Opening the door: partnership issues in developing a public library learning service for all Australians.
The above exercise gives a simple, free, way to comprehend the risks associated with failing to innovate. Were the range of library service offerings to remain frozen, it would simply be a matter of time--and not a lot of it--before declining usage and loan statistics would be seen. Once we start to travel that path, it is a vicious circle of shrinking budgets and ever contracting opening hours, services, programs and materials.
To avoid this fate we need to encourage library stakeholders and senior decision makers to exhibit a trait which is too rare in the world: entrepreneurship and measured risk-taking. These can be scary words that run counter to the natural instinct to preserve and protect modest budgets and to husband every precious dollar. Yet when exercised properly, innovation through entrepreneurship can deliver both the change that is essential to a successful public library service and also the vibrancy of a truly dynamic and exciting workplace. Through strategies such as pilot programs and strategic partnerships, libraries can further mitigate some of the risks associated with innovation while ensuring they are positioned to enjoy the positive outcomes of their successes. The rest of this editorial addresses library innovation and entrepreneurship within the context of a new learning service called online tutoring that has gained in popularity in the last decade. It will also suggest ways for library leaders to develop partnerships with both the public and private sectors to expand their capacity to innovate and position themselves as core developers and providers of social capital in their communities. This is in the context that most public libraries do not appear to have a budget line for trialing new initiatives.
Australia's public libraries in fact perform remarkable work on what can only be described as generally shockingly inadequate budgets. For years we have all been aware of the state/local government cost shifting that has occurred, to the point where public libraries may rely on their local councils for 90 per cent or more of their annual budgets. As will become clear below, while it is remarkable what libraries have accomplished, it is possible they have done a disservice to themselves and their many users by giving funding bodies the impression they can make do with static, or even shrinking budgets. For a nation that is enjoying such remarkable longterm prosperity, surely Australia can afford to do much better.
In the early part of this decade I founded a company whose mission is to make one to one, online tutoring and study support available to all in Australia, regardless of their location or economic or social circumstances. This mission seemed a very good fit with the role of public libraries in their communities. Nearly a year later, in 2003, having found the source of a grant and assisted a library to apply for it, we launched the first online tutoring program in the southern hemisphere. Since that modest beginning, online tutoring has grown in awareness and popularity. Today more than 250 public library services across Australia offer the service and thousands of people are logging in every week for live, one to one, learning support in core academic subjects--English, maths, and science.
In the process Australia's libraries have also discovered some of the important side benefits of such innovation. Public launch events have attracted a range of local, state, and national figures--including a former prime minister--as well as prominent coverage in print, radio, and television. This should be nothing but good news for libraries as their communities become aware of a valuable new service, and the halo effect of this publicity generates increased library membership, loans, and other positive outcomes. But is it good news?
Many of the libraries that are running the most successful online tutoring programs are discovering that running a pilot program is the easy part. Sourcing recurrent funding within constrained budgets is more challenging. But the greatest challenge is dealing with an innovation which is experiencing strong demand growth, thus making a greater claim on budgets. This is the case for two reasons. First, few public libraries in Australia seem able to expect reasonable and consistent year on year budget increases from their local councils and state governments. Secondly, given their focus on organising and storing information, the reallocation of funding from low usage resources and toward new offerings runs counter to the instincts of many librarians.
One alternative in this conundrum is for library managers to cast their gaze beyond their traditional funding sources to local and regional enterprises--both public and private--and to establish symbiotic partnerships. Few Australian public libraries consider the fact that local businesses--the community bank, the local factory that employs a large portion of the community, and media--may have strong reasons for wanting to support important local initiatives. Moreover, many of these organisations have existing foundations and/or fundraising efforts that are continually seeking ways to engage large portions of the community in meaningful, positive interactions. Note that currently the major part of this funding--and it is many millions of dollars--supports local sporting initiatives: a new football or cricket ground, an upgrade of existing sports facilities, and local team sponsorships. Though they serve much broader sections of their communities, public libraries tend neither to seek nor receive a portion of this funding pool.
Here is an example of local corporate sponsorship from my hometown. It involves the primary school, not the library. Every year a local real estate agency sponsors a fun run that is part of a fundraiser for the school. The agency establishes its profile with a large portion of the families in the community, while making significant financial and in kind contributions to the school. For the school, this partnership is essential to the success of the run, which is part of the school fete and attracts more than 1,000 participants each year.
What does a library have to offer, in which a local business might be interested? First, we may not think about it but few, if any, public institutions have as much community goodwill as the local library. Moreover, as the largest voluntary member agencies in Australia, public libraries reach a far wider audience than any other institution. Providing visibility and community goodwill to businesses can be of great value, as the sponsor of the fun run above would testify. Providing a public 'thank you' to the organisation, in the form of a launch event, media awareness, and even signage or cobranding of the relevant materials or service, are all valuable returns for an investment.
Before the inevitable cries of concern about commercialising what should be a not for profit environment, let us think for a moment about similar public institutions that garner substantial private financial support. I am thinking here of state libraries and museums. In New South Wales, for example, the Moran Company, which runs nursing homes, sponsors a photography exhibit and competition each year. At most state art galleries across Australia, corporate sponsors underwrite the major exhibitions. In other instances, they may give their name to a new wing or refurbished area of a building. These are partnerships on a large scale. They should serve as a model of what public libraries can accomplish with smaller, local initiatives. They should also embolden libraries to follow their big cousins by supplementing budgets when funding authorities cannot or will not.
