ago, and spent a lot of time online, sourcing second hand and collectible copies. This edition was heavily disguised in the wrong binding, with just a very small number of clues as to its true identity. It was a very exciting bit of detective work!