Focus on Australian libraries
By Margaret Adolphus
"We've been sitting here watching with interest the austerity measures introduced in the UK and thanking our lucky stars as librarians or library operators that we're the lucky country at the moment" (Australian library manager).
When the financial crisis erupted in 2008, the response of the then Australian Government was to inject a stimulus package into the economy; that, together with the country's plentiful natural resources, helped it avoid the worst of the recession.
That may have helped libraries avoid the swingeing cuts experienced in the UK and USA. Although budgets have certainly not increased on a per capita basis, there is growth in budgets in some areas, such as the Gold Coast, because of a rapidly growing population.
Another feature of Australia is its peculiar demographic – around 90 per cent of its population live within two hours' drive of the coast, near cities, while around two million live in the interior, in relative isolation.
This creates potential for a divide between the information haves and have-nots, although the situation may be improved by the programme to roll out broadband over the whole country. The National Broadband Network is in fact the single largest infrastructure investment made by an Australian government.
Otherwise, Australian libraries face the same challenges as do libraries in most of the other advanced nations:
- the rapid pace of technology, and the way it changes our relationship to information;
- our enhanced service expectations and desire for instant answers;
- the increase in non-book media, whether games, toys, DVDs or licensed databases;
- the growth of electronic media which is licensed rather than purchased;
- the continuing importance of the book despite this; and
- the continuing need for the library as place, whether to study or as a community hub.
State and public libraries
Australia has three tiers of government, federal, state (6) and territories (2). States have considerable powers in certain areas, such as police, education, hospitals and public transport. They are also responsible for the creation of local government, which is ultimately responsible for public libraries.
Australia has a number of state libraries. State libraries act as the heritage or memory centre for their region, and support the public libraries in their state.
On its website, the State Library of Queensland describes itself as: "the primary custodian of Queensland's documentary heritage".
Its collection encompasses material on Queensland's history, culture, geography, literature and art, and includes not only books, newspapers and magazines, but also painting, decorative and graphic art, music, photographs and maps. A digitization programme is under way.
It also partners with local government to provide over 330 local public libraries. The latter were recently surveyed on their expectations, which were that the state libraries should act as advocates and help with capacity building and training, particularly in the sorts of "non-traditional skills" necessary for empowering libraries as centres of learning and community.
They offer particular support to smaller regional libraries and those in the outlying rural areas, such as a country lending service, providing stock which is regularly exchanged.
Some state or territory libraries, such as the ones in Northern Territory and Queensland, provide library services to remote communities through libraries and knowledge centres, or indigenous knowledge centres. These also encourage the communities to establish their own digital archives through specially developed software (see Stroud, 2009).
Public libraries are funded largely by local government, from local ratepayers, with a small contribution from the state government. The split in Queensland, for example, is 90/10.
There is no uniform funding model: Queensland gets assistance from the state to purchase collection items, whereas Victorian State Government contributes some running costs to its libraries.
At the ALIA Public Libraries Summit at the National Library of Australia in July 2008, the editor of The Australian Library Journal bemoaned the lack of federal funding:
"How can it be that public libraries are so important to the federal government – 'precious common ground in which social inclusion quietly blossoms' – yet so easily overlooked when the bill arrives?"(McCallum, 2009).
On the other hand, Ross Duncan, manager of library and gallery services for Queensland's Sunshine Coast Council, is of the opinion that the lack of a consistent funding model, and the fact that most funding is at local level, preserves libraries from an across the board cut.
What is clear, though, is that libraries are appreciated – but it is the word "public" rather than "library" that wins the day.
Duncan, who is also chair of one of the key bodies for public libraries – Public Libraries Australia – quotes a British thinker (Watson, 2011) as saying that libraries are public spaces,
" ... the keystones delivering the building blocks of social cohesion, especially for the very young and very old".
Such thinking, insists Duncan, predicates that the future of libraries must be independent of the future of books, particularly as in five years' time 50 per cent of books may be published in electronic format. So, a progressive library must look at its floor space, and give less to collections and more to public meeting places.
Sunshine Coast Libraries is using its space, and cashing in on its role as information provider, to hold training events. It has run a cutting-edge programme on small business development, tools for which may be developed and deployed countrywide.
Anyone doubting public support for libraries should take a look at what happened in the State of Victoria. The latter carried out a study demonstrating the economic value of public libraries, using the same economic multiplier as in American studies.
That notwithstanding, the state Government announced a $25 million decrease in the funding of Victorian libraries (part of an overall budget cut). A huge social media campaign ensued, as a result the proposed cuts were reinstated.
This shows, maintains Duncan, that public libraries are supported less by economic argument, and more by public engagement and advocacy.
The Sunshine Coast is far from atypical: the idea of the library as a community hub predominates throughout Queensland and is also seen in the states of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.
As public libraries move away from their traditional role as book lenders, they tend to employ people with a range of qualifications and skills, such as IT, community development, business, and teaching. In Queensland, which is fairly representative of Australia as a whole, 25 per cent of staff are qualified librarians.
