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Public libraries: partnerships, funding and relevance.

Libraries help build social capital in their communities by various means. This paper reviews practical ways public libraries can work with children and their families to provide better learning outcomes, and promote literacy and numeracy skills in culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Examples of community partnerships from public libraries across Australia are used as discussion points. The issue of funding is also considered in the light of experiences in North America and the UK. Demonstrated are specific library programs which encourage building on the strengths of the community and working in partnership with a wide range of government, business and not for profit organisations.


Public libraries have traditionally been seen as storehouses of books for information and leisure use. However the changes to the storage and retrieval of information over the last decade have resulted in concern about the ongoing relevance of the public library to the community. It has been argued that with the growing use of the internet, libraries will become obsolete as people access the information they require online from home. Google has made a linguistic shift from a proper noun to a verb, as more and more people google information. Despite the doomsayers, public libraries have not just survived--in many cases they have thrived. Public libraries have surveyed their communities, formally and informally, and have discovered a need to go beyond their operating budgets to target community concerns more specifically. Financial imperatives as well as the need for broader expertise has led them to form partnerships with other agencies and has opened the way for the development of services and programs which previously have not been considered as core business.

The literature from the UK, North America and Australia shows many similarities in the ways public libraries have risen to the challenge of delivering effective, accessible services to their communities. There arc some interesting differences in the way libraries have gone about funding these initiatives. This paper will look at how some public libraries in Australia are building local capacity through partnerships with other agencies, charities, government departments. It also considers the different approaches taken to funding.

Moving beyond core services

Public libraries are well placed to support children and families to develop literacy and language skills. In fact the local library is ideally positioned to complement existing education, training and career development strategies (1) as it offers longer opening hours than most educational facilities, provides easy access to information and communications technology (ICT) and is readily accessible to all sectors of the community. This is particularly true in communities where a large proportion of the population does not speak English at home. Parents are naturally concerned that their children are starting school at a disadvantage if they arc unable to speak any English. These same families often do not access preschools or playgroups due to financial considerations and language barriers. Public libraries champion the rights of all members of the community to equitable access to information and therefore usually offer resources, including electronic, in community languages. The library may well be the one place where otherwise isolated people can access the information and services they require in their own language.

However, whenever we consider broadening the reach of the library service, we must also consider funding. In too many cases public libraries arc expected to do more with less--the demands on library resources and services keep increasing but their budgets may not.


For public libraries in the US facing budget cuts of between 5%-15%, the question could to be reduced to one of public funding versus private endowments, fundraising and partnerships. (2) Debate has continued over whether private endowments and fundraising activities are actually an incentive for local and regional authorities to reduce public spending. Craft (3) in discussing this issue believes that an emphasis on funding partnerships is one way for libraries to protect their public funding interests. However fundraising and endowments continue to be significant factors in the fiscal policies of many US libraries. (4,5)

In the UK Parker et al (6) believe that competitive bidding is the main vehicle for securing additional funds for maintaining and developing public library services and that this has resulted in a disparity of resource allocation--the library services with better bid writers get more money than those without.

In Australia, funding seems to be on a more ad hoc basis. Generally at least 75% of annual public library funding comes from local government with the balance from state governments, in the case of NSW now less than 7%. No direct public library funding comes from the Australian government. (7) The partnership programs discussed in this paper arc generally funded on an individual and often quite local basis. It is less common for different library services to be competing for the same funding except in the case of some state government grants eg the Library Council of NSW offers approximately $3.4 million each year in library development grants for NSW public libraries. (8)


Parker et al consider that
 Public libraries should be prepared to engage
 with a wide range of neighbourhood, community,
 business, charitable, intra and interauthority
 partners as well as with international contacts.
 Initiating such networks of cooperation afresh in
 support of individual bids is hardly practicable;
 wide ranging partnerships should therefore be
 nurtured and maintained as a matter of course. (9)

Partnerships can range from local agreements to share a venue and the associated costs of the program, to large scale, big dollar agreements between government agencies or businesses. The examples below show some of the different types of partnerships and funding arrangements public libraries in Australia are developing.

Partnerships with government agencies

Finding MY place

One such partnership is that of the Ruth Faulkner Public Library in the City of Belmont Western Australia with the Department of Education and Training of Western Australia. The program, begun in 2003, is called Finding MY place and gives career guidance to disadvantaged young people at risk of leaving school early. These young people include those from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, Indigenous students and those with poor literacy and numeracy skills. Griggs (10) states 'it was vital for them to realise nonmainstream students also have a 'place' within the education system'.

The program runs for ten weeks and offers students the opportunity to engage with presenters--some with similar backgrounds--in expression through art, theatre sports, role playing and discussion. The presenters include psychologists, youth workers, fashion designers and young entrepreneurs who cover topics such as self esteem, finances, health and drug issues, writing resumes and a myriad of other crucial topics. Finding MY place has been able to reduce school absenteeism for those participating, increase student motivation, strengthen community links and help at risk young people to become more employable. (11)

The funding for this program comes from the Department of Education and Training and has now been made available to other public libraries in Western Australia--$2,500 for metropolitan libraries and up to $5,000 for rural libraries. The libraries provide staff to administer the program as well as refreshments, materials and incidentals. (12) Libraries in other states and territories of Australia are offered the opportunity to access the Finding MY place toolkit to replicate the program if they wish.

