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Let’s stop thinking of libraries as gifts, but as wise investments

There are plenty of things that young generations feel aggrieved about being saddled with. Climate change for one and a long-running war in the Middle East are two that leap immediately to mind.

But there are other things handed down by previous generations that seem to suggest extraordinary generosity and vision. One is libraries.

Last month, Matthew Yglesias posted the sentence on Twitter,

“If they didn’t already exist, public libraries would strike people as the most outlandish left-wing idea.”

The words attracted 19,485 retweets and 68,632 likes.

Whenever I visit the new library in Geelong, I am amazed by the luxury of having access to this remarkable space, where children and teenagers can not only explore books, but can play dress ups, join a sing-along, take part in craft activities or play on computers, and adults can browse books, read newspapers, research historical documents or search the internet.

In Ballarat, my local library was a saviour in the early days of parenthood, providing a safe, free space to meet other mothers and provide stimulating entertainment for toddlers and babies. At the same time, job seekers drafted resumes and pored through employment opportunities on the computers and workers used the quiet spaces at the far end of the library to tap away on their laptops.

Larger libraries like the State Library of Victoria host art displays and poetry performances and even large-scale concerts. They are also important historical sites, both in their architecture and the records they hold.

However, while the establishment, maintenance and improvement of libraries might, at first glance, seem an outlandish act of generosity by governments, in reality, it is an investment in communities and clever progress.

These days, libraries are not just about books, although this element alone serves an essential long-term purpose in the life of communities. They also have a role as community meeting spaces (which are increasingly difficult to find), educators, and job centres, where users can draft resumes and search for opportunities using free internet access.

They are a rare place where the young and old can share public space, at no cost and great benefit.

It is not just public libraries that serve and important community purpose. School libraries are similar multitaskers, offering educational opportunities, exposure to the world of books and the lifelong benefits that can provide, and an oasis for students who might need respite in a quiet space.

I remember I had also loved having access to all of those books, with colourful covers, when I was at school, and the oasis of calm of the library in the chaos of a school day. School libraries were integral in helping me, and many children of my era, develop a love of reading.

Recently, I spoke to my Prep son about what he liked to do at lunch time. Of course, he liked to play with other children, and to build forts with sticks or to run around on the oval. But, he also mentioned that sometimes, he liked to go to the library and look at the books. I was surprised, but happy that such a place still exists, because the need still clearly does.

However, not everyone is as convinced of their benefits.

The Australian Council for Educational Research’s latest Staff in Australia’s Schools survey revealed between 2010 and 2013, the number of teacher-librarians in primary schools dipped drastically, from 5,600 to 1,300, with lower socio-economic areas more likely to be affected by the decline.

Australian Children’s Laureate Leigh Hobbs has spoken out about the closures, saying, “Misguided principals are either allowing [the closure of their own school libraries], or themselves getting rid of the libraries, and thinking that because of the digital age we don’t need books,”

The loss of school libraries is not just a threat in Australia. In the UK, writer and former teacher Philip Pullman has expressed his beliefs about the need for libraries in schools, saying,

“Every school should have a decent library and a trained librarian on the staff”.

According to The Conversation in the US, the number of school libraries in New York City has dropped from nearly 1,500 in 2005 to around 700, less than half that number, in 2014. Ohio lost more than 700 school library positions over a decade and in California, there is a 1-700 librarians-to-students ration – the worst of any state in the nation. The number of certified librarians in Philadelphia public schools has dropped from 176 in 1991 to 10 in 2015.

They are sobering statistics if you believe TS Eliot’s words,

“The existence of libraries is best evidence that we may have hope for the future of man.”

Let’s hope that we don’t lose sight of this truth about the importance of libraries. Whether they are in our cities or schools, they are not gifts, but wise investments in the future of our communities.

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