Ask a Librarian: Why Australian libraries matter
Librarians reflect on the personal, social, and political importance of libraries to Australian society.
Connor Borchard-Burns, Library Officer, Yarra Libraries
I’ve been working in libraries since I was sixteen – so they’re where I feel most at home! More than anything, I think libraries are just the most wonderful gateway to other worlds. Having access to books for free is something we can take for granted if you’ve grown up in libraryland, but it never fails to amaze me that so many people still don’t realise just how much libraries have to offer, and for the most part, there is never any fee associated.
As a queer teenager, my local library was a haven for me to be able to read queer fiction that I would never have got my hands on otherwise. I could do this with my own library card, without anyone ever needing to know. And it’s my absolute privilege to be able to be the librarian that can put queer fiction into kids’ hands today. It helps that there is so much more of it commercially available now! The range of ebooks and audiobooks that you can now access through your library membership astounds me too. I’m a recent convert to eReaders, and am always proselytising about cancelling your expensive, evil Audible account and just joining your library! I also think that libraries are incredibly important because we are one of the last truly public spaces – anyone can come into a library, spend time with us, use our facilities, without ever being expected to spend any money. We offer such a wide range of services for jobseekers, people in transitional or unhoused living circumstances, people without aircon or heating at home – you name it, we’re pretty much always there to help. Librarians aren’t just book experts – we’re de facto social workers.
Siobhan Dennis, Acquisitions Librarian, Vision Australia Library
Social isolation is a problem that is exploding across society as a whole, and libraries are at the forefront of reducing its impact. I truly believe that librarians can move mountains if given the opportunity; the way so many libraries pivoted immediately during COVID lockdowns in order to continue servicing their communities showed the enormous ingenuity and social commitment of our profession.
The Vision Australia Library is unique in that we are a national service delivering our content almost entirely remotely. Our audio content is delivered entirely digitally, and our Braille collection almost all by mail, with a slowly increasing demand for digital Braille. This means that we rarely see our library members face to face, yet we still develop long, ongoing relationships with many borrowers.
We recognise that social isolation is a constant issue amongst our members, many of whom are older, often living with disability, and not as able to get out and about as many in their cohort. We are committed to increasing social inclusion through online and telephone based book clubs, author talks, and other events in both the physical and online space. We also support our borrowers as our technology changes – recently, one library member who is over 100 years old happily transitioned to a new digital device, with support from a staff member over the phone.
Rochelle Armstrong, Project Officer, Indigenous Engagement, National Library of Australia
In my view libraries play a large part in creating communities. They open doors. From the homeless who come in for shelter or to use the internet for things like job applications, checking emails, or just wanting to read, to our academic writers who are examining important unpublished collections available nowhere else which they will turn into articles or books. To teenagers studying or catching up, to children with their parents having a day out. As a librarian I love to see what my library is doing but also what other libraries are doing, especially small public libraries who more and more offer multiple avenues for their communities to interact.
I also appreciate the way so many offer advice to numerous readers on vast amounts of genres with respect to their patrons’ different wants and needs without judgement and often with vast amounts of joy. Personally, I have always enjoyed the feeling of helping someone find something they will love, or to fill a gap in their research whether personal, such as family history, or professional or academic – from primary students to academics to authors.
As an Indigenous librarian I also love the work libraries are doing in this space and the larger space of working with diverse populations. I especially love some of the work being done between libraries and Community. Libraries also seem to be more and more looking at how ICIP (Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property) rights impact their own collections. As well as the day to day work of collecting great works by Indigenous authors and fantastically serving their own diverse patrons Indigenous and Non-Indigenous.
Antoinette Buchanan, Assistant Director Libraries ACT, ACT Heritage Library
Libraries add value to both readers and writers. Readers can use library collections to explore the works of many different authors, allowing them to stretch their book buying budgets but also to extend their authors and genres that interest them. And when they do find an author new to them, library collections are a way to enjoy back catalogues of works.
Libraries are also the guardians of stories. Heritage and Local Studies collections preserve the works of local authors and of local communities. And they are kept within the geographic and social context that created them. There is something very powerful in the sense of belonging such archives promote. This is utterly consistent with the work of the Stella in promoting the work of Australian women and non-binary authors. Our stories matter.
Tania Schafer, Librarian – Collection Engagement, Queensland Memory | Content and Client Services, State Library of Queensland
Libraries matter because education cannot commence without information.
Information tells us our past, to prepare ourselves for the future, and libraries as information providers play a vital part in providing evidence to researchers to cease the repeat of past actions of discrimination – to make Australia a lucky country for all Australians.
Indigenous history is a contemporary issue, for an ancient culture, that is inundated with repetitive oxymoronic propaganda stereotypical responses that are not based on facts, thus requires evidence and time to remove the indoctrinated beliefs. This can be accomplished with new technology and access to sharing resources held in the library repositories which provide an understanding of history, to enrich all Australians’ lives.
Catherine Clark, Chief Executive Officer and State Librarian, State Library of Western Australia
Libraries are still one of our most egalitarian of public institutions. Everyone is welcome no matter what your level of educational attainment, social or cultural background, or level of wealth. They are somewhere you can visit all day without cost and without question about what it is you are doing there. Everyone is free to explore, discover, and connect.
