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Public libraries: building social capital through networking.

To be relevant and vital to their communities public libraries must do more than employ the latest technology and provide a wide range of resources and services. They also need to offer opportunities to build the social capital framework and allow all people equal access to those opportunities. This requires building networks and partnerships with the business community, other government agencies, schools, community agencies and the population served. Library staff should seek local opportunities to become involved in networks leading to those partnerships. Edited version of 'Building social capital through networking: how public libraries can be more than repositories of information '. This paper was awarded the 2005 Jean Arnot Memorial Fellowship


The role of the public library is an evolving one. We have moved from the early colonial days of subscription libraries, through the schools of arts and mechanics' institute libraries, to the largely local government funded public libraries of today. These libraries range from 1950s buildings with parquetry floors and timber shelving to modern buildings designed on retail technology principles and sited in shopping centres. Libraries no longer simply offer access to physical items located on shelving but give their clients internet access to information anywhere in the world. This process of change has enabled libraries to maintain visibility in their communities. It is time, however, that librarians looked beyond simply keeping pace with technology and considered the broader picture of the public library's relevance to its community.

As Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue in the 1998 Australian Library Week Oration stated
 It is critically important that librarians--modern
 custodians of knowledge--take the time to think about
 issues of equity, access and representation, and who and
 what is represented in physical collections and online (1)

If we are to take the issues of equity, access and representation seriously we will need to rethink the way we operate our services. Not only do we need to make sure that what we purchase or subscribe to, whether in physical or electronic format, meets these criteria but we also need to ensure that our community is aware of, and able to make use of, those resources. We also need to look beyond the concept of librarians as custodians of knowledge to librarians as facilitators in a knowledge society. In communities where access to the knowledge society is blocked by illiteracy, information illiteracy, high levels of languages other than English, exclusion and poverty, librarians need to be even more creative in their facilitator's role. No matter how well rounded, balanced,and up to date collections may be, if large portions of the community cannot access them libraries are not offering an equitable service.

Dr Robert S Martin in his speech at the Unesco High Level Symposium in December 2003 commented
 Today, global prosperity and individual productivity
 depend upon the ability to learn constantly, adapt to
 change readily, and to evaluate information critically. In
 this information rich world, we must remain committed
 to fair and equitable access, and we must create and
 facilitate ways to transform information into knowledge (2)

So, how can we ensure that communities can access the resources and services that we have available? How can we ensure that we are responsive to, and representative of our communities actual, as opposed to perceived, needs? We need to identify the various ways that library services can partner with their communities to bring about better outcomes for all.


The thought of attending extra meetings may well bring a sense of dread to the busy professional. Yet judicious attendance at meetings is a critical factor in building worthwhile partnerships. Most government bodies, at local, state and federal level, belong to a wide range of networks and interagency meetings. It is worth looking at the range of networks available in the local area and choosing strategically to be involved in those that cover a wide range of overlapping interests. For example, the Community Drug Action team (CDAT) may not be most librarians' first choice but membership of that one group will give access to many nongovernment agencies, individual community members and a huge range of state agencies, including the premier's department, the departments of education, health, community services and the police, to name a few. The benefits for the library service are exposure to groups working in the community at all levels and a better understanding of where it fits in that community. There is also the opportunity to promote services to agencies and individuals who may be totally unaware of what is available. In New South Wales Dia@yll (Drug information @ your local library) is a key resource we want our communities to know about and access. The local CDAT is a perfect vehicle for promotion. It is also a great way to access reliable local resources to enrich library collections.

Other interagency meetings such as youth workers networks, multicultural groups, children and family networks offer almost unlimited opportunities to meet other people in the community with intersecting interests. In this area it is also important to consider networking opportunities with colleagues from other libraries and sectors. Membership of professional bodies such as the Australian Library and Information Association, metropolitan and country public library associations, reference, IT, multicultural, youth and children's working groups give librarians the opportunity to network and cross pollinate ideas.


Eccles (3) discusses the importance of adult role models from outside the school and family context in the healthy development of young people and their need to see themselves as a part of the broader community. Activities and programs offered by public libraries can become crucial elements in this development. Often we run our programs looking for bottom line statistics to help justify funding--and forget the value of the programs themselves. For example, we may run a homework centre or a family literacy program employing qualified teachers to work with local young people. The tendency is to count the students who attend and declare it successful, or otherwise, on that basis. The outcomes from an educational point of view may be measurable, but how do we measure the social capital aspect? In this example, we can survey parent and student perceptions of the program and talk to partner schools about the results their students are achieving. However, at Fairfield one of the most significant illustrations of social capital growth we see through these programs is demonstrated in the end of year celebrations. Children who started the year self consciously aware that they were falling behind their cohort, happily stand in front of the assembled audience of parents, friends and library users to talk about their experiences. It is exciting to see children achieve results that surpass their own expectations and who are willing to share those results in a public forum.

