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Libraries are about more than just books



One of the events to celebrate the opening of the Qatar National Library was a seminar called Librarians in Conversation at QNL: a global perspective on the future of libraries. I was on a panel with Darren Hoerner from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Saif Al Jabri, Director of the Information Centre at Sultan Qaboos University Oman, Sandra Collins, Director of the National Library of Ireland and Ayub Khan, President of CILIP (pictured here.)

This is an edited version of my comments at this session Libraries are about more than just books:

My first reaction to this topic is that yes they are, but if I were back in the 80s I would also say “don’t dis the book”. I think library collections are the heart of the library, reading print books is still preferred over ebooks and most people come to the library to borrow books. It is the collection that gives the library building its character and ambience and what makes people want to be there - and nowhere is this more so than in the new Qatar National Library where the book is celebrated and is such a feature of the design.

What has changed in libraries over the past 20 years is that librarians have become much more than passive minders of a communal resource as they have increasingly realised that they can add value to the collection in all sorts of ways.

So where does the library stop? There is a danger that by being everything to everybody we end up being nothing much to anyone. At Yarra Plenty Regional Library when I was the CEO we introduced RFID and self-service a number of years ago. This changed everything. Suddenly staff were freed from the circulation desk. But we needed to think what this meant. What would they do? We needed to understand what our libraries were about, why they were there, so we could then design our programs and services. After a lot of consultation and workshops and thinking, as well as learning from Stockholm City Library, we agreed that our library was about three things - reading, learning and meeting. We had a focus and this understanding was immediately understood by our funders and stakeholders as well as our staff and our users.

The organisation was restructured to deliver on these three areas of reading, learning and meeting and some wonderful programs were developed. We implemented makerspaces in branches, building on what were already strengths - an arts and crafts makerspace in a branch that already had craft clubs meeting there; a writing and publishing makerspace in another branch that had active poetry and writers clubs; and a technology makerspace where there was already a digital hub. We wanted to make our programming strategic, and so we consolidated and standardised what was already available to make a more coherent and substantial offering. Success bred success and the staff were enthused and energised as attendance at programs grew at an impressive rate.

What we realised too was that we didn’t have to do it all ourselves. We learned to partner with others to deliver programs that fitted with our goals. We offered a venue to the Chess Club of Victoria, who provided masters to run classes in the library - a very successful partnership for both of us. We had many partners who delivered programs at the library, and we were all winners.

Our programming increased and it was easy enough to count how many people were attending - not as easy as counting loans but still, not too hard. And it was impressive - we were growing our figures by 20 - 30% a year. But what did this mean? And more importantly what about the people that weren’t coming? How many people in the community did not even know there was a public library, or that they were welcome to use the library, to join for free, to borrow items and to attend programs?

One story about one child was the catalyst for an innovative and effective outreach program that we introduced, the Reading Rover. Lee, the Reading Coordinator at one of our branches, was invited to attend a Food Bank morning, where food was distributed to newly arrived refugees. There she met a young boy about 4 years old - very shy and wary. She offered to read to him. He had never seen a book before, he didn’t know what it was, how to hold it, what it was for. After a number of visits Lee gained his trust and began reading stories and soon he was totally engaged and very excited to see her. If not for Lee he would have started school the next year even further behind those children whose parents had been reading to them and taking them to library story times since they were babies.

While specific performance indicators were developed to measure the impact of the Reading Rover, the most powerful results were through the stories we heard back from the program. These are the impact stories that get our message across - how libraries change people’s lives.

Libraries are one of the few safe spaces where all are welcomed and where we share wonderful communal collections of resources. Libraries continue to evolve and engage people. As long as we are clear about what we are about and why we are here and we can tell our story we will continue to be valued and valuable - to individuals and to society.


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