Storytime partnerships

Rockdale Library Service in Sydney NSW has entered into a partnership agreement with other departments of the Rockdale City Council. The library partnered with the environmental planning department to run a summer holiday program Coast and beach which was designed to educate children and their families about health and safety issues when visiting the beach. Children watched a play Stormwater spies, made beach related crafts and were given sun visors and fridge magnets. (13) The library service provided the venue, staff administration, craft materials and planning as well as other incidental items while the environmental planning department provided the program and give aways for the children.

Partnerships with business

Student employment program

A unique partnership has been developed in Launceston Tasmania between the library service and Heritage Isle Credit Union Ltd. Money given by the credit union is used to support Launceston Library's children's services and includes a student employment program. In 2001 eight students were employed to run school holiday programs in Launceston. Since 2002 students have also been employed at George Town (two students) and Beaconsfield (one student). Students deliver the entire program, with staff backup if required. Their tasks are to promote the program, register the children for the program, run the reading and craft activities, organise the children and explain how the activities work. The program runs in the January school holidays for all three libraries and continues at Launceston for the other term holidays. Students must join the credit union and have their salaries deposited into that account. The training session for the students includes a module on financial management run by the credit union. The credit union's logo is included on all material relating to children's library services and activities and the students wear a uniform shirt identifying them as members of the student employment program. The library staff are responsible for supervising the students, designing, implementing and evaluating the programs and reporting back to the credit union each year. (14)

Better beginnings

The State Library of Western Australia has developed Better beginnings, an early intervention family literacy program that targets children aged 0-3 years in partnership with mining company Rio Tinto and local governments in Western Australia.
 Better beginnings recognises this early years
 research and best practice and focuses on
 working in partnership with families to support
 their children's early literacy and learning. The
 program consists of a series of linked strategies
 developed to encourage parents to share books
 and stories with their babies and to establish
 lifelong links with libraries. (15)

Community health nurses give families with new babies a 'toolkit' with a book, a growth chart and other information about the importance of the early years to the child's development. Parents are encouraged to read, discuss and share stories in the extended family context. Public libraries provide 'community hubs' where families are supported through programs, activities and resources.

In this program funding comes from the three major partners--state government, local government and business and has allowed the program to be made available throughout Western Australia. In order to reach Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse (Cald) communities the program also partners with agencies in local communities such as community child health, education, community development and the corporate sector. (16)

Community partnerships

Cool babies

Fairfield Library Service and Liverpool Library Service in Sydney NSW have been able to deliver programs to their communities by partnering with their local adult community college. One such program is Cool babies. Many parents do not realise the importance of the early years on their child's emergent literacy skills. Cool babies is a free six week program designed to educate parents about the importance of talking, listening, reading and playing with their babies from birth. It covers a range of learning styles by incorporating practical activities and theoretical knowledge. Parents are taught about the benefits of a book rich environment and are encouraged to create their own child focused books. These books present an opportunity to showcase the family's cultural and language background. Cool babies is based on the philosophy that early literacy practices can be implemented into any kind of family situation regardless of parents' language and literacy abilities, socioeconomic or educational status. This program is taught in several libraries by librarians but is administered by Macarthur Community College with funding from the Families First initiative of the NSW government. This partnership enables new mothers to develop important skills in parenting, emergent literacy practices and the value of their family language. The students also build a support network with other young mothers which is particularly valuable for those suffering social isolation. Students attending these classes are encouraged to participate in the library's lapsit program called Babytime, where they can continue the social networks as well as building skills. (17)

The RED tent

An early literacy interest group was formed as a subcommittee of the Children and Family Network in Fairfield (Sydney NSW). This group is facilitated by the library service and has members from local government, education and nongovernment organisations. The group successfully sought funding from a local club through the community development support and expenditure scheme. This scheme makes money from poker machine revenue available for community projects. The genesis of this project was a desire to get reading out in the community to people who would not normally access the library or other agencies. The tent will be a quick to assemble marquee which will have picture books and other resources in community languages. It will have a bright red roof with the words Read every day printed on the sides in community languages. The tent will be available for use at festivals, in parks and at any community group events throughout the area from the beginning of 2007. Any community group may borrow it and the associated resources simply by booking it through the Fairfield Council. (18)

Plat multilingual storytime

The Plat (Playing, Listening and Talking) storytime is a multilingual project of the Fairfield communities 4 children initiative. The Plat storytime is funded by the Australian government and facilitated by The Smith Family charity. The Smith Family appointed Learning Links, a not for profit organisation which helps children with learning difficulties, to deliver the project for children 0-5 in Fairfield. The library service provides the venue and resources and other partners provide the staffing and interpreters.

