Building engagement with communities, ratepayers and local businesses begins with understanding one of councils’ biggest assets – public libraries. Tim Antric asks whether councils are operating 21st century libraries.
Public libraries exist to enhance communities’ social and economic wellbeing. They are in the business of helping people find out information, keep current and stay in touch; and so add huge value to their community and people’s lives. Public libraries deliver a range of outcomes including social inclusion, lifelong learning, community engagement, identity and heritage, culture, environmental and economic wellbeing.
Our communities are evolving fast and this pace of change is hugely impacting on libraries. Many libraries have responded by delivering new types of services to support and engage with their communities.
Despite this, some people have questioned whether public libraries are still necessary. Many see libraries as being increasingly irrelevant. Many of these people are not aware of just how services have evolved and what is available to them, their families and communities.
Here’s a short checklist so you can see how your library measures up.
- Economic catalysts
Libraries are playing a part in helping entrepreneurs, start-ups and SMEs grow. This is happening through their promotion of business-relevant collections (including electronic trade journals, databases and books), business-specific courses and reference services.
- STEM powerhouses
Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) underpin many of New Zealand’s growth enterprises. Libraries play a role in growing the digital and technology literacies of children, teens and adults. They are offering courses in computing, online game coding, tablet use, social media, robotics, animation and 3D printing.
- Gateway to the digital world
The world has gone digital and so have public libraries. eBooks, eMagazines, specialist journals and databases – all are available through a public library. As collections become more available online, anytime, anywhere, libraries have moved from being about the building with “collections” to more about “connections”.
- The heart of communities
Today’s public libraries work to grow active and positively-engaged citizens. They provide spaces for businesses and community groups to meet, programmes for children, young people, parents, migrants and older people.
- Digital hubs
Libraries are access points with technology available for public use. Across New Zealand, there are more than 2000 public computer terminals in libraries. Every year the number of WiFi sessions in libraries more than doubles.
At the last census, 17 percent of homes with school-aged children said they didn’t have internet access. In some communities this is as high as one in two homes. Libraries help by ensuring those people can get online: to find, learn, buy, sell, participate and transact – both privately and with government.
Thanks to ratepayers’ investment in digital access and support from library professional staff, New Zealanders can connect and become digitally competent and productive.
- Remind us who we are
Libraries work together locally, nationally and internationally to ensure local and family history resources are readily available, that people can research heritage subjects for professional, their own, their family’s or their community’s interests.
Some work hand in hand with local museums and art galleries to curate local history and stories. Alongside a focus on the past, they also prepare for the future with resources for migrants, acting as online portals to share stories and media in the languages of those communities.
- Change lives
By complementing other economic development initiatives, supporting lifelong learning, providing access to information and experiences, by enhancing community connectedness, connecting us with the digital world and bringing together our past, present and future, libraries are not only a playground for the mind, but they also change lives across New Zealand.
Every day more than 100,000 people visit their local library. They’re the most used, by choice, public service and one of the most trusted institutions in your community. Libraries in over 300 locations with 2400 staff make sure that we can all discover something new, explore an interest, or build on and share our knowledge.
• Tim Antric is executive director of Public Libraries of New Zealand.
This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.