The immense potential of libraries.

Australians love their libraries (and our library strategy research highlights this).

In 2020 over nine million of us made 84 million visits to the local library – and that’s as the pandemic took hold.

There were an estimated 63 million visits to library websites – interestingly, a lower number than the physical visits perhaps underlining how much we value the physical experience, but also possibly the fact that some libraries are still making the transition to a full digital experience.

There are 1,400 library branches in Australia with around 80 mobile libraries taking knowledge to people in rural towns.

What’s the cost of this ever-growing network of knowledge and connection? About $50 per person, per year.

People love libraries for good reason. We know from our library strategy research that:

  • Libraries are safe havens for community members, particularly women and children and even the homeless.
  • The reach of libraries is way beyond their shelves. They reach knowledge networks across Australia and internationally.
  • Librarians are guides to where to find and how to access the best references on subjects as diverse as self-empowerment, science and business.
  • Libraries are loved and valued by community members even if they don’t walk regularly through the doors.
  • And, libraries represent community identity, reflecting our strongly held belief in equality, access and the power of human connection.

We also know from our library strategy and co-design work, that the pandemic has forced deep reflection on the purpose of libraries and a need to transition rapidly to a digital, virtual experience.

Most libraries are public assets, funded by ratepayers and owned and operated by local councils. The competition for funding between services teams within government organisations is intense.

In Victoria, a cap on rates has, in real terms, reduced the available income councils have to invest in a diverse range of acute needs and services.

The pandemic has required unforeseen investment in the transition of services to digital delivery, and financial as well as health and wellbeing support for disadvantaged businesses and communities. It is a challenging situation that can change rapidly, making planning difficult.

So, in this context, what are some of the opportunities for libraries to adapt, perform and ultimately meet the needs and expectations of the people who value them – to have a measurable social and economic impact?

Here are three ways.

1. The third space for workers and entrepreneurs.

More than many public or private entities, libraries know and have the trust of community members. That presents a responsibility and an opportunity. It is also a platform on which to connect different groups around themes and needs.

Out of lockdown, libraries can host the physical meetings we all crave in a controlled environment that is clean, sanitised, and managed.

Work from home requirements mean people want a ‘third space’ that isn’t home or an office. Home should be, primarily, a place for relaxation, recuperation and family engagement; for important non-work pursuits that build mental health and resilience at a time mental-ill health is at record levels in Australia.

Privately run coworking spaces are not always available and don’t always welcome the experience people are seeking.

Libraries have a great opportunity to bring people together – for example, small business owners, entrepreneurs, and community organisations – to address common issues, needs and goals.

Librarians can be trained and resourced to facilitate these meetings, building on the competencies and skills they already have.

2. A trusted platform for community and service co-design.

Over the past 18 months, every organisation approaching our company is reassessing its purpose, value proposition, service or product offering and workforce needs. Although the pandemic is provoking ‘the great reset’, the answers to challenging questions are not clear. The only way to address them is with the people who benefit from or are impacted by a company’s activity.

Human-centred design offers effective processes to do this well. Those processes need inputs – best practice, case studies, theoretical references and visual stimuli – to be effective. They also need a representative group of users who feel comfortable sharing their lived experiences. Libraries offer information, advice and access as well as welcoming physical and digital environments.

Council teams, pivoting to new delivery models and reshaping teams, need trusted references with which to make critical decisions. They need to engage service users and stakeholders in local settings. Libraries can help, by hosting this activity and facilitating access to resources.

3. A digital experience that builds on, and complements, the physical.

Every library should be adopting a ‘digital first’ mindset and taking that into a design process. Ask the question, ‘what if libraries only existed virtually’, and start to map the needs of users, knowledge ecosystems and a diverse range of experiences. Seek First Nations input in how to consider and embed the essence of place and culture in the digital realm. Draw on the experience of other libraries, while engaging your local community on the experience they seek.

If you are tracking the activity in Silicon Valley, you’ll know that the virtual world will be a place we truly inhabit beyond interaction with websites or apps. This is the ‘metaverse’, in which we walk virtual aisles to find rare books or hear talks in virtual lecture theatres with expert academics. We all know what sounds far-fetched today becomes a reality much sooner than we expect. So why not cast that vision forward, and plot a realistic path?

The pandemic era is not the great reset so much as a great opportunity to put everything on the table, and move it around, with the people who matter most to your organisation: your employees, users, funders and stakeholders. Collaborative design ensures every participant in that process is informed and setting priorities together. It leads to a library strategy that is endorsed, ambitious and realistic.

For examples of what that looks like, see our research, service design, identity and strategic planning work with Casey Cardinia Libraries and Lake Mac Libraries. Two innovative library networks doing great things.

And talk to our team. They really do love libraries (and developing library strategy)!