Thursday, September 30, 2021

Do Microforms Have a Future?

Here's something very different. I wrote this blog post for the 2021 CONUL Library Assistant Blog Post competition. CONUL is the Consortium of National and University Libraries in Ireland. A few years ago, I'd come third in the same competition.

I put a massive amount of work into this blog post. I researched it for weeks. I really wanted to win. And I was actually quite confident that I would win, or at least be placed.

In the end, not only did I not win, not only was I not placed, but I wasn't even get one of the three "honourable mentions" in the results. I was crushed. I'm not being ironic!

Last week UCD Library published it in the internal staff bulletin. Only one of my colleagues mentioned it to me.

It was a pretty humbling experience overall. It may be a silly vanity, but I always yearn for my writing to get some recognition in my workplace. I've worked there for twenty years and, in many ways, it's my village. The library did acquire my book but only one of my colleagues has ever borrowed it.

Oh, well. Here is the blog post. I thought I would be original and write about the very opposite of cutting-edge technology. Perhaps that was my downfall, or perhaps the other blog posts were just better! As Frank says, that's life...

Some years ago, I was giving a library tour to some undergraduates. The demeanour of the group was (as usual) polite and attentive, but hardly enthusiastic. As we were passing the microform cabinets, I decided for some reason to depart from my usual routine and to point them out.

I was surprised by the undergraduates’ reaction. They suddenly came to life and began rummaging through the cabinets, examining the microforms, laughing and chatting. Presumably, to these “digital natives” who grew up with the internet, microform was a complete novelty.

In today’s technological landscape, microform readers can appear as quaint as a telephone box on a city street. In our digitized world, are these analogue workhorses doomed to disappear?

In the 2014 article “Microform: Not Extinct Yet”, from Library Collections, Acquisitions and Technical Services, the authors list some of the reasons libraries keep and maintain their microforms: that “too many materials will never be online”; that digitized newspapers sometimes omit features such as images, ads, and letters to the newspaper; that digital holdings can be volatile and that publishers might remove material; and that properly stored microform has a life expectancy of up to five hundred years (Caudle et al., 2014, p.3). They conclude: “Is microform in danger of becoming extinct? Not yet. Microform still has a place in the library by providing a variety of materials for researchers in a stable, space-saving format”(ibid., p.10).

So how do things stand seven years after that article? I canvassed several university libraries in Ireland and abroad, enquiring about their views on the future of the technology and reader demand for microforms.

Paula Norris, Multimedia Librarian of Trinity College Library, told me that usage had “declined dramatically” in the last few years, to two or three users per month before the Covid pandemic hit. Shauna McDermott of DCU Library revealed that demand for microforms had fallen so much (a few requests per year) that they recently repurposed their microform rooms into autism-friendly study spaces, though “microform is something we might revisit in future”. Bill Murphy of TU Dublin Bolton Street reported that the microform reader there was “very rarely used”, while Sarah Smith in Aungier Street said of their own microform reader: “Assume it still works, hasn’t been used in the longest time”. Debra McCann of UCD’s James Joyce Library estimates that the microform reader is typically used “once or twice a week, not daily”.

Mary Dundon of the Glucksman Library, University of Limerick, said that “we do not have too many resources left on microfiche or microform”, that they are “very rarely requested”, and that their new microfilm reader “gets very little use except for our HR department for reading old HR files!”. Geraldine Curtin of NUI Galway writes that the Special Collections Reading Room receives about one microform user per week. She believes microform has a future as not all resources are available digitally and that microform can “serve as a very useful backup when the technology fails”.

Siobhán O’Donovan of the National Library reports that “microfilm is still very heavily used by National Library readers”, and that “microfilm definitely has a short-term future in the National Library”.

Elaine Harrington, Special Collections Librarian of University College Cork, has some stark figures when it comes to readers’ demand for microform; in 2008/2009, there were 1114 users of microform, which steadily dropped to 276 in 2017/2018. However, she sees a future for microform in the university as the library’s Scan and Deliver system, whereby users can be sent material scanned from microform, has proved quite popular, and some databases are too expensive and too rarely used to replace their microform equivalents.


Dr Conor Mulvagh, Associate Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD, offered a researcher’s perspective on the continuing importance of microform: “The microfilm resources in UCD are extremely useful for research. The range of materials covered in our collections still remains significantly ahead of what is available online and especially ahead of what UCD currently subscribes to…despite the fact that this is no longer 'sexy' technology, it is incredibly important to both faculty and graduate research at UCD as well as for visiting readers and in many instances even where online archives exist, the work can be done faster and more readily on UCD microfilms.”

