Friday, August 10, 2007

Libraries in 3rd Place!

Third place is not such a bad thing, as you will see in the second part of this post! This is another post about papers delivered at the Public Libraries Australia conference, and not about Council amalgamations (don't worry my blatherings on THE BIG A will surely follow soon enough!). The first speaker (Graham Sansom from the UTS Centre for Local Government) gave a great overview of trends affecting local government as a whole, and thus by direct association, public libraries. This session really reawakened my fundamental interest in all things governmental and political (having been a government major in my first degree and more recently completing a Grad Dip in Local Govt Management) and reminded me that I should build on my post grad studies by keeping up with this overview stuff. Graham pointed out the now obvious shift from "government" to "governance" - a recognition that decision making is more diverse. Good governance (who would advocate for bad governance?) displays the now familiar attributes (or at least rhetoric) of transparency, partnerships, community engagement, informed decision making, and social capital. This is in contrast to the now maligned "managerialist" approach which implied that there was always a best answer to be found in the disinterested and logical assessment applied by bureaucrats (pretty much the approach my first degree lauded 30+ years ago!) (in which case we wouldn't actually need elected representatives - but of course, no-one actually thinks we can do without them, even though at times it would be easier to just get on with things without them!) Graham also pointed out the very obvious "infrastructure backlog" hanging over the heads of local authorities in Australia - amounting to $6.3 billion in NSW alone, I assume he means things like the aging pipes, run down road networks, creaky bridges etc (and old libraries?) that eventually will hit the governments and presumably tax payers of the near future with a nasty thud. He stated that there were 3 possible responses to this situation:

1. Minimalist - the back to basics approach of roads, rates and rubbish
2. Optimalist - try to maintain services but delivered via partnerships and contracting out
3. Maximalist - continue to expand functions and services, while expanding the revenue base - bluntly, in the absence of higher level government largesse, putting up rates by 25% + (NSW would need to put up rates by 23% just to cover the infrastructure backlog)

There followed an interesting discussion about the rightness of putting up rates - anathema to local politicians who often campaign on the basis of lowering rates! And thus the importance of citizens and their political representatives being enabled to make decisions based on judgement rather than "public opinion" as a driver of policy. (And the role of libraries in assisting citizens to arrive at good judgements...)

If Councils adopt a "back to basics" approach, Graham's advice to libraries was to vigorously redefine what is "basic" in a 21st century economy and society. And remind local governments that libraries are a vital plank in the "quadruple" bottom line - the fourth pillar of sustainability being culture.

Which segues nicely into the following session presented by Kate Meyrick of the Hornery Institute titled "Public Libraries as the 3rd Place". I have had the privilege of meeting and working with Kate when she took an interest in our little library redevelopment back in 2005. Kate was an associate of the architecture firm Hassell who she had worked with to develop the highly innovative and successful North Lakes Library on the outskirts of Brisbane. Hassell assisted Council to develop the master plan for its proposed new cultural precinct including the new main branch library as the flagship facility (alas with amalgamation I don't know if it will ever see the light of day, but that's another story...). Without any false humility, I believe Dennis from Hassell recognized in me a librarian who doesn't think in straight lines, and linked me up with Kate who was sufficiently impressed to offer a rare "freebie" consultancy (under the aegis of the Hornery Institute). Kate conducted a number of workshops with young people in Yeppoon basically asking them what the ideal library would look like, resulting in the document "Yeppoon Living Library." To cut a long story short, this lead to the development of our award winning library for young people, verbYL. So at this conference in my particular case, Kate was pretty much spruiking to the converted. Nonetheless, her motor-mouth and high energy presentation was still electrifying. Here's the main points:

Definition of 3rd place: “An informal public place where the main activity is conversation.” (Ramon Oldenburg). People come to 3rd places to reconnect with life, community – (particularly important for baby boomer retirees.)

Practical ways of achieving libraries being recognized as 3rd places:

*Create a brand with an open invitation
*Respond to community identity
*Allow for planned and chance encounters
*Lead with programming
*Don’t dumb down the vision due to lack of funds – doing nothing may be better
*Aggregate and cluster eg parks, playgrounds, barbies etc
*Make a cluster of streets a destination eg cultural precinct
*Energetically support creativity
*Encourage discovery
*Always open and always on – high rhythm of activity sustained over time
*Fantastic design, fabulous people
*If nothing else, have the best coffee in town!

Phew! Sentiments taken to heart and largely achieved with our youth library verbYL (demonstrably a 3rd place for a large number of regulars who practically live there!), and aspirational for our current and future mainstream libraries.


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