Opening Address: SWITCH 2013 NSW Public Libraries Conference

Jan Barham’s Opening Address delivered at SWITCH 2013: Creating Libraries for our Communities, Monday 25th November 2013, Australian Technology Park, Redfern.

Good morning. Thank you Uncle Chicka for your Welcome to Country; I acknowledge that we are meeting on the land of the Gadigal people and pay respect to elders past and present. I’m from Arakwal country of the Bundjalung nation and I will tell you of the important connection the Arakwal people have with my local library shortly.

Thank you for inviting me to speak at your “Creating Libraries for our Communities “conference, I am very pleased to do so as I am a library lover and a long term member of my local Friends of the Library.

I am, however, disappointed that I am unable to be here for the conference as this week is the last week of the Legislative Council sitting. I have looked at the agenda and there are some very exciting presentations and discussions about the fantastic work happening in libraries and the ways they can meet community needs in the future.

Since coming into the NSW Parliament in 2011, as the Greens spokesperson for the Arts I’ve taken up the cause of advocating for the State Government to increase its support for public libraries.

There is no doubt about the importance of libraries , with 376 public libraries in NSW, 142 in metropolitan NSW and 234 in country areas and they are essential community hubs.

Key indicators of public library use show that the public are highly valued by their communities. 2012 figures show:

  • almost 35 million visits to NSW public libraries (up 30% since 2000);
  • almost 48 million loans;
  • over 3 million internet hours used by the public;
  • almost 3.2 million library members (44% of the NSW population);
  • more than 52,000 public programs and events; and
  • more than 1.2 million people attended public programs (up 38% since 2008).

There’s a quote attributed to Albert Einstein about the importance of libraries: “The only thing you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.”

But the unfortunate reality for libraries is perhaps the fact that they are sometimes taken for granted. It’s often not until a library may be lost or services are proposed to be cut that communities take a stand to protect and preserve these wonderful resources in our communities and on this they are united.

Like many people I have fond memories of my childhood spent in my local library. In my home there were few books, no TV and little discussion and my introduction to my library and the wonderful world of books was powerful. I loved the coolness and the quietness and the opportunity to discover the world.

When I moved to my home area of Byron Bay, I spent a lot of time in the library, I wanted to know the history of the area and find out who and what was going on in my new community. At that stage the library adjoined the council chambers in the middle of Byron Bay but the council decided to sell the building. It is now a backpacker hostel and shops. But what happened was that all the money went into building a new chamber in Mullumbimby and a replacement library site was not allocated. A temporary location was provided, a very small building of only 130sqm. That temporary location remained for 16 years. But I was one of many who was committed to a new library for the Bay.

In 1999 I was elected to council and joined the library committee. By then the council was broke and there were some who believed that with the new technology age that books and therefore libraries were not needed.

As this attitude was gaining momentum with the elected body and staff I attended a conference at Qld Uni Ipswich library, with the Director of Community Services. It was fantastic; it provided a new insight into the role of libraries and the Director became an advocate and planning for the new library proceeded. We just needed a site, and this is where the Arakwal people came into it. My community had been supporting the native title claimants for many years in their negotiations with the State regarding their ILUA and it was the Elder, Aunty Lorna who, being aware of the importance of libraries, asked me if we discuss how we could provide a site through their claim. So it began and now the Byron Bay community has a prominent location in the town, for the new library.

I was honoured to open it in February of this year, a few months after I finished my term of council. So my commitment to libraries comes from many years of struggling to ensure that my legacy was the delivery of that most important public facility. I am very proud of that.

It took many years but is now flourishing as it not only features a large, 1200sqm library space but also features an exhibition space, 2 meeting rooms and a dedicated Arakwal Aboriginal room for their archives and meetings. It is also a 5 star green building.

The meeting rooms are for general community use and learning opportunities, as partnerships with local educational institutions were part of the planning to enhance the library activities. The way the new Byron Library is configured, and the opportunities it offers to the community, is a prime example of the changing nature of libraries. I love the fact that these days, there are also quiet rooms as the general spaces are vibrant and active.

People’s perceptions about libraries are changing because libraries as we know them are changing. Libraries are a fundamental part of the educational and cultural vibrancy of community, providing lifelong learning and opportunities for social interaction. People used to go to libraries for the quiet environment and for studying, but their function and structure have now changed. The old-fashioned idea of a library as a place for quiet reflection and study has turned into one of community vibrancy with access to technology, discussion, interaction, exhibitions and sometimes performance.

