I was invited to be one of the speakers at a rally in my town in support of a new Armidale Dumaresq Memorial Library, on July 18th 2015. This is the text of my address – note that as there were a number of speakers, and it was a cold winter morning, I kept my address brief. There is so much more I could have said!
Thank you, Jim [Councillor Jim Maher] for inviting me to speak today. I am a novelist, an occasional academic lecturing in media and communications, and a researcher with particular interests in digital media and the creative possibilities enabled by technology and global connectivity.
Libraries have traditionally been seen as places that provide access to information and to story worlds in a collection of books. In the last forty years, we’ve increasingly thought of them also as places to access certain technologies – first photocopiers, then computers and internet connections.
Those things are important, but they are not what a library does. Those are tools that libraries use for their real roles:
- Libraries enable access to essential information and services for all members of a community, irrespective of age, income, or social or cultural background;
- Libraries enable and encourage the exploration of ideas, the discovery of knowledge;
- Libraries enable the creation of knowledge, the building of skills, and the sharing of knowledge and experience;
- Libraries are a real and visible presence in a community, one which says to each and every community member that they are valued, that their intellect, their imagination, their creativity and their contribution to the community is important.
We have a much broader range of tools available now. Indeed, people have said to me that since we can now research anything we want on the internet, we don’t need libraries anymore, let alone a bigger, more spacious one with more facilities. Unfortunately, those people don’t understand the internet and how it functions. They haven’t thought through the ways in which people sort through information, assess its context, biases and meaning to form knowledge.
Do we really want to abrogate our responsibility as a community and hand it over to Google, an American corporation which exists solely to make money by selling our personal data to other corporations? That’s what Google is. Its search results are determined by algorithms which privilege certain sources of information over others, for reasons of commercial and political influence. While Google is the predominant gatekeeper now, we don’t know how the future will unfold. Whatever comes in terms of gatekeeping, it won’t be altruistic and may not be benign.
Armidale Dumaresq Council’s Strategic Plan states that it aims to ‘Support a community that values education’. While we have fine schools and a great university, I would argue that it is our responsibility as a community to ensure that we have appropriate facilities, structures and culture to support a broader environment in which education, lifelong learning, and the joy of discovering and creating knowledge is not just available to all, but a core part of our community culture. It is in all our interests, now and into the future, to take responsibility for this, and not to hand it over to foreign corporations who will provide increasingly narrow gates to access the world’s knowledge and experience.
[Edited to add: Libraries and librarians have access to other gateways to information, and willingly share the keys and show patrons how to find what they need, and guide them on interpreting what they find. As commercial imperatives increase the corporations’ dominance of the front gates, these alternative gateways will become more and more important.]
As an author, I have been privileged to visit many libraries as a guest. At all of them I have found library staff who actively engage with their patrons, provide guidance and support, and encourage a sense of community. Most of those libraries were small, the rooms cramped. There were few other patrons other than those attending my talks. However, there are two libraries I have visited that stand out in my mind as examples of vibrant community spaces. Mudgee Library is in a refurbished 19th century building; Raymond Terrace library was I think, purpose-built. These towns are less than half the size of Armidale, yet their libraries are spacious, well-designed facilities with access to a collection of books, resources and technologies, with meeting rooms and quiet study rooms, with a range of comfortable seating and work spaces. Most importantly, those libraries had patrons of all ages using those various spaces; many, many more than the older, small libraries. Maybe some of the teenagers were only there for the free wifi – but when those teenagers need to find information or services, they know that there is a safe, accessible environment in which questions are welcomed and support provided to find answers or explore ideas.
I want to stress that that confidence and safety is a critical foundation of information literacy and community participation.
A library for the twenty-first century, for a city of the twenty-first century, is a vibrant, centrally located community hub. It has space for good collections, and for access to digital collections. It has individual reading and working spaces; spaces for formal and informal group discussions and activities; it has meeting rooms; and it has makerspaces with facilities and technologies to enable learning and discovery through creative practices.
This is why I support the proposal for new library, and urge Council and the Armidale community to prioritise the building of the new library as a matter of urgency, so that we can truly say we value education, life-long learning and discovery, and community participation for all.