I shine light into the dark- the case for public libraries

I spent my formative years as a librarian in a public library in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. It was initially a maternity leave replacement position, but one thing lead to another and I was there for 5 years, performing tasks like collection management, book acquisition, cataloguing, Internet training, book reviews and reference desk shifts. Our library service served a wide spectrum of people: old and young, English and non-English speaking, and the well-to-do and not so well-to-do.

Reading this article by Susan Nemitz On the front lines of the digital divide, made me remember those days. Internet terminals were always heavily booked, training sessions booked out very quickly and we spent a lot of time with people who needed help with a wide range of technical issues.There will always be people who need access to information and can’t afford internet access and it’s heartening to know there’s a public library to bridge that divide.

Public libraries bridge the divide in many other ways. Homework clubs, and storytimes are nothing new, as is assistance to jobseekers, but the San Francisco Public Library has employed a social worker to assist with the homeless who would use the library as a refuge.

So when I read something like the Case against Public Libraries, which questions the value of public libraries because they’re expensive to run and the books are populist, my first thought is ‘he doesn’t get what public libraries are about’.

The author seems to equate private (subscriber-based) libraries with keepers of knowledge, because they have books he would not otherwise find on the shelves of his public library (those very books may be available in a public library, but they may be out on loan). Knowledge does reside in books, but there is a wealth of information available online, access to which public libraries are keen to promote. The author himself asserts he uses the internet for useful and handy information.

Not only that, my experiences with working in a public library, have taught me that libraries are more than just books. Paul Sutherland from the Christchurch City Library said libraries weren’t about books, but ideas. To me, some of those ideas are freedom of access to information and knowledge, free access to information and knowledge and community. A public library is providing a public service to those who may not otherwise be able to afford access to a private library.

Private libraries are very good at serving the needs of their special (paying) users. I should know, because the library in which I work is a special library with a defined clientele. Public libraries also face the opportunity and challenge of trying to be everything to everyone. If they were to close, it may be to the council’s financial gain, but the community’s detriment.

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