Australia

Library revival creates pathways for new migrants

Reading time should be free of distraction. (Image: Mandy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images) Source: Mandy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images

Australia’s public libraries are flourishing despite talk of their uncertain futures in a digital era.

How important are libraries to Australians?

Public Libraries Victoria Network (PLVN) needs to answer this exact question, as it calls for more community support and state funding to the sector.

Network spokesman Chris Buckingham said greater state involvement will help provide better resources for established and new communities in Victoria.

"Victoria welcomes nearly 3,000 new residents each week," he said.

"Our operational funding from state government is tied to the CPI (consumer price index) and what that means is that particularly those library services that are serving growing communities, funding is not keeping up with demand."

A young woman reads a book in a library
More and more people are using libraries in Australia
AAP

"So we certainly need state government to look at the operational funding it provides to public libraries and link it to both the CPI and population growth," Mr Buckingham said.

Public libraries in Victoria attract more than 30 million visits a year and 15,000 children in the state go to a library every week for early literacy programs.

Mr Buckingham said more funding could help make these programs even better.

"We're after support for specific programs that address early literacy and obviously help children prepare better for school," he said.

"We're also wanting the state government to support us with the delivery of the STEAM program - programs built around science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics."

"We've got the resources, we've got the expertise, in terms of the people, all we need is a bit more money to help out with the program delivery," he said. 

What do local councils think? 

Victoria has a 'Living Libraries Program', which provides grants from anywhere between $10,000 - $750,000 to local councils to upgrade library infrastructure.

Research commissioned by Local Government Victoria also shows the Victorian state government's support for public libraries per capita is higher, at $7.94, than it is in New South Wales ($3.76) and Queensland ($6.07).

But President of the Australian Local Government Association, David O'Loughlin, said funding agreements between state and local governments need to be better.

"In my home state of South Australia, the government used to fund libraries 50-50 with councils," he said. "But that has diminished over the years to 90-10 or less than 10 per cent from the state government."

Australian Local Government Association President David O'Loughlin
Australian Local Government Association President David O'Loughlin
AAP / James Ross

"That's very disappointing, that trend, because it means local ratepayers have to pick up more of the bill," Mr O'Loughlin continued.

"It means our rates go up higher than CPI just to stand still."

"It's very hard to explain to communities that facilities that they love are leading to higher rates for them than CPI."

Mr O'Loughlin said councils will always prioritise libraries because of their importance to the community.

"We would like to recover those partnerships, to restore them to a 50-50 or better funding relationship," he said. "Unfortunately that's not always the case, but we would dearly love to get back to a true partnership.

"Libraries are a powerful interaction tool between governments and community," he said.

"They should be seen as that not just by local government but by state governments as well."

New migrants and their connection to libraries

The Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria (ECCV) runs a series of events in libraries, including bilingual book launches and policy development sessions.

ECCV Chair Kris Pavlidis said libraries are integral to the lives of many new migrants.

"When we're trying to assist people who are new settlers in the community, and particularly people whose first language isn't English, the library's an excellent starting point," she said.

"They are often sensitive and aware of the English capability of particular community groups who are settling."

"But very importantly they will often carry languages other than English and languages that are directly relevant to that particular new group, or new and emerging community, that is settling in that particular vicinity," she continued.

In Melbourne's west

Clem Gillings directs Community Services at Maribyrnong City Council in Melbourne's west, where 40 per cent of residents were born overseas.

Ms Gillings said there are books, magazines and DVDs available at their libraries in different languages, as well as a range of diverse programs.

"We run things like 'conversation cafes', which are informal language tuition opportunities for people who are just settling into Maribyrnong," she said. "People who need some assistance with acquiring English language and being able to interact in the community comfortably."

One of the libraries in the Maribyrnong City Council district is Footscray Library.

That centre also runs programs including internet training and mobile phone assistance classes a couple of times a month.

Ms Gillings said the services are a great environment for all, but especially for older Australians.

"They really appreciate being able to come and sit in a pretty low-key, non-threatening group environment and have individual tuition on how to come to grips with using new technology."

In Sydney's outer-suburbs

Garry Starr, Manager of Libraries and Community at Canterbury-Bankstown Council in Sydney's south-west, said the centres in his region would welcome funding from the state government.

"Historically, council rate-payers have been the ones who have been the major provider of library services funding support," he said.

"I think state government commitment to wanting to further fund libraries can only bring about a better outcome for all public libraries."

Nearly half (44 per cent) of Canterbury-Bankstown's residents were born in non-English speaking countries.

Mr Starr said the city's libraries are inclusive places.

"We've developed programs taking into consideration that for many of our community, English is not their first language," he said.

"So we have a very targeted program to connect with mothers and babies so we can enable them to learn through literacy as mother and child."

"This then enables them to be more active in the primary school area," he said. 

What do residents think?

Twenty-two-year-old student Farah El-Dib is a member at the Bankstown library.

She said her whole family uses the facility.

"I know that my grandmother and my aunties like to just browse the Arabic section," she said.

"But they don't sit there for as long - they get what they want and then they leave."

"But my cousins, they are all my age, and we all go there after school to study, especially during HSC (High School Certificate)."

books
Many residents use libraries for more than just borrowing books
Getty Images

Peter Kearnes is a retiree in Sydney's south-west who has used Canterbury-Bankstown's libraries his whole life.

He and his wife frequently take their grandchildren along so they too can develop a love of reading.

"We go there for story time and craft and that was a way of introducing a love of reading and a love of books," he said.

"My idea is to smother them in books so they see that there are fun things and stories to read."

The EVCC's Kris Pavlidis said libraries will continue to be important, especially for new migrants.

"Often the first language barrier is a linguistic one and if we can disseminate information to people, it's the first step towards effective settlement and empowerment," she said.

"So when we have information about what's going around us, answers to questions we might have, we start to feel a little bit more comfortable about of our environment."

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