There is another type of partnership that should also be considered that has the potential to be more enduring, of deeper significance for, and of greater impact on Australia's libraries. I am referring here to interdepartmental partnerships at the state government level. In the case of educational and learning support services provided by public libraries, it would seem obvious that state departments of education should have a stake in their provision and success. Online tutoring, for example, has proved engaging and meaningful to public libraries because students arrive en masse at public libraries after school each day with homework to complete. In fact, about 30 per cent of all visits to public libraries are made by children and teenagers.
In spite of the above, it is at this stage unprecedented for state/territory departments of education to provide financial support to state and public libraries to assist in the provision of learning services to their students. Of course it is not due to the lack of interest by state libraries in developing partnerships. It appears that state/territory departments of education have little interest in, and less concern for, the mission of public libraries as the community's free and accessible source of learning support for all. At least three state libraries and one territory library have asked for assistance in opening doors at their department of education to source partnership funding to improve their provision of support for students.
In spite of their interest, I am aware of no such partnerships to date. It is worth asking just what it would take to establish such relationships. State/territory libraries need to take a more political approach to the challenge if they hope to see success. This means that we, as state and public library advocates, need to support dialogue at the ministerial level between the ministers for the arts and education. It is only at this level that entrenched bureaucratic and institutional interests may be superseded by identified needs of constituents and customers. If we can identify ways the minister responsible for our state/territory library service can communicate effectively with the minister responsible for the provision of public education, then we can hope for a partnership where education interests across state government can work together to deliver a unified collection of services to young adults and their families. At the end of the day this should be the goal, because it is tragic and wasteful that historical divisions of responsibility at the state government level can result in failure to meet the full educational needs of future generations.
Let us take this public advocacy role a step further. While it would be wonderful to have working partnerships with state/territory departments of education, perhaps a better question to ask is, why does not the national government make a contribution to the support of state/territory and public libraries? Australia is unusual among its OECD peers in providing no direct support at the federal level for state and public library services. This in itself is astounding. For a nation that has enjoyed the prosperity that Australia has had for the better part of the past two decades, it is outright embarrassing. The public libraries of New Zealand, the US, Canada, UK and some of the European Union are ahead of Australia in terms of library funding and consequently facilities, materials, services, and programming.
There is no constitutional, commonsense or lack of capacity reason why the current meagre c$600 million that is spent annually on Australia's public libraries--about $30 per person per year, or just eight cents a day--should not now be matched by a national government contribution. The main reason why libraries have not received their due from Canberra is that they have not consistently asked for it. From peak bodies down, we need a focused and concerted effort to raise awareness in Canberra of the value of public libraries in all Australia. The Australian Library and Information Association, Public Libraries Australia and National & State Libraries Australasia should be taking the lead, but we can all write letters, talk to local federal members of parliament, ask questions, and in general make the voice of the 60% of the population who use and value their libraries, heard. There is a window of opportunity in the national dialogue about education that is currently taking place. Australia's public libraries are at real risk of missing out on their needed place at the education and learning table.
At the same time that the federal government may now be considering a national trust fund that would in part support infrastructure projects for public libraries, the sad but unsurprising news out of Sydney is that the NSW state government--for the fourth year--has cut public library funding by over 4% (or about $1 million) for the 2007/08 financial year. Taking a broader perspective, since 1980 that state's contribution to public libraries has dropped from close to 24% to less than 7%. This at the same time that New South Wales has restricted the ability of local councils to increase rates to deal with this major cost shifting.
How, it is worth asking, have the public library advocates in NSW allowed this sort of budget cutting to happen over the course of a generation? For those in New South Wales it would seem obvious that it is time for a major change of strategy. There have been rumblings that if this trend continues local councils may refuse the low state subsidy, ignore the Library Act of 1993 and begin to offer library borrowing access on a fee for service only. This represents a type of ultimatum which requires an assertive public campaign to draw attention to the great social good that public libraries deliver, combined with a lobbying effort that draws upon the millions of library members across Australia. One thing we all know politicians have a hard time ignoring are letters and the signatures on petitions--especially when they arrive in the tens of thousands on petitions to state parliaments, as happened very effectively in South Australia several years ago.
I have attempted to address the issue of local and state level library partnerships within the context of provision of a service for young people of which I have particular knowledge. However there is little doubt that the lessons learned and issues described above can be applied to the full range of services across the mission objectives of Australia's public libraries. Whether we are considering services for infants, early readers, students, older adults, or any demographic in between, public libraries and their advocates at the local, state and national levels need to increase their willingness to engage the public and private sectors to achieve worthwhile goals.
It is long past time when libraries could sit quietly in the knowledge that public libraries arc fulfilling an essential public role without taking responsibility for ensuring that the broader community and its political representatives are informed about and recognise public libraries as the learning agencies, value creators and sources of social capital that they unequivocally arc.
Guest editorial Jack Goodman
Jack Goodman is managing director of Tutoring Australasia tel (02)99062700 email firstname.lastname@example.org www.yourtutor.com.au
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|Publication:||Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2007|
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