It’s easy to take the existence of public libraries for granted, especially these days as they struggle with the shifting nature of their role in an online world. November the 3rd marks Librabries Day and celebrates 75 years of public libraries in NSW.
Yes it wasn’t until the 1930s that public libraries were established in NSW under the auspices of the Library Act 1939. It was up to individual local councils to adopt the library act, but a subsidy was available to assist in establishment of a library. The subsidy came with strings attached requiring the council to spend a certain amount of money per head of population on library services; to make the library service being free to all residents and ratepayers and to run the library to standards accepted by the Library Board. Public libraries only needed to provide free access to “books of literary, informative and educational value” so most libraries charged a fee to borrow fiction. It wasn’t until the Library (Amendment) Act 1992 that this was changed so that libraries no longer charged for fiction.
C. Hartley Grattan was a prominent proponent of free libraries and was quoted as saying: “if no library is maintained, then one must conclude that the community is intellectually dead”. It’s interesting to contemplate if that’s still true today, or perhaps will be true tomorrow. Strangely it’s probably in the area of informative and educational books that libraries are now most vulnerable in an age where information sits in the cloud and is available from a phone or iPad. While access to fiction is still important, it’s hard to see that most libraries and publishers and moving quickly enough to re-position their organisations to remain relevant when people are reading books on their tablets. The rate of change in reading and accessing information, for both research and pleasure, is phenomenal. So much so that one can only think that libraries are going to look entirely different in another decade, let alone in another 75 years.
I can’t help but think that we are in danger of losing something important. I love reading on my mobile device and rarely use hardcopy books any more. But I still love the look and feel of a paper book, and adore a building full of them. That might just be my age speaking. But it might be that there’s something very special about a library.