Are Australia’s new public libraries here for the long term?

#1202 Green Square Library

When I joined the School of Information studies at Charles Sturt University back in May 2019 I was intrigued to learn about the Study Visits that were run for students. These are week-long visits to an Australian city or region, with an itinerary packed with visits to interesting libraries and archives. As well as providing incredibly valuable learning opportunities for students, these visits also represent opportunities for lecturers to re-engage with practice, and see first-hand the work that information professionals are doing.

My first time leading a study a visit was for a trip to Sydney in September 2019. The Wednesday of that week featured a double-bill of fabulous new public libraries. In the morning we visited Woollahra Library at Double Bay, and in the afternoon the City of Sydney’s Green Square Library. Both are wonderful, innovative spaces, run by passionate librarians.

As impressive as these spaces are, I was left with a nagging doubt. I had just arrived in Australia from the UK, where I had spent the previous ten years watching the public library service being decimated by ever more violent funding cuts. The city in which I lived and worked – Sheffield – had seen libraries handed over to volunteers to run, while in many other places library branches were simply shut. New flagship libraries, such as the Library of Birmingham, had faced devastating cuts to operating budgets. In this context, seeing Sydney’s sparkling new libraries was inspiring, but also worrying. How sustainable are these developments?

At Green Square and Double Bay that day I asked librarians whether they had any concerns about their funding in years to come. The librarians were typically optimistic – they felt that the contributions their buildings and services made to communities were sufficiently valued, and embedded in longer-term city planning. But there clearly are concerns. The Renew our Libraries campaign, for example, has been successful in its goal to increase the level state funding for libraries in NSW, and is now campaigning to protect those funding increases.

This has led us to begin work a research project that will investigate public library infrastructure development in Asutralia. It will explore the purpose of the new libraries like Double Bay and Green Square, the processes that underpin their development, the funding models used to finance them, and the extent to which PL infrastructure developments are integrated with broader cultural/creative city strategies.

Dr Simon Wakeling

Public libraries post-COVID

While we continue to research the ways in which libraries are responding to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, we might do well to also consider what the situation will be like for libraries once the virus is finally brought under control. It’s unlikely to be the same. Clearly the measures that have been put in place in most countries across the world to ‘flatten the curve’ will have a lasting economic impact, the result of which will almost inevitably see increased pressure on public spending. Many countries’ economies are already entering a recession.

As it is, many public libraries are still reeling from the cuts that made due to the recessions instigated by the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) over a decade ago. The irony, however, is that it is during periods of economic downturn when public libraries are most needed and most used, particularly by those hardest hit. I was reminded of this when I came across Christine Rooney-Browne’s 2009 Library Review article, ‘Rising to the challenge: A look at the role of public libraries in times of recession by economic downturns.’ Although the cause of the recession that she was writing about (i.e. the GFC) was very different, her warnings and concerns for public libraries appear just as relevant in 2020. We will need to convince the powers-that-be, post-COVID, that libraries, especially public libraries, should be part of the recovery plan, rather than a line item to be deleted.

Rooney-Browne noted that ‘Public library authorities in the UK and USA … reported huge increases in visitor numbers, shifts in societal expectations, and demands for specific ‘‘job related’’ resources and services’ following the GFC. With many people losing their jobs and livelihoods as economic activity slows almost to a halt during lock-down, public libraries look set to see demand for a wide range of resources increase similarly in 2021. Back in 2009, the author also predicted, however, that public libraries ‘will be subject to ongoing review over the next few years as governments and local councils attempt to cut public spending.’ Unfortunately, these predictions came to pass in the 2010s, with UK libraries in particularly suffering numerous library closures and acute budget cuts. Will there be a ‘second wave’ in the 2020s?

Katoomba Public Library
Katoomba Public Library

Professor Philip Hider

Rooney‐Browne, C. (2009). ‘Rising to the challenge: A look at the role of public libraries in times of recession.’ Library Review 58 (5): 341-352.

Library resources provide experiences as well as information

Library cataloguers have spent a hundred plus years indexing the subjects of books and other resources, but paid relatively little attention to some other aspects, such as their genre. For example, the Library of Congress Subject Headings are pervasive in countless library catalogues, and have been since the first half of the last century, yet the Library of Congress Genre/Form Headings (LCGFT) were only established a few years ago, and are still something of a work in progress.

