Let’s not think of libraries as gifts, but as wise investments

There are plenty of things that young people feel aggrieved about being saddled with. Climate change 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.

Whenever I visit the new Geelong Library and Heritage Centre (the Dome), 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. Adults can browse books, read newspapers, research historical documents or search the internet.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 – a safe, free space to meet other mothers, while providing stimulating entertainment for toddlers and babies. At the same time, job-seekers drafted resumés 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.

Large 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 for 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 these are an investment in communities and clever progress.

These days, public 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), and as educators – and job centres, where users can draft resumés and search for opportunities using free internet access.

These libraries are rare places where the young and old can share public space, at no cost and to great benefit.

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

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

Recently, I spoke to my Prep-year son about what he likes to do at lunchtime. Of course, he likes 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 likes to go to the library and look at the books. I was surprised, but happy that such a place still exists, because the need for one still clearly does.

However, not everyone is as convinced of the benefits of libraries as I am.

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

Australian Children’s Laureate for 2016–17, 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 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 was a 1:700 librarians-to-students ratio – the worst of any state in the nation. The number of certified librarians in Philadelphia’s public schools dropped from 176 in 1991 to 10 in 2015.

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

The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet 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, libraries are not gifts, but wise investments in the future of our communities.

This article was originally published by Fleur Morrison on her website Readability, and has been republished here with permission.

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