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.