It’s hard to know what you’ll find.
It’s your gateway to everything humans have ever learned or imagined.
There’ll still be rows and rows of books, but in 2016 that’s only part of what you’ll find at the library.
So why is it in greater danger than ever before?
The same boomer generation that has pulled the rug out from under young people in careers, education, pensions, and housing is also threatening our access to knowledge and culture. Cuts to Australia’s arts organisations are bad enough, but a neighbourhood library is even more important: it’s the place where all, rich and poor, young and old, can learn, explore, play and create on their own terms.
The threat of massive cuts has been hanging over libraries in Western Australia for more than a year now. The National Library is struggling with the Turnbull government’s “efficiency dividend” and is expecting to shed jobs, putting their internationally praised digital service Trove at risk.
Even more ominously, back in 2014 the federal government cut funding to the National Drugs Sector Information Service, a specialist library used by doctors, social workers, and health experts working with vulnerable Australian families. Despite a desperate campaign by the library association ALIA, that library’s collections are now in silent storage with no home or plan for what happens next.
You won’t find reassurance overseas. The BBC reports that the UK has closed more than 300 libraries in the last six years.
Lambeth, a council in south London, recently decided to shut a number of library branches. Their plan was to reopen them as fee-charging gyms, with unstaffed bookshelves replacing the previous service. The community responded with protests, and a group of activists locked themselves inside the 110-year-old Carnegie Library, defying the council for a ten-day siege that made national news.
That’s not happening here yet, but all it takes is for an Australian government to buy that austere model of public funding and we could see the same confrontations Down Under.
In London, library lovers young and old joined forces to face off against police and occupy their local branch. How many Aussie communities are ready to do the same for their local librarians if cuts come?
The good news is that public libraries are at their best under pressure.
Scott Bonner of Ferguson, Missouri was the sole full-time library staffer when riots broke out there in 2014. Schools and other public venues closed during the violence, but the library remained open. Bonner invited teachers and other volunteers to run activities in a safe space for children, young people, and families. Accepting the American Library of the Year award in 2015, Bonner made clear that he’d simply stayed true to the library’s mission: serving the community.
Closer to home, Kiwi librarians also showed courage when earthquakes struck the city of Christchurch in 2010 and 2011. Library staff there adapted to the crisis and delivered emergency services. They issued permits for the restricted Red Zone, ran social media for the city council, and even took story time sessions into emergency refuge shelters to entertain children and give anxious parents a break.
“In the event of an emergency, there is something that everyone can do, big, small, or seemingly ordinary,” says Christchurch librarian Kat Moody.
When crisis strikes, libraries can show their true colours. They help communities come together and survive. Even now, when the threat of cuts is only looming, there are ways we can all support these magic gateways to knowledge and culture, strengthening them for the days to come.
You just need a little time, and two magic words:
Led by the Anglo-Kiwi author and director Stella Duffy, Fun Palaces help communities around the world hold free celebrations of arts and sciences on the first weekend in October each year. Local volunteers get together and plan activities — play, drama, art making, experiments — with partners at a community venue: anything from forensic workshops and DNA experiments to making fire and swimming with mermaids.
Does it sound too cute and fluffy? The program is anything but; the Fun Palace manifesto reads,
Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting — or just lie back and stare at the sky.
Your Fun Palace needn’t happen in a library, but librarians make great allies to help you plan, fund, and resource the events. Australia’s first ever Fun Palace took place at a library in Parkes, New South Wales; in Queensland, Fun Palaces are spearheaded by Emma Constance and her team at the State Library.
Stella Duffy says: “Libraries are community hubs. Librarians are cool and already understand that their job is as much facilitator and enabler as it is librarian. Libraries are about storytelling, and Fun Palaces are about telling our own story, as a community.”
People who have made Fun Palaces tell us they feel more connected to their community, they appreciate their community’s assets better, they meet new people, learn new things.
Fun Palaces only take up a weekend of your time, but they form lasting relationships which strengthen communities for months and years to come. Fun Palace makers from Lambeth in London had seen what their library was capable of and became passionate protestors when the local council sought to close it.
If you love your library and want to see it thrive in years to come, give them a little of your time this October.
This article was originally published by Matt Finch at The Vocal