Whereto for our public libraries in the digital age? Places of innovation, expanding community participation and information-based services, or quiet dignified civic buildings offering shelves full of free books? 

Around the world public libraries are re-evaluating their role in the face of radical change. 

Libraries are recognizing that the traditional view that libraries lend books for free can be interpreted as an expensive luxury. In the United Kingdom, for example, due to a decline in use over 20 years and decades of poor management, public libraries have been closing at a frightening rate. In a bid to slash spending, local authorities closed nearly 130 libraries during 2018 alone. 

By contrast, Hastings Libraries has seen growth of 14.4% in the last financial year, representing close to 600,000 visits, with similar growth being experienced elsewhere. 

“New Zealanders have a high value for their libraries and are far more vocal in protecting and using them,” says Darren Gillies, who manages the Napier Library in its interim location at MTG. 

The closure of the Napier Public Library, assessed as ‘earthquake prone’ in 2017, has provided the impetus to explore new options for their future library. Wellington Central Library has also been closed by EQ worries and while the effects of these closures were dramatic, council decision-makers are being forced to take a whole fresh look at what their libraries can offer to meet communities’ needs and expectations.

Libraries generally are looking for innovative ways to stay ahead of demand. 

The new Christchurch City Library is an inspiration. Its destruction in the 2011 earthquakes was the catalyst for the funding of a four-storied, purpose-built library where visitors can meet in its café, kids and mums are busy in the ‘noisy’ spaces separate from the quiet rooms for research and study; ‘maker spaces’ offer music-making technology and 3D printers; and genealogy researchers have access to free data bases world wide. The website shows a constant stream of events and the whole building is described by visitors BayBuzz spoke to as being ‘a beehive of activity’. 

Gillies says there’s lots of cross-fertilization of knowledge and inspiration between libraries across the country. While Christchurch library is a standard-bearer for innovation and its draw-card design, “Prior to its closure the Wellington Central Library was working closely with the tech business incubator across the road,” says Gillies, “and it will be interesting what their focus will be when they reopen. Rotorua Library’s ‘Service without Boundaries’ is about engaging with communities and has expanded our ideas.” 

Napier is looking ahead to a purpose-built library, but that’s likely to be three to four years away. Napier library staff, with support of Napier City councillors, have been consulting widely and researching innovative approaches to future needs. In December 2018, Napier Libraries’ Strategic Plan was signed off and four possible sites are being considered for a future build, including the former library building. 

Gillies says, “The consultation process revealed that many people in the community had a very minimal idea of what the library does, so it was a good opportunity to inform them, determine what they would find useful and to ensure our draft strategic plan was on track.

“Areas such as Onekawa and Maraenui have much lower library usage and awareness of what libraries can offer and we need to engage with them more. As part of our Outreach plan we will be bringing our services to the community, sharing databases with schools and preschools, and delivering books and services directly. In the library we are engaging with a lot of new users because of the learning needs around technology, especially smartphones, and the Spark Jump Foundation ‘Stepping Up’ classes run by the library staff are fully subscribed.”

For Mary Anne Pay, former teacher and librarian with Napier Library for 15 years, there’s no question that libraries offer more than simply shelves of books. 

“Libraries are an incredible resource with data bases offering access to an infinite range of specialist information … genealogy, for example. They are neutral, warm and safe places, and socially important. We see people coming in for social reasons; isolated older people, mothers with babies, minibus loads from rest homes, people living in small or overcrowded houses and those without access to internet or technology. It is open to all, a place to explore interests.” 

Exploding demand,changing needs

Paula Murdoch, manager of Hastings Libraries systems, says visitor numbers have risen exponentially over the last three years. “It’s no secret that free access to computers is an important reason why people are using the libraries more,” creating “some navigational challenges, as traditional users and a new generation of library users sit alongside each other.” 

Hastings libraries (in Hastings, Havelock North and Flaxmere) work within existing facilities designed to serve a different era, but are nevertheless reaching out to their communities and offering much-valued services to keep up with the explosion in demand. For example, library hours have been extended, there’s free internet and wifi, more programmes, and more library service delivery happening off premises. 

Murdoch says, “Staff are now delivering library services of one kind or another to not only schools and early childhood facilities, but elder care facilities in local communities and the prison.”

“We are already starting to plan the next five-year Strategic Plan to reflect a constantly changing environment and community needs and expectations. As part of that we’re hopeful that we will create some new spaces that people will love using – quiet space, comfy space, activity space and meeting space.”

Murdoch says accommodating the needs of everyone “can be challenging for all parties – staff and customers alike – but our libraries are about inclusive access. Public libraries are one of the last bastions of democracy. There is no judgement about who you are, what you look like, how much you have or don’t have, what you want to do or why you want to do it, within legal bounds, of course. 

“This doesn’t always go down well with those who think there should be priority given to certain types of activity. So for staff there is a bit of wrangling involved to try to provide what everyone wants and needs.”

Gillies agrees. “The biggest source of angst amongst library customers is other customers and how they expect others to use that space,” he says. “Space has to be shared, and we must celebrate what we do by avoiding strings and rules about how a library can be used. We need to think of how the spaces are used so our customers can settle in to do what they want to do.”

Bold vision

Friends of Hastings Libraries Inc. is thinking even more boldly about library space and how to allow for the growth of services. “We must look beyond libraries being a place for storing books. That kind of thinking would lead to the decline of libraries, just when we most need them,” says Friends chairperson, Richard Peach. 

Peach and John Timpson have made a submission to Hastings District Council urging that our library service be regarded as the ‘Municipal Educational Institution’ for Hastings – a place of informal learning. “Only the top students get to scholarship level, the greater proportion of citizens learn more naturally through ‘hands on’ activities that require designated facilities.”

“The library, like all public institutions, is an evolving thing and books will always be essential for human readership,” says Peach, who lived in the United States for many years. “Libraries in the US are offering support for individual learning, pursuing hobbies and interests and the development of knowledge.” Peach cites a public library in Kansas, where he lived, with a maker’s space for ‘hands on’ learning, offering tools and technology such as 3D printers and music labs, where people work on their projects and develop skills that make them more employable. 

To provide space for similar facilities here, the Friends advocate a complete rethink of the buildings in the Civic Square, recommending that the Art Gallery be relocated into the Municipal Buildings, leaving the art gallery buildings as a logical extension of the Hastings War Memorial Library. 

The public library has always been a place of quiet self-directed learning and entertainment accessible to all without the barrier of cost. Our changing future requires that concept to be urgently expanded to cater for the seemingly limitless information that is available through technology … and how to use its amazing potential. 

That requires a radical rethink in how library buildings are used, with innovative services and inclusive access encouraging a new generation of users. Not to do so means a decline in use leading to closure, as demonstrated in the UK. 

Thankfully, our library professionals and local bodies here are working on strategies designed to cater to a different range of demands. So there is reason to be optimistic that the new Napier library and the Hastings library system will be a match for this exciting and challenging next chapter. 

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