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Forget mines: Rudd and Abbott should look to libraries to drive our next boom

The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that information technology and biotech entrepreneurs are beginning to displace mining magnates at the top of the nation’s rich lists. Out goes resources tycoon…

Investing in libraries could be a good way to boost Australia’s economy. Library image from

The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that information technology and biotech entrepreneurs are beginning to displace mining magnates at the top of the nation’s rich lists. Out goes resources tycoon Nathan Tinkler and in come the founders of tech darling Atlassian.

This is a welcome sign for all Australians concerned about the dependence of our economy on an unsustainable minerals boom. It’s also a reminder that the long-term economic health of the nation rests on our ability to become a country of highly-educated knowledge workers.

And yet when Australia’s policy makers seek ways to address shortcomings in the nation’s education system, they tend to focus exclusively on the formal institutions of learning – our schools, universities and TAFEs – while overlooking one of the most powerful engines of informal education and social capital generation.

Our national public library network is an engine capable of making a meaningful and measurable contribution to the country’s transition to a knowledge-based economy. Yet during this election season, when federal investment in education is a hot political topic, neither Kevin Rudd nor Tony Abbott has indicated they are even aware of the role public libraries can and do play in helping achieve our national education mission.

Here are five factors that make Australia’s public libraries such a potent driver of economic development – in the form of growing educational capabilities across all sectors of our population.

First, forget your assumptions about public libraries as dusty and dry repositories of books and magazines. Better yet, treat yourself to one of the great free experiences in your own backyard and pay a visit to your local library. Libraries are making the transition “from loaning to learning,” transforming themselves into community resources for learning opportunities for residents of all ages.

Second, our libraries may not announce themselves loudly, but they’re more ubiquitous than McDonalds and have more members than our RSLs. With over 1,500 branches, they’re in nearly every community and they deliver essential learning services to rural, regional and even remote areas of the nation. More than 10-million Australians carry library cards and as a nation we pay more than 110-million visits to our libraries every year.

Third, libraries are proven multipliers of economic growth. Studies conducted by several state libraries in Australia (including Queensland and Victoria) conclude that every dollar invested in libraries returns A$3.20 of economic benefit, verified by overseas research.

And yet our libraries exist on a pittance of a budget, supported almost entirely by local government that has a varied record in terms of its commitment. Most state governments have seen fit to drastically reduce their support for local libraries over the last two decades. And the federal government has comprehensively ignored public libraries, both in its policy debates and its budgeting process.

As a nation, we spend about 12 cents per person per day on our libraries – compare this to governments’ billions spent on sporting stadiums, $55 million every year on the Grand Prix, or hundreds of millions spent on political advertising just in recent months.

Fourth, public libraries are the only place in every community that offers free access to the internet and, increasingly, the National Broadband Network. The NBN is opening up new opportunities for online learning, and libraries can and should be at the vanguard of this change. Recently one of the largest marketers of online education, Open Universities Australia, announced a partnership with a handful of NSW-based public libraries to provide some physical infrastructure and support for their online learning students located in those communities.

Beyond this, public libraries across Australia have, for many years, delivered a growing range of services that leverage their positions in their communities to deliver services ranging from pre-literacy programs for infants and toddler to online tutoring assistance for school-aged students. And perhaps most importantly, they’re the informal re-entry point to the nation’s education system for millions of Australian adults who want to improve their literacy and numeracy, learn a new skill or get a better job.

Given this transformation, our libraries deserve a new name to reflect their changing role in our society. They’re digital learning hubs, public education commons, and lifelong learning centres. As such, they also deserve the attention of our political leaders.

That attention seemingly will never come until there is another open national inquiry into the accessibility, roles, performance, and potential of public libraries to help Australia lift its game in so many areas critical to its future. The last inquiry of this kind was in 1974 – nearly 40 years ago.

Which national leader will be the first to step up to the mark?

Do we want a future where we read less about our billionaire mining magnates and more about the opportunities for social, economic and cultural advancement that result from becoming a nation of highly educated lifelong learners? If so, then we need our elected leaders - at national, state, and local government levels - to recognise that public libraries have a critical role to play in that transformation and to invest in them accordingly.

This article was co-authored by Dr Alan Bundy AM, University Librarian, the University of South Australia (Retired), Jack Goodman, Friends of Libraries Australia National Committee Member and David Beckett, Associate Professor at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

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5 Comments sorted by

  1. Trevor S

    Jack of all Trades

    I used to agree with you but I haven't been into the library for a 4 years. You will be happy to know they are spending $9 Million putting in a new one near where I live, I was against it. (They took a straw poll) The majority seemed to be for it with the reason given being if we don't spend it here someone else will spend that money elsewhere.... no one (from the public) gave ANY of the reason you suggested

    I would rather see money spent changing to IP laws and ensuring we have access to the…

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    1. Faultty

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Trevor S

      I gather from your response, that you're technologically savvy, financially secure and highly literate.

      But millions of Australian aren't. Many people in your local community need your local library's resources because they can't afford their own. They need your local librarians skills: to do their research for them, to teach them how to use technology.

      Your local library makes your community a better, more equitable, more informed place to live in a way that changing IP laws and the installation of the NBN can't.

      A tablet PC is out of the reach of many people. But I bet your library has considered a lending scheme for them, and definitely offers classes in how to use them.

      Next time there's a vote for more library spending in your community, I really hope that you have more compassion for the disadvantaged who live alongside you. You may not be aware of them, but your library is.

    2. Mark Norman

      logged in via email

      In reply to Faultty

      I work in a library - so yes I'm biassed. Trevor S. is missing a whole section of his community that I suspect actively use their library for all manner of services. Libraries wouldn't survive if there was little need for them. Yes, we still loan books, CDs, DVDs and talking books. But we also provide English language classes, homework help, activities for children, holiday programs, training in using computers, social media, tablets and mobile phones. As well as being a safe place to meet people. Libraries are very accountable for the limited funding they receive and are benchmarked across the state and nation.

    3. Fiona K.

      Library Team Leader

      In reply to Trevor S

      The fact you haven't been into a library for 4 years means you've missed the major changes taking place for information organisations not just in this country but internationally. Libraries are chasing the technological dream which requires the $9 million and more which was put into your local library in the hope of providing services and collections that compare with other countries where the literacy standards are much higher. Its a well known fact that academically higher performing countries pour a lot of funding not only into education but also into public libraries and their services.

      In regards the horse and carriage they didn't die out. They just transformed into a new phenomenon called the automobile.

    4. Katy MacDougal

      Research Officer

      In reply to Trevor S

      Perhaps the majority seemed for it ... because they actually were! One of the big libraries near where I live got a brand new building (shared with an art gallery and shopping centre) and is full of people every time I go in there or past there to the shops. The design is magnificent (done by an architect). There are fantastic reading nooks in the kids' section where I have seen whole family groups reading together on the weekends. There's free wi-fi and many people work there quietly with their laptops, or use the computers provided. I see all ages in there and the only complaint I've heard is that it needs more books!!

      You forget Trevor that some people can't or don't use virtual libraries and that yes even in this day and age, not everyone has a decent computer to use (or have one at all). For some the library is a quiet public space and for some on the 'edges' of our community, this is a safe haven. Libraries are community as well as information hubs.