Australia Public libraries about 'more than just books', say South Australians fearing funding cuts
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"Why does anyone need a public library anymore?"
The question was put to ABC Radio Adelaide this week after it was claimed the South Australian government was seeking to reduce its funding to council-run libraries in the upcoming budget.
This is the digital age, after all, and with resources accessible at the click of a mouse, why would anyone need to leave the house to find a book they need?
But for those involved with libraries, the idea that they were just about books represented an "outdated understanding of what public libraries" offer.
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"I've been answering that question for the 20 years I've been working in libraries but we've changed so much in that time," Public Libraries of SA president Ben Footner said.
"People really need to come in and see what they've become now, because they are so much more than that."
Mr Footner said modern libraries had become important community hubs for people where, as well as borrowing books, DVDs, CDs, magazines, newspapers and children's toy, they studied, researched or worked, utilising free internet access, meeting rooms, photocopiers and printers.
"There are also people coming to access services like digital help, to learn how to use their phones and things like that, particularly older people, and also our long-term programs for early literacy as well," he said.
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Mr Footner said online services in e-books and audio books had "gone through the roof" since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but it was the libraries themselves that had become most popular.
"People love having that space they can call their own, that's free and they don't need to pay to use, and they can just be in them and feel comfortable and hopefully a little bit inspired in their surroundings too," he said.
Some were exhibition spaces for art and historical works, with a growing number of councils incorporating libraries into their civic centres as cultural hubs.
Funding under negotiation
According to the Local Government Association, SA councils spend about $86 million on libraries annually, with $25 million funded by the state government.
But $20 million of that is delivered through a long-standing agreement with the LGA that expires in June.
Mr Footner, who is also the manager at Prospect Public Library, said negotiations were underway for a new agreement and, if it went ahead as currently proposed, it would mean "less books on shelves" and "probably less content online".
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The SA Government would not be drawn on the topic, but simply said it allocated "significant funding to libraries each year".
"This year's [2021-22 State] Budget is still being finalised and will be handed down in June," a spokesperson said.
ABC listeners up in arms
For some 50 respondents to the ABC's text line, however, any funding reduction would be symptomatic of politicians and "barbarian bureaucrats" who had not visited a library in years.
"Some politicians can't see pass the end of their own noses. When was the last time any of them set foot in their local library? Libraries perform many functions. They are not just about books any more," texted Deb from Warradale.
"My local rural library provides books with state-wide interlibrary borrowing, DVDs, audio books, papers, free internet and computer access, school holiday activities, a local JP [Justice of the Peace], and is also the tourist centre and much more," texted Graeme from Waikerie.
"West Torrens library runs numerous book clubs, school holiday programs, English language classes, storytelling, JP access and much more. Where's the commitment to literacy from this State Government?" texted Cate.
"Hands off libraries, barbarian bureaucrats," texted an anonymous contributor.
A 'percentage' reduction
LGA SA president Angela Evans said the government was looking at reducing library funding by "a percentage", and council libraries could to be funded on a "year by year basis, rather than the certainty of a long-term agreement".
She said negotiations were underway but the LGA would not accept any agreement that reduced funding for libraries.
"Research shows that for every dollar invested in libraries, there's $2.80 worth of benefit delivered back into our community," Ms Evans said.
"There's a whole range of services and programs that are run through there, which provide opportunities for people across all ages to get together," she said.
"They're not just places where you borrow books anymore."
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