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In praise of modern libraries

The sound of toddlers singing ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ rings out across the room, punctuated by squeals of laughter and the occasional teary tantrum. No, we are not at a kindergarten or a childcare centre. We are at our local library during a Rhyme Time session on Monday morning.

This and a wide range of other activities are part of the new incarnation of public libraries, in which their role is as much as a community focal points as a public collection of reading and reference materials. While the books remain, now there are also computer stations, blogging and robotics workshops, film screenings and even pyjama parties.

I had not visited a library for years before I had my first baby and attended Story Time, followed a few years later by Rhyme Time, both available free of charge, or obligation. I didn’t even need to make a booking. Now, I have regularly taken my two toddlers and baby to the library for various reading, singing and craft sessions. Almost every week when we attend, the library is full of people reading books or magazines, working on computers, talking to the librarians or involved in organised activities.

All of this is a far cry from fears the rise of the internet and emergence of the ebook would make physical depositories of knowledge obsolete. Just yesterday I read a Facebook meme that read “Destroy the myth that libraries are no longer relevant”, but anyone who has recently visited a library would be well aware this myth has well and truly been buried.

And even though the enduring popularity of the hard copy book and the underwhelming popularity of digital books might have aided the survival of libraries, it is not just the smell and feel of old-fashioned books (as lovely as they might be) that has helped keep libraries relevant. It is also the considerable evolution libraries have undergone to cater to the changing needs of the community.

Modern libraries play an important role, not in upholding a sense of academic excellence and intellectual superiority among users, but in their inclusivity. They are places where people of all demographics can come together and enjoy the free use of a public space. The elderly, the young, parents and students all harmoniously share the library.

It is an opportunity for integration between the generations that is rarely available elsewhere, but is beneficial to those at both the old and the young. Education opportunities available through libraries further serve to close the generational gap, with elderly people offered tutorials on the use of IT to help them navigate the technological age. And while library users may not necessarily converse or engage with each other, crucially, they are not alone, helping to alleviate the loneliness that is becoming the scourge of our time.

This role of the library as a community focal point brings to mind the public squares in European countries, where groups of youths, elderly, courting couples and young families gather to talk, promenade or watch people passing. This type of public gathering place is sadly lacking in Australian cities and regional centres, as individuals retreat into their own houses, often far from extended families and friendship groups, and move away from clubs where they traditionally spent time together. The library is one of few public places in which any member of the community is welcome.

Another benefit of the new role of the library as a community hub is the exposure to books this creates among people who might not otherwise, necessarily, read for leisure. It is difficult not to be tempted to flick through the pages of some books and become engaged with the stories, when they are right there on the shelves, with no one wondering if you are creasing the pages, or if you plan to make a purchase. This is particularly important for children, who move from book to book in a library, discovering the joy of pictures and words on the page, and taking steps towards literacy.

Data on library usage is indicative of the changes that have occurred in their perception and role in the community. Public Libraries Victoria statistics reveal that between 2012 and 2015, while the number of active members decreased (in part due to more accurate reporting on membership), usage of library programs increased. Library users borrowed fewer physical items, but more virtual items. Customer satisfaction in the library services increased and an estimated 30 to 40% of Victorians had some engagement with libraries or library resources. These are hardly indicators of a service that is in trouble, or losing its relevance.

In the US, rather than public popularity, the greatest threat to the survival of libraries is considered to be the level of government funding they receive. It is a fate that local groups such as Freedom of Access to Information and Resources and the Australian Public Library Alliance campaign against. In Victoria, public libraries received record funding in 2016 of $41.5 million, perhaps in recognition of the vital role they played in their communities .

While in many ways, the evolution of the library is a positive change, not everyone is happy. For some, a library will always be a place of quiet and study; where the heady, musty smell of books inspires and uplifts the academically-minded. Writer Tracy Chevalier spoke of her love of sitting in the silence of the British Library to write, “I lock my phone away, I bring my notebook or manuscript, and sit in the concentrated silence of the reading rooms there, the others around me focused, intent. There is nothing so galvanising as being around other people already in the zone.” Clearly, this library is far removed from the noisy, bustling places I frequent with my children. And I agree that this kind of library has an important place in cities; no one would suggest that the world’s glorious, historic libraries should be modernised.

Perhaps some of this sense of quiet and studiousness can be incorporated into the new-style library, with areas dedicated to library users who would prefer this kind of atmosphere. But, largely, in this age of voiceless communication via Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, I have a suspicion that it is not silence most people are missing, but chatter. We have silence when we gaze at their iPhones on public transport, as we order groceries online and as we call customer service and receive an automated response. Libraries no longer need to be an escape from conversation. Now they are sources of the very noise that they used to forbid.

Modern libraries have successfully evolved in response to the changing needs of communities. It is wonderful that the opportunity to visit a welcoming and inclusive public space, freely browse and borrow a book or other item and engage with the community continues to thrive and adapt to the challenges of an ever-changing world. Long live the public library.

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