While there is no indication that microforms face imminent extinction from university libraries, some institutions are choosing to retire them as usage declines. This could make microforms a relative rarity in ten years’ time, but with a shelf-life of five hundred years, their real legacy belongs to the future.

Now Is The Time for "The Burning of the Leaves"

I'm all about tradition, and it's become something of an Autumn tradition for me to blog about the wonderful Laurence Binyon poem, "The Burning of the Leaves".

I thank God for times and seasons. I can imagine a universe where such cycles did not exist. It would be much the poorer.

As I've written at considerable length on the poem before, I'll just give a link here.

Happy Autumn!

Friday, September 24, 2021

My First Blog Post

As I've mentioned before, the tenth anniversary of this blog is fast approaching-- October the fifteenth, as it happens.

Anniversaries and landmarks are a big deal to me, so I feel the need to mark this, even at the risk of being self-absorbed.

I had the idea of re-posting one blog post from every year of this blog, starting with the very first, in the run-up to the anniversary. So here goes...

(The blog I had before this one, Practicing to be Catholic, didn't exist for very long and is no longer online. Sometimes I think I should save some of the posts I've written here, but there are so many...)

I've since learned that the anecdote about G.K. Chesterton is apocryphal, but that doesn't make the sentiment itself invalid.

 A few months ago I closed my previous blog, Practicing to be Catholic, explaining in my final post that I worried about our society's increasing addiction to technology. I worried about the things we lose (or at least, weaken) when computers, televisions, MP3 players and mobile phones are everywhere; silence, patience, the meaningfulness of time and space, the erosion of interpersonal interactions like story-telling, ballad-singing and the swapping of comics.

I still feel those anxieties. And I'm still determined to die without ever having read an e-book.

But I think there is a role for blogs. And, when it comes to Catholic life in Ireland, perhaps even a need for them.

The Church and the faith is under unprecedented media and popular attack-- all over the Western world, but especially in Ireland. (The American Catholic commentator and biographer of John Paul II, George Weigel, recently described Ireland as the "epicentre of European anti-Catholicism".) Scrutiny and questioning of institutions is healthy, but the kind of relentless hostility the Church faces-- from journalists, politicians, teachers, university professors, comedians, rock musicians, and barstool philosophers-- comes close to villification.

George Weigel

Nor is the assault confined to the secular world. Self-described Catholics-- all too often, even priests-- attack the dogmas and truths that the Holy Spirit has revealed to its pilgrim Church over two thousand years of discernment, persecution and prayer. There is a widespread consensus amongst the chattering classes that the oldest institution in the world-- and one which has survived through fidelity to its mission and message-- must undergo radical change.

There are too few voices raised in loyalty to the teaching of the Church's Magisterium; so few, I feel justified in launching yet another blog into cyberspace. (Also, I can't believe nobody has named a blog Irish Papist yet.) In fact, the immediate stimulus was an RTE programme I heard mere hours ago, in which Charlie Bird interviewed various (carefully selected) Catholic commentators who all agreed that institutional change (oh deliciously vague word, change!) was imperative. The usual attacks upon the Vatican and the "clerical mindset" ensued.

The media, politics and the advertising industry are all dedicated to flattering their audience. The problem with voter apathy never lies with the voters, but with politicans. Advertisers tell us we "deserve" pampering with skin lotions or weekend breaks or visits to a beauty parlour. Even in everyday life, this mentality holds sway. If you admit that you are terrible at mathematics or history, your listener invariably assures you that "you must have had a bad teacher in school".

Similarly, if there is a problem with the Chuch, the blame must lie with the institutions-- not with the sinners, you and I, who perpetually fail to live up to our Christian vocations.

The humility of GK Chesterton-- who famously responded to a newspaper's request to write on the question "What's wrong with the world?" with the two words, "I am"-- seems conspiciously absent in our own society.

The idea in this blog is to provide a rapid and rolling response to the many attacks on the Church in Ireland. Will I have the time and patience to stick to that plan? To quote St. Paul, "I do not know; God knows". But I'm going to give it a go. I hope you join me for the ride, and don't hestitate to chip in!

Friday, September 17, 2021

Back to School

Not much time for blogging recently, as term has begun again in UCD and it's all systems go (to use one of my favourite clichés).

Once again I'm reminded of how lucky I am to work in a university library. Not only was it a safe job during the pandemic, when so many other people were losing theirs', but it fits my temper exceedingly well.

I love how self-contained a university is; a little society in itself. I always feel a frisson when I pass the gates with the three flags flying outside; the tricolour, the UCD flag, and the E.U. flag. (Although I'm an Irish nationalist I dislike the tricolour aesthetically, and conversely I like the E.U. flag aesthetically despite my Euroscepticism.)

