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Into the 21st century ... what are the needs?

In July 2000 I surveyed Australian public libraries for their indicative strengths and limitations as assessed by theft librarians, using the same subjective approach as a 1999 survey of Finnish libraries. The first graph shows how Australian libraries compare with those in Finland, a country which supports its public libraries well, where the average loans per capita are 19, and where the membership of public libraries is about 80% of the population compared with about 50% in Australia. Perhaps that has something to do with those long Nordic winters--but perhaps not, as the Swedish average loans per capita is 8.9, similar to the Australian average.

It is salutary that Finland--home of Nokia--at a national level places such a high priority on investing in its public libraries. It also has an annual growth rate of 4%, a highly literate and educated population, large areas of sparse population and many small local authorities, one of the highest research investments as a percentage of GDP, and is one of the most internet connected countries in the world.

The space graph shows that lack of space, driven often by the needs of technology, and unattractive buildings are major challenges. Far too many public libraries, built or occupied in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, have shelves which are too high, too low and too close together, so that much stock is almost inaccessible to other than the tall and agile user. Too many public libraries are having to dispose of still useful resources because of lack of space. They are also now sometimes having to refuse funds to expand their technological provision because of lack of space. As Mark Latham notes in the second article in this issue, libraries `cannot afford to be tucked away in intimidating buildings or on obscure sites'.

Australia needs a surge in new and extended library buildings in the first decade of the 21st century. Every state and territory has examples of fine new public library buildings--visit yours to see what is possible. The most recent example in my home state of South Australia was opened in November. Citizens of the City of Burnside now have a fine, spacious and attractive library which serves as an examplar to local government and librarians throughout South Australia of what can be achieved with vision and persistence. Every new library building attracts at least 15 per cent more use. Old, unattractive and poorly located buildings constrain use, which presumably is not the wish of any local authority--a library, and its resources, is one of the very few things in this world which cannot ever be said to be overused.

There are clearly many needs to be met, and local government in particular needs to consider what action is needed to ensure that at the end of the 21 st century Australia's public library network remains among the world's top ten, where I assess it now to be.(*)

The message about the importance of public libraries is simply, and irrefutably, put

* Information, knowledge and lifelong learning issues will dominate in the 21st century

* The more citizens have access to information--and the information literacy to use it--that is relevant to local and national socioeconomic and political development, the more both will prosper

* Libraries and librarians are the lifeblood in managing access to information and education in its use

* The more libraries and librarians a country has, the better its information will be managed, made available, and used

* Public libraries are the only libraries readily available to most people

* Public libraries are therefore a national issue

* Public libraries are a unique testbed for civic values and citizenship

* The role of local and state governments in recognising and facilitating this is vital

At the end of the century there is much to celebrate in Australia, not least the living force of its public libraries as the agency to which more Australians have recourse than any other. The challenge of the 21st century is to ensure that living force is enabled to help all Australians achieve their full potential, as individuals and as contributors to the common wealth.

[GRAPHS OMITTED]

(*) Bundy, A How far they have come, how far they must go: Australia's public libraries at century's end How far have we come ... how far can we go? Proceedings of the public libraries national conference Perth 14-17 November 1999 Adelaide, Auslib Press 2000 pp245-259
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Article Details
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Author:Bundy, Alan
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2000
Words:727
Previous Article:The public librarian's guide to the internet.
Next Article:LIBRARIES IN THE 21st CENTURY LEARNING SOCIETY.
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