Another example of a partnership program that aimed to develop social capital was Helping your child (0-5) to learn. This program involved a range of agencies including Schools as Community Centres, Anglicare, UnitingCare Burnside, Families Together, Fairfield City Library Service and book supplier Global Books. The agencies produced two workshops for parents and children in each of three community languages--Vietnamese, Chinese and Khmer. The workshops covered areas such as the importance of play as well as language and literacy development. Parents spent the first part of the session learning the theory of the subject in their community language while their children were involved in supervised play. The second part was a practical session where parents put into practice what they had learned with their children. The library provided a storytime session as a model for parents and then supplied a range of picture books in the appropriate language for parents to read to their children. Parents were surveyed at the end of the sessions and were overwhelmingly positive about the benefits they had received. We were interested to note that some of the fathers had taken time off work to attend the sessions and were very willing to spend time learning about play and language development and then putting it into practice with their children. The icing on the cake was that families received a picture book in their family language, donated by Global Books, to take home and read with their children.


Another way libraries can help to build social capital is to provide safe space for people to meet, socialise and relax. In an increasingly fragmented society a space where people can interact with others is becoming invaluable. Library buildings often have underutilised spaces. Many have meeting rooms, technology rooms, children's areas, reference areas etc which are heavily used at certain times of the day or week, but remain virtually empty at other times. Fairfield Library Service has partnered with the local community college to allow it regular use of meeting room spaces to run courses. The benefits to the library are obvious--a small rental income stream, better use of available space, course participants using the library who may never previously darkened the library's doors and the opportunity to give the community access to something that may not have been available otherwise. We have offered computer classes. The community college provides its own pcs which are locked away at other times, as well as classes on reading to your baby. The latter classes are run by staff and are a great way to promote an understanding of the importance of reading in those early years, as well as another way to promote the library service to potential users.

This ongoing partnership with the community college has led to an exciting new service. The college received funding to run 6-week courses for pregnant teens on the importance of reading to their babies, language development and play, as well as build a support network for participants. The course, called Cool Babies, will be run in the library and will involve the young women learning about language development as well as actually reading, making their own books to read to their babies and of course developing support networks. Local agencies were approached to promote the program but also wanted to be involved in sharing their resources with the students. At the end of the course a community expo will be held showcasing the services of these local agencies. At the expo the students will be presented with their certificates as well as have the opportunity to access services working in their interest areas in a nonthreatening way. The library service sees this group as a pathway to library membership, Babytime (lapsit) and storytime attendance as well as helping to develop life long learners.

Another use of space for community benefit is supporting local schools and students by offering higher school certificate (HSC) lectures in the library after normal business hours. Each year we hold a series of HSC lectures that are promoted by visits to local high schools. The sessions are held on Saturday afternoons at one of the branch libraries that closes at midday. High school students tend to be awake and functioning at that time of day and because the library is closed, the lectures do not interfere with other users' needs. The reference area is cleared of tables and approximately 100 students can be accommodated in the reclaimed space. The library has the opportunity to showcase all the resources and services offered to senior high school students, whilst high quality lectures are provided on a cost recovery basis. Each year feedback from students shows how much they value the support that the library provides during this stressful period of their lives.

Even libraries that have no spare rooms or spaces have walls, foyers, hallways and other often underutilised areas. These spaces are ideal for exhibiting displays from community organisations, artwork from local schools, draft plans from council and myriad other things. Libraries need to make sure that these displays look professional and are in keeping with the building and community, but they provide an excellent way to showcase local talent and interests.


Over a period of time networks can be developed into partnerships. For partnerships to be truly successful there needs to be a strong element of trust between the parties. This is usually only built up over time and with a few successful programs behind you. An example of a partnership which has blossomed into a program building social capital is the Live homework help for refuges program. This partnership involves the company Tutoring Australasia, St Johns Park Bowling Club, four youth refuges and Fairfield Library Service. It provides online tutoring in maths, science and English every school day for young people living in these local refuges. These young people are among some of the most at risk in our community and a program like this, which helps keep them in school, is invaluable. Some of these young people are in year 11 and year 12 and the extra study support that is offered is helping them to keep up with their schoolwork despite the many other pressures they face. St Johns Park Bowling Club provides the funds to pay for the subscriptions while Tutoring Australasia provides extra services, such as one to one training with the students and after hours trouble shooting, gratis. The library administers the funding and has arranged information sessions for the refuge staff and clients as well as club executives. All of the partners, with the exception of the refuges, have worked together over the past few years to the point where each knows that the other will deliver on what is promised. The library service has been the main liaison with the refuges but trust had already been built as the library has had a representative attend the youth workers' network over some years.