Libraries are safe places in our communities. They bring together and celebrate the diversity of our communities and provide opportunities for the sharing of ideas and cultural difference. They provide resources to those who have special needs and have expanded their role with the benefit of technology, the provision of e services are especially important for those who cannot physically attend a library, the aged and disabled, also my portfolio areas. I am also very interested in the session from Waverley about the needs of the homeless; this is also a portfolio area of mine and I applaud you for this consideration.

I expect that the high value of library services to our communities is apparent to everyone in this room, but research evidence to help make the case to government and policy-makers is always helpful. Fortunately the benefits that come from libraries were quantified in March of this year, in a report commissioned by the Australian Library and Information Association and conducted by SGS Economics and Planning.

That report, titled “National Welfare & Economic Contributions of Public Libraries,” estimated the net contribution public libraries make to community welfare, as well as the economic activity induced by public library operations.

The benefits of public libraries that they identified include not only the services and programs made available by libraries, but:

  • the social interaction they facilitate,
  • the sense of place and enhanced local amenity,
  • the environmental savings generated through re-use of library collections,
  • contributions to language and computer literacy, and
  • the contribution of libraries to improved education, career development and health outcomes.

The cost benefit analysis in that report estimated that here in NSW, the annual cost of public libraries is just over $335 million, but the benefits they contribute are more than $1 billion. In other words, the report concluded that every dollar spent on public libraries delivers a community benefit of around $3.20. And the authors noted that the estimate might be conservative, because their estimates didn’t fully capture the community benefit from libraries’ increasing online presence. The report’s analysis of economic activity estimated that NSW libraries support almost 12,000 jobs across the state and add nearly one and a half billion dollars in economic activity.

Despite these economic benefits, the burden of supporting public libraries has increasingly fallen on local government. In 1979-80 State Government funding through the Ministry of Arts was 23.6 per cent of overall funding for maintenance of library services, but that has been reduced to 7.5 per cent. The base subsidy rate prescribed in the regulations has remained at $1.85 per capita since 1997 – that’s 16 years without any change to reflect increases in the consumer price index. We know that wages, superannuation and the demand for new resources have led to service cost increases. But we all know its money well spent.

As well as these state-wide figures, this year I have begun communicating with all councils across the state to find out more about their experience of the costs and challenges associated with fostering their communities through library services.

There has been incredible feedback. Councils have responded with information about their funding arrangements, their increasing need to pursue grant funding and the challenges as they continue to focus on delivering relevant services for their local communities. I made available a parliamentary petition and have been receiving bundles of signatures from all over the state, which I have tabled in the Legislative Council.

Last year I placed a motion on the notice paper in support of libraries and last month it was debated and received support from members of all political persuasions. If you want to hear your elected representatives, not only from the Greens but from the Liberal, National, Labor and Christian Democratic Parties discussing their own experience of libraries and their commitment to support them, I encourage you to read the Legislative Council Hansard from Thursday, 24th October of this year.

It’s welcome to have political recognition of the importance of libraries and I hope that will translate into improved funding – something I will continue to campaign for, and which I know the NSW Public Library Associations will continue to make the case for and I encourage all of you to continue to campaign for this much needed funding increase. I believe that libraries are an investment in the future, not just in learning and education but in social capital.

It’s important to take stock of the great work our libraries are already doing and the services they are delivering to our communities, which are often especially important to the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people within those communities.

And we need to examine the evolving challenges facing the library sector. Rather than diminishing in importance as technological advances and the rise of the internet have allowed people to access information from their own homes, or even from their mobile phones, libraries have become a crucial hub for people to access that technology, to get additional benefits out of it, and to engage with knowledge, education and social participation.

The program for this conference is an exciting one that covers these current practices and future opportunities. I’m sure that you have an engaging and productive two days ahead of you, and that you will leave here even better equipped to support your communities through your libraries, now and into the future.

I thank you all for your dedication to libraries and your communities and for important work that you do in providing these vital facilities. There has been so much change in the last 20 years and there will be so much more because as the world changes, so do libraries.

Their relevance will not be diminished, they will adapt and in many cases provide new and changing services that serve the wellbeing of communities.

I will continue to advocate for additional library support and next year I hope to do a tour of libraries, so I will be making contact about when I might come and visit. Also, don’t hesitate to make contact if you have a library issue or an event.

I am delighted to declare the SWITCH 2013: Creating Libraries for our Communities conference open. Thank you.