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Time for national audits of public library buildings?

In October 2005 Friends of Libraries Australia (Fola)--on behalf of the 60 per cent, or 12 million, Australians who use their public libraries--made a short submission to the Australian federal treasurer about the potential return on national investment in replacing the many ageing and inadequate public library buildings in Australia. The submission was a response to a call for submissions from community groups for priorities for expenditure in the 2006/2007 federal budget, in the context of an anticipated large 2005/2006 budget surplus.

The focus of the Fola submission was the need to accelerate--beyond the existing quite large number of new and planned libraries--the renewal of Australia's public library infrastructure, particularly in lower socioeconomic areas and in regional and rural Australia.

Stated in the submission was that

Compared with other developed countries, including New Zealand, Australia was slow to develop a comprehensive local public library service. It has caught up, and now ranks in the top 10 nations for its overall provision, much of which is a development of the last 40 years. As a consequence its initial building stock and mobile libraries are now increasingly in need of replacement or rebuilding. A national survey in 2000 found that 38% of libraries, about 600, have poor or very poor space. Their major deficiencies are

* lack of attractive, welcoming buildings to encourage more young people and people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities to take advantage of the wide range of services and resources they freely and inclusively provide

* overall lack of space and severe crowding of collections and user areas

* lack of capacity to provide more information technology and internet access to help address the digital divide in the community

* lack of electronic training suites for older adults in particular

* lack of study spaces for school and tertiary students

* lack of community meeting rooms

* lack of reading areas for families and children

* lack of disability access and easy access for older adults

* lack of public toilets

In response to these deficiencies, local government across Australia is endeavouring to replace and rebuild libraries ... About 200 new library buildings and major rebuilds will have been constructed by local government, with occasional state government assistance, between 2000 and 2006--many of them excellent and of world standard. These new libraries invariably attract 15-35% greater use by the community of all ages. There are at least 400 libraries remaining to be replaced or rebuilt ...

The availability of dollar for dollar funding from the Australian government would provide a major stimulus to investment by local government in its libraries, with benefits to the building industries, local economies and taxation revenues.

The Fola submission is unlikely to produce any federal dollars directly for more new libraries, but it does emphasise the need for a more systematic, researched and well informed approach to arguing the case at the local, state and national levels for better libraries able to achieve their full community potential.

One resource which has just come to hand which provides the information base for such an approach is the improved second edition of that invaluable resource People places: a guide for public library buildings in NSW. Information on this outstanding new edition--including how you can access it free online or purchase for only $22 in hardcopy--are to be found in the first article in this Aplis issue by David Jones. We are all in the debt of the Library Council and State Library of NSW for funding the second edition, and making it available nationally and internationally at such a reasonable cost.

I can only repeat what I said of the first edition of People places, that it should be readily at hand in every public library manager's office in part to reinforce with local authorities that the planning of public libraries needs to be done well.

In his article Dr Jones has encouraging words for those who may be struggling in regional and rural areas, in particular, with the challenge of convincing their council of the return on investment of a new, rebuilt or extended library. He writes</p> <pre> ... time and time again I have visited local government areas with declining populations and limited financial resources, but which have made renewing, extending or replacing a library building a top priority. And they have constructed buildings which are to size. It is not sorcery. It is a strategic investment on the community's behalf, an investment in people places. </pre> <p>The article usefully refers to a funded audit of the age, size and suitability of public library buildings in NSW now underway, along the lines of that proposed for the UK. It is a precedent which other Australian states should follow, preferably using the NSW methodology, so that Australian local and state governments in particular have a comprehensive and nationally consistent picture of their public library building strengths and weaknesses.

This is because there is little doubt, despite the increasing examples of very good public library buildings in all parts of Australia, that at present some councils and state governments do not yet fully recognise or accept how inadequate, outdated and unattractive are their libraries. They need to have it demonstrated in an objective and public way. This is possibly something which is also needed in New Zealand--to the best of my knowledge a national audit of its public library buildings has also never been undertaken.

Continuing the focus on the importance of public libraries as the most heavily used people places in Australia and New Zealand, the June 2006 issue of Aplis will consist of papers from the first Australian and New Zealand conference on library buildings and mobiles being held in Adelaide South Australia 31 March-1 April 2006.

Alan Bundy

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Article Details
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Author:Bundy, Alan
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 1, 2006
Previous Article:Community critical: Australian public libraries serving seniors.
Next Article:People places revisited: guidelines for public library buildings.

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