Another trend is towards automation, with those libraries that can afford it, which enables staff to move into value added, rather than purely transactional, roles.
Academic libraries in Australia face much the same challenges as their counterparts in other developed countries.
According to a cross-study of British and Australian second tier managers in university libraries (Walton et al., 2009), the challenges and pressures are much the same in both places – more restricted funding, more e-resources, meeting the needs of the post-Google generation, using social software and funnelling library information out to where the student is in their own space.
Walton et al. maintain that Australian academic libraries have a stronger alliance with the corporate rather than the higher education environment, reflected in the more frequent use of the term "manager" and, presumably, in more business-like practices.
Another librarian, from a university supporting a large rural community, also talks about the need to manage user expectations, justifying vital research resources with relatively low usage in an environment dependent on return on investment as a measure, the increasing cost of resources without a corresponding increase in funding, and the need to provide an equitable service to all clients whether they are on campus or in distance education, in Australia or off-shore.
Australia has a strong research culture, similar to the UK in that it is subject to national measurement systems linked to funding – Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) has just superseded the Research Quality Framework. It also has a strong infrastructure for e-research, and its 2008 stimulus package included a strong boost ($2.7 billion) for research and tertiary education.
And, academic libraries have been strongly involved in supporting e-research, according to Jennifer Thomas of Queensland University of Technology (QUT).
QUT is attempting to lead in the development and delivery of e-research support services, and the Building eResearch Support Capabilities project drew on existing strengths, including the university's support for open access, and the considerable skill of its liaison and research librarians, to develop data management systems and procedures, and a greater understanding of the support needs of researchers (Thomas, 2011, p. 41ff).
One result was the creation by the library of a workforce plan to reflect the e-research agenda, including data and research support librarians.
Currently, there are two librarians in post to support research: a research support librarian, and an e-research access coordinator – see http://www.library.qut.edu.au/services/research.jsp – who together support all aspects of research, from the management of data to uploading to a repository and advice on where to publish.
Assisting researchers will become increasingly important with the advent of ERA. Repositories (of which there are currently 63 in Australia) will become a means of providing access to ERA representatives, and library staff will have an important role in archiving research outputs.
On the other hand, ERA may, according to Alison Slocombe at Southern Cross University, mitigate against librarians' role in promoting open access, in its insistence that researchers publish in "high status" journals.
As elsewhere, e-resources predominate, and there is increased use of e-books. At Southern Cross University, for example, 90 per cent of journal titles, and just over 20 per cent of monographs, are available online.
Southern Cross University Library likes e-books (it only acquires multiple licences) because it promotes equity of access to all users, including distance learners. It is investigating, on behalf of the university, models of providing e-textbooks, and experimenting with patron-driven acquisition, as usage statistics show better uptake of these than ones acquired by librarians.
One of the most important roles of academic librarians anywhere is helping students to be information literate in their chosen field, and Australia is no exception.
Libraries follow the best practice guidelines set out by CAUL – Best Practice Characteristics for Developing Information Literacy in Australian Universities: A Guideline, as well as the ones in the Australian and New Zealand Information Literacy Framework.
Both these documents emphasize the importance of developing information literacy in collaboration with academic staff and embedding it within the curriculum, as opposed to stand-alone library sessions.
Most university libraries have subject or liaison librarians, whose role is to engage with the relevant group of academic staff.
Glance through the pages of academic library sites, and you will come across online subject guides and tutorials. Many universities, according to Ruth Quinn, director of library services at Charles Darwin University (CDU), concentrate their efforts on online delivery, due to the large number of distance or external students, providing face-to-face delivery according to student demand.
CDU's LibGuides have proved very popular with students, while Southern Cross University has online tutorials in the form of LibraryTV, and Assignment Navigator, both of which make use of video.
Serving dispersed communities
Australia's geography makes it important for libraries to reach those who cannot access the library in person, and a recurrent theme throughout this section has been the desire to help distance students.
Southern Cross University in New South Wales serves a large rural community, many of whom prefer to study by distance. These are the measures the university takes, according to librarian Alison Slocombe, to meet their requirements:
- Provision of online resources, interlibrary loans, and a distance learning service (including posting books and photocopies articles and book sections).
- E-mail, chat and a toll-free phone reference service.
- Using social media (Twitter and Facebook) to push out messages about library services and resources, as well as having a presence in the University's Blackboard course management system.
- Online tutorials, as described above.
Resource sharing and digitization
According to Paul Genoni of Curtin University of Technology (Genoni, 2009, p. 251):
"Australian librarianship has an enviable record of cooperation in building critical technical and service infrastructure".
One example of infrastructure sharing is UNILINC, a consortium (which styles itself as a cooperative) formed to develop a library network. It offers member universities a fully integrated library management system (ALEPH) on a cost-sharing basis, as well as reciprocal borrowing.
University Library Australia is another reciprocal borrowing scheme whereby staff and students can borrow from other university libraries.
