Public Libraries: It's Their Funding, Stupid

By Bundy, Alan | Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Public Libraries: It's Their Funding, Stupid


Bundy, Alan, Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services


The first Australian public libraries summit, commendably convened, organised and largely underwritten by the Australian Library and Information Association, was held on 16 July in Canberra. For a summary of its deliberations and outcomes see www.alia.org.au/governance/ governance/committees/public libraries/summit.sum.

The 50 or so summit delegates saw much confirmation of the work and importance of Australia's public library system. But with little federal, state and local government political or bureaucratic presence there to hear and learn, this belated first summit could only point to the real issue for the sector and its advocates. That issue for public libraries, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, is 'Their funding, stupid'.

It is the issue which now needs to be addressed with much more urgency, energy and collective focus than during the last 20 years or so that it has taken the sector's leaders, and its members who may sometimes be characterised by their poverty make do mentality--to recognize that it is very underfunded, and have the courage to speak out politically and publicly about it, locally and nationally.

So what's the urgency, if already about 60% of people of all ages use, value and rarely openly complain about their public libraries? Given the social inclusion emphasis in the summit, consider this. Volume three 'Bridging the gaps' of the landmark Victorian research reports Libraries/Building/Communities stated that

   The concern is that, among the 40% not using libraries, there are
   people who are hard to reach but who would benefit enormously from
   what the library has to offer. LBC data indicates that about 13% of
   Victorians fall into this category.

Extrapolate this 13% to the Australian population, and about 2.5 million people are currently socially excluded from public libraries. In some communities the percentage will be less, in others it will be much more. At what longterm cost is that to those people, their communities and society in general? With the current level of Australia's investment in its public library system, that percentage will not shift, and may even worsen.

The hard facts about public library constraints, performance, valuation, and return on investment are now well discovered. We do not need yet more research to confidently assert that Australia's public library system has

* an outstanding return on public investment of conservatively $5 for every dollar spent--nothing else can demonstrate such a high return

* very many more users and potential beneficiaries than any other educational, cultural or civic provision

* on a usage basis, by far the lowest per capital funding of any educational, cultural or civic provision

* at only about 9c per Australian per day, one third of international best practice public library funding.

These realities for Australia's public library system represent a massive contradiction between the political and bureaucratic platitudes about the importance of public libraries, and the failure of the three levels of Australian government to even meet to establish a national strategy and compact about the development and funding of the nation's public library system and its capacity to innovate. …

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