Libraries support life-long education, enterprise, and recreation. For the past 16 years the State Library of Western Australia has been working with local governments and child health professionals to deliver the Better Beginnings Family Literacy Program to all Western Australian families with children from newborns to kindergarten age. More than one million packs have been distributed supporting parents and carers to be their children’s first educator in sharing stories and the joy of reading. The program also introduces families to their local public library as a place to nurture their life-long reading journey.
State Libraries and our National Library are important stores of our nation’s contested history. The State Library of Western Australia has been collecting published and unpublished private documents for more than 125 years. Our historic collection materials mainly represent a colonial view. We are now working to ensure all voices, especially those of Indigenous people, are represented in our collections.
When it comes to keeping things, libraries are rather good at it. Mainly because generally paper lasts a long time. In libraries, when we talk about long-term generally it means 500 years. Our paper-based collections will be fine for the long-term as long as we keep them in a stable environment. However, digital information becomes at-risk over time due to deterioration of the item itself or the lack of equipment to play/view/read obsolete formats. With the explosion of digital information that libraries need to store and make accessible for the long-term these issues are a real challenge.
Personally, I think the best thing about libraries are people, the people who use them and the people who work in them. We are a community on a quest for knowledge, understanding and enjoyment. Libraries will always work tirelessly to be an essential part of the community. That’s why we are important.
Karys McEwen, Library Manager, Prahran High School
Libraries matter because they’re for everyone. There isn’t a single librarian who isn’t passionate about making sure their shelves are filled with accessible, inclusive material for all. Reading or engaging with stories is something that everyone deserves, and libraries are vital to making that happen. In my library, I try to make sure I have resources for kids who are strong readers and very engaged in the world of literature, as well as something for those who have never picked up a book before, or have challenges that mean reading doesn’t come easily. And of course, something for everyone in between, too. Libraries also create an important sense of community and a physical hub for many people. They’re safe havens.
Jane Cowell, CEO, Yarra Plenty Regional Libraries (YPRL)
Public libraries strengthen communities and build social capital by providing safe places where all are welcome, access is free, and there are no judgements. People sit and read the newspaper, students do homework alone or in groups, community groups and clubs use library meeting rooms, people work on their laptops in quiet spaces, or sit and read in our comfy arm chairs. The libraries are warm in winter, cool in summer, staffed by people who are there to help, and offer a vibrant place where things are happening and you feel you belong.
Not only do libraries promote reading, support families, and conduct literacy programs, we are also trusted guides to the world of information – helping people to develop skills in navigating and accessing the information they need. The library also plays an important role as the ‘new town square’ where communities connect with one another, find out what is happening locally, and get referrals for specific community support or help. And we also connect readers to that ‘book’ – the right one for them – sometimes challenging them and always supporting them in their reading journeys.
In the words of Umberto, a 92-year-old YPRL library member: “At 92, I live each day one by one, because you never know what to expect, but I am always telling everyone, ‘Go to the library, it is where you learn and it saved my life’”. Simply put, Libraries Change Lives as they provide an inclusive forum and support for expression, creativity and cultural identity no matter which postcode you come from. And they provide a place where human connection is promoted which saves lives.
Jenny Mustey, Librarian Services Manager, Campaspe Library
Libraries continue to provide safe and accessible places and spaces for everyone. What I truly love about public libraries is that you can decide how you wish to ‘be in that space’ – either on your own for quiet solitude, reflection, browsing or study or to be with others for an event, a regular activity, class, club or to meet an author or two. There is no expectation, no demands and there doesn’t always have to be a transaction or interaction, but trained and supportive staff are there to assist with reading suggestions, technology assistance, and everything else in between.
My library service is based in regional Victoria and we love bringing authors to our communities as much as possible. We often work with our neighbouring services to bring an author up for a regional tour. For the past eight years we have celebrated International Women’s Day by featuring a range of Australian woman writers through public speaking events and writers’ workshops. We love being able to connect our readers with writers.
Meredith Erbacher, Librarian, Libraries Tasmania
Now more than ever, our libraries are helping to ensure that everyone, irrespective of means, can ‘explore their diverse social and cultural histories and interests’. Libraries are unique cultural institutions. They curate diverse collections, inclusive of different perspectives and provide spaces that are welcoming and accessible. They fulfil training and education roles and are incredibly responsive to change. They actively support local, emerging authors in gaining a readership by hosting talks and purchasing their work for the collection. They are the keepers of cultural heritage by holding editions of ‘out of print’ books. They incite literary discourse by hosting book groups and offering these groups titles beyond the bestseller mainstream. Their collections are responsive to client request. The list goes on.
Joy, Library Officer, City of Burnside Library
Libraries do indeed matter, and we saw that very much when forced to close in 2020. I personally talked to many people that were virtually in tears at being unable to visit, as they saw the library as a sanctuary. Of course, not everyone has the ability to purchase many books, and having access to free resources is essential in having an informed society. I once served a woman who had been through trauma – her daughter had taken her life a few years earlier. This woman became housebound due to grief, and her very first venture out in the world was the library.