The aim is to run storytime sessions which utilise parents and other community members to read stories and sing songs in community languages.
 Stories are read slowly to give parents the time to
 translate as they are read. Stories written in other
 languages can also be read to the group by
 parents and translated by English speaking
 parents. (19)

Recently 22 Swahili speaking women and their children attended a session and were able to share stories and songs in their own language. For newly arrived groups, this is an important part of feeling at home in their new community. The public library, in the role of community hub, becomes a place where all members of the community feel welcome and that their needs and interests are valued.


The above programs and services demonstrate just some of the ways public libraries can partner with community groups, charities, businesses and government to offer more than traditional library services to their communities. The issue for these kinds of programs is whether they are sustainable in the long term. Many of them have been so successful that they have already been able to extend the program to other areas--Finding MY place, Better beginnings and the student employment program are good examples.

The community partnerships seem to be more vulnerable, both financially and in terms of the partnerships themselves, due to staff turnover and changes in management priorities as well as funding issues. However it seems that most of them have now been running successfully for several years and have the flexibility to develop and change as required. The RED tent, for example, needs very little in ongoing funding and the library service has agreed to replenish the book resources as required. Other programs, such as Cool babies and the Plat multicultural storytime require ongoing commitment of staff time rather than direct financial contributions. Overall, these programs seem likely to be sustainable into the foreseeable future.

Public libraries as community hubs

The public library can--and should--be a central hub for community life, not just a place to borrow books. Libraries have remained relevant, and indeed indispensable, by moving beyond the role of repositories of information to become facilitators of resources for their communities. These resources include all the traditional items--books, magazines, dvds, videos as well as e resources and access to computers and internet. They also include programs and services which help build social capital and community participation.

As libraries have partnered with other agencies, government, and business, they have also been able to expand their programs and services without undermining precarious budgets. Libraries have also used these partnerships and nontraditional funding models to demonstrate the value of programs which have not previously been considered core business. The partners have benefited by having access to a broader client base, use of community facilities which are accessible and open when people want to use them and new ways to build capital in their local area.

Community enthusiasm has built a momentum which encourages funding bodies to make these programs core business and set them within normal operating budgets. Programs such as Better beginnings, the student employment program and Finding MY place have moved from a local community to broader, even statewide, programs.

Libraries will continue not only to be relevant but grow as key community hubs if they respond to the needs of their local communities, work in partnership with other agencies and above all, stay flexible. The children and families in Australia's communities need all of the resources and services libraries have to offer to nurture them towards their successful futures.

Received May 2007


(1) Griggs, N and Herft, Y Finding MY Place: career guidance program for 'at risk' local youth 2006 p2

(2) Fitzsimons, E The finance of public libraries is not always a bad picture The bottom line 15(4) 2002 p175

(3) Craft, M Private funds versus public funds--the ball is in the library's court The bottom line 8(4) 1995 p10

(4) Boese, K If you want my 2 cents worth The bottom line 15(4) 2002 p190

(5) Fitzsimons, E op cit p176

(6) Parker, S, Ray, K, Coulson, G and Harrop, K The bidding culture in the UK public library--a ease study approach Library management 22(8/9) 2001 p406

(7) Local Government and Shires Association NSW The LGSA policy platform for March 2007 state election p11 documents/election_policy_platform_301006.pdf accessed 27 February 2007

(8) State Library of New South Wales State Library of New South Wales annual report 2006 p71 ries_2006.pdf accessed 20 February 2007

(9) Parker et op cit p409

(10) Griggs and Herft op cit p1

(11) Department of Education and Training, Western Australia Finding MY place: helping to keep students in a learning environment p2 s/ FindingMyPlaceFeb06.pdf accessed 20 February 2007

(12) Griggs and Herft op cit p3

(13) Ohrmann, H A win-win situation: strategic partnerships between libraries and other council departments Public library news Sydney: State Library of New South Wales March 2007

(14) Pickup, N Partnerships email to the author 13 February 2007; see also Pickup, N A hug in the supermarket: a school holiday based student employment program at Launceston Library, in Bundy, A ed Learning futures conference proceedings Adelaide, Auslib Press 2007 pp47-51

(15) North, S and Allen, N Better beginnings family literacy program: a better beginning with books and libraries for Western Australian babies Australasian public libraries and information services 18(2) 2005 p10

(16) Allen, N Partnerships email to author 7 February 2007

(17) Bourke, C Cool babies: empowering parents as first teachers Early childhood evidence into practice: rethinking current interventions and strategies Melbourne, QEC 4th biennial international conference November 2006 p1ff; see also Redrup-May, M A biography of Cool babies, in Bundy, A ed Learning futures conference proceedings Adelaide, Auslib Press 2007 pp25-30

(18) Quilty, P The RED tent email to author 1 February 2007

(19) O'Heir, K Program improves the link Fairfield advance 22 November 2006

Carolyn Bourke Community outreach librarian--children and youth Fairfield City Library Service NSW

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 email
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Author:Bourke, Carolyn
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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