Saturday, April 19, 2008

Brisbane Square Library - World Class!

I have just looked at my blog for the first time in a month - I'm thrilled and gratified that I have so many warm comments from colleagues - surely the blogger's delight - in the glow of good feelings, I resolve to leave more comments on others' blogs myself! Oh, and I think blogger has mucked up my email address (in reply to one of the commentors), so if you want to reach me please email to

It's not so much lack of time (although that is a factor) but rather the nature of my new job, that prevents me from blogging a lot at the moment. Suddenly finding myself in charge of a quite large library system (going from serving a population of 30,000 to 103,000; staffing numbers tripled), has been a wonderful learning time and thankfully I'm feeling more energized than tired. However, most of the things I'm doing as an incoming "change" manager are, let's face it, pretty confidential. Hopefully if it all works out, I'll be able to blog about the successes in general terms.

However, I finally did something neutral that I can happily blog about, and that was visit Brisbane Square Library. Was I impressed? Was I ever...

I was in Brisbane to attend the State Library's launch of it's new position paper for Queensland public libraries, "Expanding Horizons". We also work-shopped some of the themes with visiting guest Chris Batt, who was indeed a very quiet yet powerfully confident and seasoned UK library colleague, who ably shared his experiences of leading UK libraries to successful outcomes. His central message was that in order to attract attention and funding, public libraries benefit from appearing to be "all reading from the same page", selling the same message over and over to the politicians and decision makers with a unified voice, instead of disjointedly doing our own thing. Seemed reasonable to me.

After the workshop, I walked from the State Library on the Southside of the Brisbane River, over the bridge to Brisbane City Council's flagship new library, "Brisbane Square Library" (so named because it is in a town square, not because it's square shaped!). It strikes me as funny, that the (also new) State Library and the new Brisbane Council Library literally face each other off across the River! That's a lot of public investment in libraries for the good and lucky citizens of Brisbane (and I've heard not a few rumblings from non-Brisbane colleagues about the South-East corner sucking up funds yet again, to the detriment of regional services). That aside, in contrast to the cool sophistication of the State Library decor (minimalist concrete and white furniture), Brisbane Square Library offers a riot of colour.

The external architecture is stunning, with windows designed to look like slanting book spines. From the outside you can also just see enticing flecks of neon colour - lighting effects inside are amazing with neon signs, and bayend panels in perspex backlit with warmly glowing bright colours of pink, yellow, green etc. The entry through the ground floor takes you past the RFID returns chutes (automatically discharging all items, and I understand a sort of intelligent conveyor belt shunts them them into category bins to make shelving easier - ah the wonders of RFID), self-checkout counters, self serve reserves collection point, and an amazing perspex and chrome "new releases available for loan now" display. Escalators to the two floors above provide a constant background hum to the muted sounds of contented human activity.

On the ground floor I asked a security guard if I could take photos with my camera phone (talk about honest!). He thought not, but suggested I ask at the desk. The circ staff member couldn't say either, but rang through to someone in authority (when you set up a chain of embarrassing events like this, don't you wish you'd never asked!!) . A very young (I'm feeling my age) Librarian eventually emerged from somewhere to tell me, no, I couldn't take photographs! However she did advise me that there are lots of photos on Flickr for example this one is pretty good (obviously not everyone has the same scruples, or are as scared of security guards, as me.) It's also disappointing that, as I found out, Brisbane City's own library website has such a paucity of images of it's flagship facility - it really should be selling itself it bit better as one of the most outstanding libraries in the world, I think. But anyway I had a bit of a conversation with the supervising librarian about Internet use (only members can use the Internet, although getting membership is incredibly liberal, as you will see below); funnily enough, visitors and short term tourists are referred across the River to the State Library, where internet use is available and free for anyone walking in off the street. I thanked her for her time, and hopped on the escalator to the main parts of the library.

Beneath all the glitz it is still a functioning ordinary library (albeit with about 100 more Internet computers than normal). Book stock was adequate (I wouldn't say I was blown away by the quality or the quantity), the shelves were expectedly messy with many many trollies lined up for shelving. The young adult section with a couple of xboxes installed in the wall, and a very small collection of books, was not actually occupied exclusively by young people - there were a couple guys in their fifties playing (I'm pretty sure they weren't anybody's Dad!); similarly, no children in the forest fantasy themed children's section, just lots of twenty something's (mainly Asian) lounging in the kid's chairs (despite the signs saying something like "This area is for the use of parents and children.") Having a children's library in the middle of a big city CBD might be a bit ambitious, and I guess it was about 5.30 in the afternoon so that would be another factor in the lack of kids.