A few days ago I wrote an article for the Burkean (an online journal run by students) entitled: "The Long Defeat: A Further Defence of Conservatism". You can read it here. It's part of an ongoing debate I've been having in the virtual pages of the Burkean. It originally began with my article In Defence of Conservatism, which appeared last November. In December, an article by one Donnachadh O'Neill. "Rebuking Conservatism", appeared as a counter-blast. Then, to my considerable surprise, my article was mentioned several times in an article that appeared nine months later, "Does Conservatism Pave the Way for Progressivism?", by Paul Gregory.

Both replies were quite stinging-- according to Mr. Gregory, my article "highlights the mental decay of a mind infected with the pernicious, debilitating, mind-virus of conservatism"!

I don't mind one little bit, though. I love this kind of back-and-forth. I love writing about writing, speech about speech. I love analysis and interpretation and exegesis and criticism and even, God help us, dialogue.

I suspect some of my readers might agree more with Mr. O'Neill and Mr. Gregory than with me. That's OK.

Finally, I've been watching (or half-listening to) BBC coverage of the 1970 General Election, which somebody uploaded to YouTube. Being both an anglophile and a lover of the seventies, it's fascinating to me. There's many, many points of interest, not least of which is a Labour candidate (Albert Roberts) who was an outspoken admirer of Franco!

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

On Cultural Catholicism

I haven't had much time to blog recently, so here is something I wrote for the Catholic Voice back in 2015. Reading over it now, I wonder if what I'm saying might be in tension with St. John Paul II's call for a "qualitative renewal", and St. Benedict XVI's appeal for Catholics to become a "creative minority." Anyway, here it is.

When we contemplate the future of the Irish Catholic Church, we might be tempted to despair. A tiny number of new priests are being ordained, congregations are dwindling, and young people in particular are absent from our churches. This week, I saw it calculated (on the Irish Catholic Forum, an internet resource worth visiting) that only one per cent of Irish people under the age of thirty-five are practicing, faithful Catholics.

I am myself, however, very hopeful about the future of the Church in Ireland. I am hopeful for many reasons; through witnessing the fervour and seriousness of the young Catholics that are out there; through a realisation that the Irish Church is going through a process of purification, after much of the insanity of the sixties, seventies, and eighties; through a recognition that much of the hostility towards the Church today is based on a reaction, and that reactions do not go on forever; most of all, through a belief that the Church teaches the truth about man and society, and that—though falsehood may fly around the world while the truth is putting its boots on, as the proverb goes—sooner or later people miss the truth, and crave it.

But while I am hopeful, I think there is nothing at all to be gained by denying the scale of the challenge. Most likely, the Irish Catholic Church of twenty years from now will be almost unrecognisable from the Church of today. We are facing a long winter—perhaps even persecution. I think it is very possible that none of us living today will see the end of this winter. (But, then, who knows the mysterious Providence of God?)

One temptation which I think is almost as dangerous as the temptation to despair is the temptation to a kind of sour grapes mentality. Perhaps we may also describe it as a ‘never mind the quantity, feel the quality’ mentality. This kind of reaction dismisses numbers and social influence as unimportant, and emphasises that the Kingdom of God is invisible, something that cannot be quantified or measured.

Now, the first thing to say is that this is strictly true. As Our Lord himself said: “The coming of the kingdom of God does not admit of observation and there will be no one to say, "Look, it is here! Look, it is there!" For look, the kingdom of God is among you.” Christianity can’t be measured by statistics.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that statistics are irrelevant. The most recent Pew Forum survey in America found that the number of self-declared Christians there has fallen by eight per cent in seven years. Although the great majority of Americans—seven in ten—are still Christians, I believe that this study is very bad news, and should be treated as such.

Too many Christians, reacting to such statistics, dismiss them as unimportant. Many Christian commentators respond that, as the surrounding culture becomes more hostile to Christianity, great numbers of ‘nominal Christians’ are simply dropping the pretence that they were ever Christian at all. There is no real change, according to this interpretation; merely a change in appearances.

C.S. Lewis, who was of course writing from an English perspective, said something similar in his essay “The Decline of Religion”:

“One way of putting the truth would be that the religion that has declined was not Christianity. It was a vague theism with a strong and virile ethical code, which, far from standing over against the ‘World’, was absorbed into the fabric of English institutions and sentiment and demanded churchgoing as (at best) a part of loyalty and (at worst) a proof of respectability….The decline of ‘religion’, thus understood, seems to me in some ways a blessing….The fog of ‘religion’ has lifted; the positions and numbers of armies can now be observed; and real shooting is now possible.”

This is one of those instances where, I believe, the great C.S. Lewis was wrong (even given his qualification “in some ways”.)