A series of studies I’m presently carrying out is assessing the applicability of the LCGFT by comparing them with other genre lists, and by comparing their use with that of other terms that have not yet made it into LCGFT. In one particular study, the use made by LibraryThing taggers of certain fiction genres listed in Wikipedia but not in LCGFT was compared with the use they made of those genres that are included in LCGFT. It was found that, on average, the non-LCGFT genres were used a lot more than were the LCGFT ones, with genres such as chick lit, pulp and hardboiled major omissions in terms of ‘user warrant’.

This raises the question of why cataloguers have been less keen on describing their resources in terms of genre, or at least certain genres. The paper I wrote for the International Society for Knowledge Organization (ISKO) conference, based on the study, suggests a few possible explanations. Of course, librarians could be reluctant to use terms that might be considered derogatory, though a lot of LibraryThing taggers appear to have fewer such inhibitions. But I think it goes deeper than this. Many of the missing genres, and many genres in general, relate to the experience a resource provides, more than to its content. Yet libraries have traditionally treated their resources objectively, leaving experience a matter for the user (or reader, in the case of fiction). This position of neutrality can be found in a lot of cataloguing literature, and explains why cataloguers focus on content and subjects: what a resource is about, rather than what it gives, or what it is for. In a postmodern world, however, especially one in which public libraries follow more inclusive (and popular) collection development policies, this focus may be too narrow and less helpful. The biennial ISKO conference has been postponed until 2022, but my paper will nevertheless be published in the ‘proceedings’ later this year!

Philip Hider

Special issue of the Journal of the Australian Library and Information Association

Prof Philip Hider has just written up a guest editorial for an upcoming issue of the Journal of the Australian Library and Information Association featuring some of the papers presented at the Fifteenth Australasian Conference on Research Applications in Information and Library Studies (RAILS), held on 28 and 29 October last year at St Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra. Philip was chair of the conference’s program committee, with the event being hosted by CSU’s School of Information Studies. The conference’s themes was ‘Towards critical information research, education and practice’, and if ever there was a time for a critical approach this is probably it, with so many competing messages being peddled by various powers around the world. Criticism begins at home, though, and there were a number of papers at the conference about how library services need to reach out more effectively to disadvantaged groups, and how librarians need to reflect not only on how they deliver their services, but also on why they do, and what their impact is (or is not).

A couple of the articles in the special issue are co-authored by LRG members. Jessie Lymn, together with Tamara Jones (a student in CSU’s Masters of Information Studies course), report on a survey they’re doing on student newspaper collections to be found in Australian university libraries, while Philip has written up the presentation he and Hollie White (Curtin University) gave on film genre vocabularies used by film institutes in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. A total of 39 papers were presented at RAILS 2019, with 60 delegates in attendance. Present circumstances might derail (no pun intended!) the plans for this year’s RAILS, which was going to be held at the Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand.

Libraries in Australian Juvenile Justice Facilities

Parkville Justice Centre sign

Dr Jane Garner

In late 2019, I undertook a unique study of the status of libraries in Australia’s juvenile justice facilities. The goal of the study was to discover how many libraries were in our juvenile justice facilities, how they were staffed, funded, and used by the young people living in correctional detention. As each facility houses a registered secondary college that all residents must attend, there was a particular interest in how these libraries were contributing to the education of detainees.

My preliminary findings identify that there are sixteen juvenile justice facilities in Australia, and of these, twelve provide some sort of library service to their residents. Of those twelve libraries, none are staffed by a person with library training, five are no more than a collection of books in a classroom, while the remaining seven have their own dedicated space. The collections of seven of the twelve libraries play a role in the educational programs of the facility, with that role ranging from the provision of reading materials for kids in ‘time out’ due to disruptive behaviour in class through to teachers and students accessing the collection for resources that are relevant to the classroom activities and lessons. 

I will be publishing my detailed findings of the current provision of library services to Australian children living in correctional detention along with a discussion of the value of libraries to user groups such as these in the near future.

Developing of digital literacy with libraries and digital technologies from an international perspective

COVID-19 has changed a lot of our lives, study and work ways and made us depend more on IT. At the same time, COVID-19 has exposed digital divide problems. User education and development of digital literacy are important missions of worldwide libraries, no matter if they are academic, special, school or public libraries. As librarians/educators, how can we face these changes and develop digital literacy for library users, by library user education and taking advantage of easy to use IT tools such as VR, drones and digital humanities tools.

Therefore, I have developed a research project named “Developing of digital literacy with libraries and digital technologies from an international perspective”. The aims of this research are to develop a learning model to improve the digital literacy of library users and to develop research partnerships with various libraries.   My contact: 

Dr. Helen Cheung