As part of the living libraries program, the library celebrated Achievers Day with Cabramatta High School. Alumni from the school spoke at the library to an audience of about 100 year 11 and 12 students about what they were currently doing. This partnership with a local school not only helped to showcase some of the successful young people from it, it also served as an encouragement to the younger students about what they could do and was a reminder of the library's role in that development. Achievers Day was so successful it will run again in 2005 in partnership with another local school.

Time to dream

The premise of serendipity, good things coining by chance, can be assisted by being in the right place at the right time. It takes an ongoing build up of knowledge to realise where the right place is and when you need to be there. Tapping into local networks and building partnerships is a great way to increase serendipity.

We want people in our council, state government departments, local organisations, the business community and the general community to think of the library when they have a great idea to build social capital.

We want to be one of the obvious places people think to come to, not just for resources but also for the broader community issues. If we are truly to be facilitators in a knowledge society libraries have to be visible and active in their communities, constantly looking for new ways to build bridges to the excluded and marginalised. This may mean a change in the way things have always been done in our public libraries. Libraries may have to look at the way they manage resources, in particular the most valuable resource, staff, to give people room and time to dream. Each community is different and there is no formula which will work in all situations. This is why it is critical that we take time to really look at our own communities and discover the needs, but also the hopes and dreams and start to see where we can be involved. In the Fairfield community, some of the biggest issues are literacy development, high levels of Lote and a very high youth unemployment rate. When we look at the dreams and hopes of our community we see people with real aspirations to build better lives for themselves and their children. We see children and young people with untapped potential for greatness. We have built many of our programs around these specific areas--the Homework Centre, Online Tutoring, Family Literacy, HSC lectures, Cool Babies, English the Movie (literacy for senior high school students), Achievers Day, English Conversation classes etc in order to support the schools and help young people reach their potential.

It might be argued that many of the issues discussed above fall outside the traditional core values of a public library service.

However, in his Unesco speech Dr Robert S Martin fairly observed that
 In a world where the public demands accountability,
 where no institution is guaranteed unquestioned support,
 where there is increased competition from across the
 public, private, government, and commercial realms, no
 museum or library can simply assume continued public
 support. Our institutions therefore face increasing
 pressures to be entrepreneurial, innovative, strategic, and
 customer focused. (4)

It seems that if public libraries are to retain not only credibility in their communities but also increase their ongoing funding, they need to expand the concept of what core service entails. They need to provide opportunities for people in the local environment to equip themselves to become lifelong learners. They need to extend the conventional boundaries to embrace the disadvantaged, the excluded and the oblivious. Getting to know the other groups who are working with library target groups is a logical way to extend those boundaries. When libraries build networks they will also discover that many other people in the community have dreams about how social capital can be increased. Ideas like the Cool Babies program came from one of the Fairfield community partners. The Library picked up its vision and ran with it. Public libraries need to be open to community ideas and flexible enough to rearrange their own schedules to accommodate great ideas.

To be relevant and vital to their communities public libraries need to do more than keep abreast of the latest technology and provide a wide range of resources and services. They need to be credible members of their communities, offering opportunities to build the social capital framework and allow all people equal access to those opportunities. They need to build networks and partnerships with the business community, other government agencies, local schools, community agencies and, of course, with the populations they serve. Only then will they be enough of a part of their communities to ensure that they are offering an equitable service, with access for all.

Public libraries will also be able to represent the needs and dreams of their communities to funding bodies and decision makers in government and beyond. This process may sound daunting yet it can be started simply. Public libraries need to look out for and actively seek local opportunities to get involved in networks which, over time, can build into partnerships.


(1) Australian Government: Culture and Recreation portal. Libraries in Australia

(2) Martin, R Building knowledge societies 2003 120903-1.htm

(3) Eccles, J The development of children ages 6 to 14 The future of children 9(2) 1999 p30-44

(4) Martin op cit

Carolyn Bourke Community Outreach Librarian--Children and Youth Fairfield City Library NSW

Received May 2005

Carolyn Bourke is the community outreach librarian for children and youth at Fairfield City Library Service in Sydney. A passion which she brings to this multifaceted role it to empower parents, particularly those from Nesb, to understand the importance of what they do in those early years to assist the child's language, literacy and numeracy development. Address: Fairfield City Library Service Railway Parade Cabramatta NSW 2166
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Author:Bourke, Carolyn
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2005
Previous Article:Providing and promoting public library services to a culturally diverse New South Wales.
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