Valuable real estate

Green Square Library, Sydney

COVID has drawn attention to many things, including the way that nowadays libraries exist, and operate, not only in their physical spaces, but also very much online. However, not all their physical services and resources have digital counterparts, nor can they always be substituted with online counterparts that are completely equivalents. During the recent lockdowns and closures, libraries, especially public libraries, have provided their communities with as much continuity of service as they can, often coming up with creative workarounds. Kits have been assembled for children stuck at home, author talks have moved onto Zoom, reserved items have been offered via ‘click and collect’, and so forth. Yet our recent research into COVID and Australian public libraries suggests that people still missed visiting the library (and not just its website). Not everything in the physical collections can be made accessible online, and not all events readily translate into Zoom format (try hosting baby bounce on your laptop). More than that, though, some of the responses indicated that people were missing the actual act of going to the library, as well as the actual spaces that it offered them.

The importance of the physical library, particularly the physical public library, has been written about quite a bit. It ties in with sociological theories about the ‘third place’ (beyond the home and workplace), and concepts such as the ‘community living room’. People are attracted to library spaces for a variety of reasons—to contemplate, to congregate, to study, to play, and so on (if you’re an infant, to bounce, it would seem). Quite a number of these reasons are represented in public libraries’ official mission and vision statements. I have recently completed another study with some of my colleagues that’s been looking at a sample of these statements from across Australia. The idea of space and place came up a lot and was connected to functions such as social inclusion and community building, as well as learning, self-development, creativity, and a range of others. Public library spaces are clearly not there just to store books. Rather, they’re ‘inspiring spaces where everyone is free to discover possibilities’ or, slightly more specifically, spaces ‘to read, learn, create and discover’.

To follow up on this theme, we are presently surveying other public library users on what they’ve been missing about not being able to visit these physical spaces during the recent lockdowns. We have been deluged with responses, which must mean something! We’re aiming to report our findings to the State Library of New South Wales, which has funded this project, by the end of the year.

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