Libraries are about democracy, not just books
By Christie Nieman
9 October 2018
Libraries Work! a research report released last month, demonstrates that every dollar invested in Victorian public libraries generates more than four times that value in benefits to the local community.
Yet some writers and politicians have failed to recognise this and, further, have failed to understand what public libraries do. If we allow ourselves to indulge in nostalgic middle-class ideas of quiet places and well-stuffed bookshelves, then we have failed to understand them too. In fact, we have endangered them.
Certainly, once upon a time, a public library was a collection of books. But it was never only that. The mission of a public library is, and always was, to allow whole community access to knowledge, information, literature, and cultural participation. Every single day, your public library aims to provide something necessary or enriching – for free – for you and every individual in its locality. It aims to do this even for those who never darken its door, just in case one day they do. A public library is an instrument of democracy. Its mission is access for all, no one left behind.
Everywhere, public librarians like myself struggle against a misapprehension of what we do. We attempt at every turn to counter a pervasive idea that libraries are nice middle-class havens, a temple of books, not only because its spread keeps the most vulnerable from our door, but because it mistakenly renders a public library as a non-essential service.
Of course libraries can be a temple of books. I love nothing more than a well-stocked bookshelf and a leather armchair, but if, like me, you are into that sort of thing, you probably have the benefit of a literate upbringing. You were probably never in danger of being left behind. But we need to be careful of our romantic mistake, because a “temple of books” can be a very easy target for those looking to cut costs.
Right now debt-ridden shires in Britain are decimating their public libraries to save funds and, in our own backyard, a current bill before Victorian State Parliament throws into the air the funding model of regional public libraries.
Recently I watched one of our regulars waiting outside our regional library as he does every morning, sitting on his walker with a pile of books nested snugly inside it. He is always on his own and always spends only a few minutes inside at opening time, returning one pile of Western paperbacks and selecting a new pile. He doesn’t say much, smiles only a little and nods briefly. He always wears the same clothes and they are far from new and clean.
I imagined him going home afterwards, feeling slightly different for having been somewhere and for having someone behind a desk treat him well. I imagined him sitting at home with his new books, losing himself in the story, thinking all the complicated thoughts that every reading experience entails.
This is possible because we had something at the library just for him. And we had it for free.
This man’s experience will not transfer from a public library to buying books from Amazon, no matter how cheap they are – a suggestion briefly espoused in Forbes magazine online as an alternative to public libraries. Quickly removed, the fact that this story was able to be published at all reflects how common the “collection of books” attitude is in certain circles.
And I have experienced this attitude myself.
These days access and full participation is simply not possible without some level of digital literacy. Teaching this skill has become fundamental to the age-old library mission. Daily, I teach older people and new arrivals how to use email and show people from all walks of life how to scan their documents, search for jobs, submit online forms to Centrelink. Yet recently, when we installed a Children’s Play and Learn screen, we were given some significant push-back from an educated, vocal few.
I have sympathy for this reaction – parents’ concerns about children’s overuse of digital media at home are understandable, even laudable. But the assumption that all children have too much access to high-quality interactive digital play at home is a fantasy, and those who are lucky enough to have such access need to remember that libraries are not there only for them. To think anything different is the same attitude that says libraries are obsolete and we can all just buy ebooks now.
Not by mistake is “Libraries Change Lives” the name of the new Public Libraries Victoria Network campaign – a slogan for a collaborative effort to educate people about libraries and ensure they are well funded, now and far into the future.
Libraries need to be protected. By all of us, for each other. And and we need to remember that libraries are not just nice, they are necessary.
Christie Nieman is an author, essayist and playwright as well as a library officer specialising in the early childhood years.