Academic journal article Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services

A Nation Reading for Life: The Challenge for Australia's Public Libraries

Academic journal article Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services

A Nation Reading for Life: The Challenge for Australia's Public Libraries

Article excerpt

Alan Bundy President Friends of Libraries Australia

The fifth annual Report to the Nation by Friends of Libraries Australia surveys the recognition of the importance of reading in Australia. It concludes that increased political awareness of public libraries, funding of their collections, and the recognition of reader development as core strategic business throughout the Australian public library system, are required.

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Reading is critical to people in society and the sustenance of thinking and questioning democratic societies. Without it, no true educational revolution can occur in Australia; people cannot engage fully in society; they cannot benefit from new learning opportunities and technologies; it is difficult for them to find meaningful employment; and it can make life culturally and socially isolating.

However the challenge and a primary responsibility of Australia's public library system is encouraging and enabling people to not only read, but to read well.

Australia's 1600 public libraries, including those for the vision impaired, play a major national role in promoting early childhood literacy development and in providing access to reading resources for people of all ages. They lend over 180 million items a year to their 12 million users, for an annual investment of only $35 per Australian.

Since 2004, consistent with international trends, there has been attention by some of those libraries to reader development through holistic strategies to improve and widen the reading experience of their users, and its benefits for them. Those strategies have focused on improved reader advice and information through staff training, which has been enabled by a NSW initiated but now nationally available Reading Rewards program. Other elements of their strategies have included the redesign of library layouts and arrangement of collections for more attractive and easier user access, better signage, greater face out display of books, book clubs, books on prescription (bibliotherapy), family reading centres, author visits, use of technology, and collection audits.

However Australia is behind, for example the UK, in national recognition of the importance of reading and the contribution that public libraries do, and can, make to developing a nation of readers. This is indicated by 2008 being the second Year of Reading in the UK in ten years, and its endorsement by the UK government.

From the evidence of a 2008 national conference on reader development, and a 2008 survey undertaken by Friends of Libraries Australia, many Australian public libraries do not have the knowledgeable staffing, staff training, funding, and state/territory based encouragement and support to become proactive providers of reader development for their communities. In the needed accelerated adoption of reader development policies and practices by all Australian public libraries, a limiting factor is the continuing low investment by state and territory governments in their public library systems. One cumulating consequence of this underinvestment is inadequate and ageing collections, as confirmed in an independent 2006 Victorian audit which identified the need for a three year public libraries collection revitalisation strategy by the state government of Victoria costing $77 million. A similar finding would be likely from public library collection audits in the other states and territories, particularly in NSW and Queensland.

For Australia's public library system to maximize its contribution towards a reading nation, requires

* state and territory governments to invest in the revitalisation of the collections of their public library systems, and commit to greater ongoing investment in them.

* the Australian government to recognise that its educational revolution and its aspiration to make Australia the most Asia-literate western country is reading, not computer, dependent. …

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