What is a nominal Christian, after all? Is it a Christian who says she is a Christian, but who doesn’t really believe in Christianity—who deliberately lies about her spiritual beliefs? Or is a nominal Christian someone who says she is a Christian, but who isn’t sure whether she really is one? Or is a nominal Christian someone who says she is a Christian, and who thinks she is a Christian, but isn’t actually a Christian?

I think we should be very slow to deny the name ‘Christian’ to anyone who claims it. After all, which of us can be sure we are not ‘nominal Christians’? “Not all who say to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven”. (Matthew 7:21). I have never been able to read (or hear) those words without a shiver.

I am not talking about heresy here. We can be very clear about heresy, and about the grave sinfulness of certain types of behaviour, without venturing to claim that those who fall into such heresies or sins are not Christians at all. Even while correcting them (where it is appropriate), I think we should gladly acknowledge them as brothers and sisters in Christ.

In Defence of Cultural Christianity

But this isn’t the only reason I think we should take the decline of ‘statistical Christianity’ or ‘cultural Christianity’ seriously, that we should lament it, and that we should fight against it—even if it’s a losing battle, for the moment.

Christianity is not an individualistic religion. We are not called to work out our own salvation, without regard to the spiritual welfare of the rest of society. We are told to be the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13), the lamp on a stand (Mark 4:21-25), the yeast that makes the whole batch of dough rise (Matthew 13:33).

As Saint John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Ecclesia in America: “The new Evangelisation calls for a clearly conceived, serious and well organized effort to evangelise culture.” Indeed, the need for ‘cultural evangelisation’ was a major theme of his pontificate.

In a purely pragmatic sense, I think it is desirable that Christianity is proclaimed as widely and as broadly as possible. It is easy to dismiss the practice of parents who are none-too-sure of their own spiritual beliefs dragging their reluctant children to Mass. It is easy to dismiss the plethora of rather wishy-washy Christian books that fill the shelves of Christian bookshops, and whose Christian content seems slight or negligible. It’s easy to be dismissive of saccharine Christian themes in film, TV and art. But I think this is a mistake.

A reluctant child who is dragged to Mass is having a spiritual experience. A seed is being planted. It may grow, or it may not. It could be argued that the experience is a bad experience and that it will turn the child against the Faith. But I simply don’t believe this. Just as people who are force-fed poetry in school usually end up appreciating it, I think that it is better for a child to encounter the gospel than not to encounter it—in almost any form.

Even today, Christianity enjoys an extraordinary prestige in our society. The figure of Christ is revered by believers and non-believers alike. The drama of Christ’s life is mirrored in innumerable novels, stage plays, movies, television shows, and popular songs. When tragedy strikes, communities and individuals turn to Christian rituals and Christian gestures for consolation. Christian virtues such as humility, forgiveness and a reluctance to judge—virtues that are in no way intuitively obvious—retain their influence, if only as ideals.

This ‘atmospheric’ Christianity, I would argue, is extremely important. Not only does it make it more likely that any individual will encounter the name and words of Christ, it also gives that name and those words a resonance that they might otherwise lack. To put it bluntly, I think that the ‘hype’ around Christ in our society is a rare example of good hype. The child who sees many people in his life failing—even failing dismally— to be good Christians is at least seeing those people trying to be Christians, or at least wanting to be Christians. How can he fail to be impressed by this? How can it fail to give the very thought of Christ a certain halo in his imagination?

As well as all this, I think that, though we may be disdainful of numbers, the Bible doesn’t seem to be. The parable of the mustard seed is often quoted as an endorsement of small beginnings, as indeed it should be. But it hardly seems to support a concentration on quality over quantity:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.” (Matthew, 13:31-32)

Abraham and the other patriarchs were promised that their descendants would outnumber the sands on the seashore. The Old and New Testaments both seem to envisage the coming of the Messiah as something world-changing, not only in an esoteric way but in a very literal way. Jesus tells us he has come to bring fire to the earth, and predicts: “From now on, a household of five will be divided: three against two and two against three; father opposed to son, son to father, mother to daughter, daughter to mother, mother-in-law to daughter-in-law, daughter-in-law to mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:52-53). Doesn’t it seem obvious from this that Christianity is not supposed to be a minority pursuit, but a burning public issue? Isn’t Pope Francis right to urge young Catholics to “make noise”?

Mary Kenny wrote an excellent book entitled Goodbye to Catholic Ireland. I don’t think that book’s title should describe our attitude. I think we should fight to retain as much of Catholic Ireland as we possibly can—and, even more importantly, work to bring about a new Catholic Ireland of the future. We are here to bring fire to the earth, not warm ourselves on a brazier of private faith.