Public libraries

Content

Background

In 1990, the Australia Council published a major study by Hans Hoegh-Guldberg of book buying and borrowing behaviour in Australia, Books: Who Reads Them? This led to a long list of studies of public libraries including North Sydney, Lane Cove and Campbelltown in the Sydney Metropolitan Area and Bathurst and Oberon in country NSW. Most were funded by the State Library of NSW, a few by other bodies such as the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA). Several reports in the 1990s were co-authored by social scientist Sevan Sivaciyan of Sevan Research Consulting, Sydney.

The State Library commissioned the first library project, Student Usage of Public Libraries in New South Wales (1991), a large statistical study which established that students accounted for 35% of visits to public libraries during the survey week of which two-thirds were study-related. The survey was based on a random sample of libraries resulting in valid responses from 12,900 students in main and branch libraries throughout NSW. It allowed detailed mapping to be made in each of eight metropolitan and country areas of student numbers, frequency of study-related visits, student distributions by gender, age and work status, use of other libraries, and student attitudes to public libraries. 

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Libraries as a public good

The marketplace cannot always provide particular services in a politically acceptable form or handle what is known as externalities, where actions by one group affect the well-being of other groups but the relevant costs and benefits are not reflected in market prices (refer Tyler Cowen paper for background). Government intervention is required to allow public goods to be made available, including public health, welfare, education, R&D, national security and a clean environment, among many others such as support for the arts.

We have noted elsewhere in this website that cultural and environmental matters seem to rate relatively low in the pecking order when political decisions are made (one hopes this is changing as the public acceptance of this issues grows). Public libraries sometimes have to justify themselves against the charge that as a public good they are not economically viable in strict cost-benefit terms. This may not make policy-makers want to shut them down, but their level of funding may be declining relative to other government budget items considered more urgent, as is also happening for other arts and cultural goods and services.

One of the main problems for public goods providers is the difficulty of demonstrating their long-term national cultural, societal and – ultimately – economic value. So the alternative might be to find ways to demonstrate the economic benefit of public libraries. The topic was taken up in Hans’s small preliminary report for the NSW Branch of ALIA, The Economic and Social Role of Public Libraries (1991), where the most suitable theoretical basis was found to be the time-allocation theory developed by Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker and adapted to libraries by Nancy Van House.

The debate on how to demonstrate the broader and long-term benefits of libraries and other public goods continues to this day, as illustrated by a seminar at the Australia Council featuring British cultural sector expert John Holden on the theme of why culture needs a democratic mandate. One problem is that these things are not always statistically measurable, as David Throsby has discussed in relation to cultural capital, and many others in association with the greatest market failure, climate change. It may be possible to illuminate the problem through scenario analysis, and while the ultimate instrument is to develop better statistics, the combination of these with alternative scenario paths may provide the most efficient means of convincing a public which is not necessarily sceptical but ultimately short of information.

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Fairfield senior user and non-user survey

The City of Fairfield in Sydney’s southwest (population about 190,000), is Australia’s most ethnically diverse local government area. Two-thirds of the population speak a language other than English, and the proportion is much higher for the senior age groups who were almost invariably born outside Australia. More than half the total population was born overseas in one of more than 130 countries.

The management of Fairfield City Library was concerned that statewide user satisfaction surveys (pilot conducted by Hans Hoegh-Guldberg in 1997, final survey in 2000) generally showed increasing library use among senior age groups, but in Fairfield library usage dropped off quite dramatically. In fact, only 13% of users of Fairfield City Library were aged 50-69, compared with 37% in NSW as a whole. This is exacerbated because Fairfield’s population is aging rapidly.

Hans was commissioned in 2004 to survey this issue, with an emphasis on satisfaction levels as well as the impact of English language skills. Both users and non-users of the five libraries comprising the Fairfield City Library Service were surveyed in four different language groups: Arabic/Assyrian, Spanish (mainly South Americans), Vietnamese and English.

Senior users of the library were dissatisfied with lack of facilities despite the fact that the library keeps building a large collection of books and other materials in each main language, and employ staff and volunteers speaking their languages. Lack of language skills and being unfamiliar with libraries were large factors. The most positive communities were the Arabic, Assyrian and South American groups, while the largest community, the Vietnamese, were less likely to be convinced that public libraries could be useful to them.

The proportion of senior age groups in Fairfield is set to increase significantly in a generally falling population. So the survey was timely. For copies of the Aged Services Survey please contact Fairfield City Council or library manager Anne Hall.

The survey report was reported to continue to provide useful inputs. The results were being incorporated into the library’s new marketing plan and into Fairfield City Council’s Aged Strategy. The report was the catalyst for a promotional DVD launched in 2006, which featured older volunteer helpers in the library talking about their experiences and older students about their conversation classes.

In short, it placed this library service in the centre of the argument that libraries are a public good not to be valued purely on economic grounds. Furthermore, libraries provide a valuable service in integrating diverse population elements in a community which may have some controversial features today that can be overcome through informed measures to provide a better tomorrow.

Last revised: 28 April 2009

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