The Council of Australian University Libraries (CAUL) has its own consortium for the purchase of large electronic publishing packages and aggregated data sets – CAUL Electronic Information Resources Consortium, or CEIRC. CEIRC negotiates deals with vendors/publishers on behalf of its members, who participate as appropriate for course offerings and budget.
Resource sharing is not, however, limited to university libraries: Electronic Resources Australia (ERA) is a consortium for collaborative purchasing of electronic resources intended for all library types, although primarily supported by state, public, school, special and training and further education libraries (presumably because academic libraries have their own consortium).
ERA, which grew out of a concern to protect those libraries which could not afford expensive electronic resources and did not possess the skill to negotiate, goes to market for products every two to three years, according to Roxanne Missingham from the Australian Parliamentary Library.
Products are selected according to recommendations from a selection panel. The current product list can be seen at: http://era.nla.gov.au/product_list/, and is expected to expand next year (in 2012). (For more information, see Missingham, 2009).
The use of social media by libraries in Australia is patchy – there are some who make very imaginative use of it, but the vast majority of public libraries, according to Ross Duncan are, as is the case in the UK, constrained by having to use the IT systems and branding of the councils of which they are part.
On the other hand, there comes a time when a library website is visited and used as frequently as are its physical branches.
"I think the willingness of our members to uptake virtual services has increased quite dramatically this year" says Duncan. "We're probably at a tipping point in the next 12 to 18 months where we dedicate someone to manage the social media presence and other online activities."
Gold Coast City Council, in South East Queensland, one of the largest library services in Australia, has clearly reached that "tipping point" – it has an online presence which it treats like a typical branch, with someone in charge.
Screenshot of Gold Coast City Council Libraries website
Elsewhere, three libraries in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Victoria (Casey-Cardinia Library Corporation, Eastern Regional Libraries, and Frankston Library Service) all make imaginative use of Web 2.0 to push their services out to the user.
Their experiences are described in Gosling et al. (2009) and they claim that "using Web 2.0 tools has enabled us to be content providers in our own right, not just facilitators providing other people's content", and also to provide more user-driven content with reviews (see: readerscornerreviews.blogspot.com).
Just over an hour's drive away, Yarra Plenty is another forward looking library.
Screenshot of Yarra Plenty Library website
A number of librarians have been involved in the 23 Things programme, which helps library staff to implement new technologies. A case study of an academic library, at Edith Cowan University Library, can be found in Gross and Leslie, 2008.
Conclusion – looking backwards and forwards
A good library strategy must look both to the future and the past. To the future to ensure that it can reach its users in ways that they will be receptive to. To the past, to preserve past users' heritage and culture so that the future can understand.
Australia, despite being a young nation, has a fine heritage – two world wars, the first European settlers making their break from the harsh laws of eighteenth century England, and above all, Australia's indigenous peoples whose history goes back far beyond that of the earliest European inhabitants.
The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) has one of the world's premier collection of materials on the subject, and is building a digital archive of Aboriginal culture.
The archive started off digitizing audio video materials, some of which were at risk of perishing, physical items in digital format, such as CD-ROMs etc.; and copyright-free digital material (Stroud, 2009).
Its most recent achievement is to digitize all 500 editions of The Koori Mail, the fortnightly newspaper for indigenous Australians – see http://www.aiatsis.gov.au/koorimail/index.html.
How ever much librarians need to future-proof themselves, they should never forget their role as custodians of culture. A keeping place is an Aboriginal concept which describes a place where precious memories and artefacts are conserved. AIATSIS library is a keeping place for the culture of the first Australians.
Genoni, P. (2008), "Towards a national print repository for Australia: where from and where to?", Library Management, Vol. 29 No. 3, pp. 241-253.
Gosling, M., Harper, G. and McLean, M. (2009), "Public library 2.0: some Australian experiences", The Electronic Library, Vol. 27 No. 5, pp. 846-855.
Gross, J. and Leslie, L. (2008,) "Twenty-three steps to learning Web 2.0 technologies in an academic library", The Electronic Library, Vol. 26 No. 6, pp. 790-802.
McCallum, I. (2009), "Editorial", Australian Library Journal, Vol. 58 No. 4, 2009, November.
Missingham, R. (2009), "Electronic Resources Australia: a national approach to purchasinge", Library Management, Vol. 30 No. 6/7, pp. 444-453
Stroud, R. (2009), "Hunter-gathering in the digital world to build a keeping place for the future", The Electronic Library, Vol. 27 No. 5, pp. 856 -862.
Thomas, J. (2011), "Future-proofing: the academic library's role in e-research support", Library Management, Vol. 32 No. 1/2, pp. 37-47.
Walton, G., Burke, L. and Oldroyd, M. (2009), "Managing university libraries: A cross Australian/UK study of second tier managers in university libraries", Library Management, Vol. 30 No. 4/5, pp 240-252.
Watson, R. (2011), "Public libraries: A long-overdue argument", in What's Next: Top Trends, blog, posted 27 August 2011, available at: http://toptrends.nowandnext.com/2011/08/27/public-libraries-a-long-over… [accessed 13 September 2011].