Having wandered around for a while (and saying a cheery hello to my original security guard, quite guiltless in the knowledge that I had not given in to temptation and sneaked a couple of photos), I resolved to speak to some staff members. The staff are spread around on small service desks throughout the floors. One male staff member I noted was casually dressed in the corporate polo shirt, shorts and runners - I thought that was kind of nice, given the informal feel of the whole place. One of the things that I'm most interested in at the moment is the split up of duties between librarians and library assistants - of course, you can't tell which are which except you might guess that the people shelving are library assistants - the station I zeroed in on had a couple of library staff of about my age who looked approachable. However, as they were currently busy with customers, I resolved to unobtrusively "lurk" near them, pretending to read a book (actually I managed to productively skim through one I was really interested in) whilst ensconced in one of the hundreds of comfy and funky chairs provided for relaxing and browsing.

The ladies at this station, for the half hour or so I observed, were exclusively engaged in signing up a stream of new borrowers (I hope they were library assistants, as I feel this would be a terrible waste of professional expertise if they were librarians). All bar one were overseas visitors (how did I know this? Because they all proferred their passports as part of the ID process). As long as those applying for membership can furnish one piece of photo ID (the passport), and one piece of addressed correspondence or card (like a bank statement) with a Brisbane address, they can apparently join up. And I would guess that the motivation for the majority of sign-ups were for the use of the Internet, in which case it seems like a lot of trouble to go to to offer free Internet. Anyway only two people were knocked back out of about 10 who signed up, due to not having anything with proof of a Brisbane address.

The signing up process was quite long, because most of the applicants did not appear to be very fluent in spoken English, being mostly of Asian (Chinese?) origin. Another staff member arrived to help, and took the people in the queue aside to explain the joining and membership rules in slow and staccato English. (I wonder why they don't just have brochures in different languages? Or ideally, Chinese speaking staff?) Unfortunately, I didn't ever get to speak to the staff - they were just too flat out! But they might remember that strange woman who stared at them over the top of her book for half an hour...

Anyway, if you are associated with Brisbane Square Library and are displeased with the implicit and explicit criticisms, please forgive me, and I accept that ignorance may well have led me to make quite stupid statements. Please feel free to correct and offend me in turn (I have a thick skin).

On a positive note, Brisbane Square Library is an utterly outstanding public library, and I recommend that everyone go out of thier way to visit it.


  • Deb, I took some photos when I was there last year.. your readers might like to take a look.
    Photos of Brisbane Square library

    By Blogger Peta Hopkins, at 8:44 AM  

  • Peta

    xcellent! Thank you!

    By Blogger Deb, at 6:11 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Anonymous jchalktech, at 10:28 AM  

  • The library itself is rather small (compared to the state and university libraries), probably due to a general lack of CBD real estate - but the collection is definitely not! The best way to find what I'm looking for is to request it via the library website, then grab it from the (well placed) holds section when it's ready.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:44 PM  

  • Hi Debra, thanks for the first hand insight into this fascinating library. I intend to visit there myself one day. I may even try your spying over the book trick!

    By Blogger Alana, at 8:29 PM  

  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:11 AM  

  • I go to Brisbane Square, all the time. I'm not fussed on the colours, but inside its bright and airy. It's quiet but not too quiet. There could be more desks, but the couches are comfortable enough.

    My favourite feature is a resin wall with grass(reeds?) set into it. I am actually trying to google where it came from. That's how i stumbled onto your blog, lol.

    here is a link for pics of outside:

    btw you might find that a lot of the foreign people in the library are students at local universities. There a couple of unis really close to Brisbane CBD, and its really easy to get there by bus/train.

    As a student myself, it is so worth the hassle of getting a library card to use the facilities, close to exams it can be almost impossible to get a pc at uni. If you are streaming or skyping you can use up your internet quota really fast. There is rarely a a massive line for the printers and copiers, even if its a bit more expensive. And if you share a house, quiet study time can be hard to find too.

    Also university libraries are short on fiction and non educational magazines. :)

    By Blogger Kella B, at 12:29 PM  

  • By Blogger Nguyen Duc, at 7:23 PM  

  • After reading your describing story, I almost want to wisit the libary my selves.

    By Anonymous Best Online Casino, at 2:09 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home