Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Libraries: Silence Across the Pacific Too

By Derek Whitehead
President, Australian Library and Information Association

Thank you to Carl Grant for inviting me to guestblog for the new Commentary blog. Carl kicked off with a post entitled Libraries: A Silence That Is Deafening.

Carl is concerned that there is no national vision for libraries, and they are nowhere on the national agenda. Libraries have a lot to contribute in the current environment, but in reality, they have hardly been touched by the huge volume of increased federal infrastructure spending being unleashed now – at best, a cameo role in a trillion dollar performance, Carl suggests. We are part of the national information and education infrastructure, so why aren’t we sharing in the massive infrastructure rebuild going on now?

Quite true, and very distressing. It is pretty much as true of Australia, unfortunately, as it is of the US. Libraries did not rate in the outcomes of the Australia 2020 Summit a year ago. They have played only a small part in the current spending on infrastructure.

Here are a few messages from Australia.
  • Two new studies of school libraries and librarians by Edith Cowan University, in Perth, Western Australia – see this link that shows that half of Australia’s school libraries have less than A$10,000 a year to spend, while there is a deteriorating infrastructure and chronic under-staffing.
  • The Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) is holding a Public Libraries Summit on 16 July. We would really love all three levels of government to pitch in and support the public library system – local, state and national – as part of a national information infrastructure. But of A$42 billion provided in February in the National Building and Jobs Plan, A$550 million will go to the Community Infrastructure Program, and some of that (we don’t know how much) will go to public libraries. Getting our own act together is the first step. See this link.
  • Not just the public library infrastructure. In Australia’s national report on innovation, Venturous Australia, Dr Terry Cutler proposed a National Information Strategy which “optimizes the generation and flow of ideas and information in the Australian economy.” He stressed the importance of national collections, and recommended more money for cultural and scientific collections, specific funding for open access repositories, support for key state collections as well as national collections, and more.
  • Australia’s Friends of Libraries (FOLA) have suggested that in times of economic downturn, libraries have an enhanced value to the country – their use is counter-cyclical, to quote the jargon. “The critical message from the current and previous economic downturns is that when the economy is weaker, families and people need, use and value their public libraries even more.” See their statement in The Economic Downturn and Public Libraries.
One response to questioning about the future of libraries – my response in fact – is to re-assert the values which libraries hold. The values are more important than books (which have taken a few hits in recent years one would have to admit), more important than Google (which wrong-headed librarians see as a rival rather than a complement), more important than Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 (actually something like Library 8.0 – we’ve been around a long time). ALIA has strong values – see this link.

The values are access to information, inclusiveness, information democracy, the right to know. Library values are very important for everyone.