Fate of the public library

Fate of the public library

Over the past decade or so, public libraries have fallen out of favour with many user demographics, myself included. Increased ownership of electronic goods, associated with significant technological breakthroughs during the 21st century, have somewhat diminished the value and relevance of the traditional library. Their traditional purpose as a place to access and borrow literary works has been overshadowed by ‘better’ services such as e-books, all providing the added benefit of convenience.

The perceived obsolescence of libraries has made them an easy target for state governments and local councils looking to clamp down on spending. The WA State Government recently slashed library funding by $1.7 million, citing a shift towards electronic resources for information.[i]

Understandably, there are circumstances under which cuts to library funding may be justified or even necessary due to budget constraints. If demand for public libraries is indeed decreasing over time, then it would be prudent to devote fewer resources accordingly and direct spending towards bigger priorities such as emergency services. However, it needs to be stressed that the verdict on whether people are truly abandoning their local library is still unclear.

While some statistics overseas have indicated a downward trend in library usage, Australian public library data collected from 2009 to 2014 suggests that the number of visits have decreased by only a minor amount.[ii] From this report it is evident that Australian public libraries are still attracting a large number of visitors, who make use of the various services available. Let’s not forget that lower demand for public libraries can also be precipitated by unwarranted funding cuts, which can give rise to shorter opening hours, reduced book stock and fewer trained staff on hand.

To gain a better insight into how public libraries can still carry significance in the digital economy, consider some of the characteristics and circumstances of those who frequent them. According to one study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, people who did not own a computer, were unemployed and living in disadvantaged suburbs were more likely to regularly attend libraries.[iii] This observation is unsurprising and is likely to still hold true today, on the basis that disadvantaged members of the community often lack the ability to afford books and consumer electronics.

Victorian libraries situated in low-income areas tend to provide an extensive range of beneficial services. For example, libraries in the City of Greater Dandenong provide services such as English language assistance, employment advice and resume help.[iv] This stands as an prime example of how public funding has the potential to translate into positive economic benefits, as the services they provide aim to foster economic participation and help people find work. A recent cost-benefit analysis of public library funding gives some credence to this view, estimating a net benefit of almost $2 billion and an annual economic stimulus of roughly $3 billion.[v]

The effect of the digital economy on influencing consumer preferences may be slightly exaggerated. A treasure trove of literature is accessible on devices such as computers and e-books, yet print books have remained popular among all age groups.[vi] In addition, many libraries harbour items of historical significance such as decades-old newspapers and artefacts. Such resources may be difficult or impossible to make available online, and the loss of them would severely diminish our insights into history.

In an economy now deeply oriented towards technology and innovation, it is easy to disparage the continued existence of public libraries. But the argument that they no longer deliver bang for buck due to newer alternatives is misleading – libraries continue to attract many visitors, and recent probes into the economic benefit derived from them seem to dispute that claim. Many Australian libraries have demonstrated an ability to remain relevant in a constantly changing environment, whether it is by providing unorthodox services or embracing technology itself.

As for myself, I’m not sure how often I’ll be using my local library over the next few years. Nevertheless,I do hope they’ll be afforded the resources to stick around for the foreseeable future – they’re just too valuable to give up on completely.


Image source: “A woman sitting in a library” by Debora Cartagena, licensed under Public Domain

[i] Parliament of Western Australia. Legislative Council. (2016). Parliamentary Questions by House. Retrieved from http://www.parliament.wa.gov.au/parliament/pquest.nsf/969994fcf861850d4825718d002fe7fb/7adf4afb562f182248257fdc001305ff?OpenDocument

[ii] National and State Libraries Australasia. (2015). Australian Public Libraries Statistical Report 2013-2014: Final Report. Compiled by Regional Access and Public Libraries. State Library of Queensland: Author.

[iii] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2009, June 2). Arts and Culture in Australia: A Statistical Overview, 2008. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/[email protected]/Lookup/4172.0Feature+Article42008+(First+Edition)

[iv] City of Greater Dandenong. (n.d.). Language and Literacy in the Library. Retrieved September 6, 2016, from http://www.greaterdandenong.com/document/27480/language-and-literacy-in-the-library

[v] SGS Economics and Planning. (2003). National Welfare & Economic Contributions of Public Libraries: Final Report. Commissioned by the Australian Library and Information Association. Australia: Author.

[vi] Perrin, A. (2016, September 1). Book Reading 2016. Pew Internet. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/01/book-reading-2016/#the-share-of-americans-who-have-read-a-book-in-the-last-year-is-largely-unchanged-since-2012-more-americans-read-print-books-than-either-read-e-books-or-listen-to-audio-books; Han, E. (2015, January 18). Hard-copy books back on the rise as e-book and e-reader sales stagnate. The Age. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/books/hardcopy-books-back-on-the-rise-as-ebook-and-ereader-sales-stagnate-20150118-12qmf4.html