A strong grass roots campaign across NSW is putting public libraries on the agenda in the lead up to the March election.
Despite a pledge of $60 million in funding from the State Government, local councils say the future of public libraries remains under threat.
The government announced new funding this year in response to the Renew Our Libraries grassroots campaign which gained more than 6,000 signatures in as many weeks.
The funding will include a 40 to 50 per cent increase in public libraries’ annual per capita subsidies by 2022-23 and $24 million in infrastructure grants.
However, many industry professionals have questioned whether the package is a long-term fix.
Robert Knight, a Renew Our Libraries spokesman, said some Local Government Areas (LGAs) had been forced to cut library programs each time governments reduced their financial contribution.
“In 1980, the government funded almost one quarter of the total operating costs of public libraries. Now we’re down to 7.5 or 8 per cent,” he said.
“NSW is the lowest per capita funded state for public libraries support,” according to Mr Knight, who has worked in NSW public libraries for 38 years.
While the Renew Our Libraries campaign welcomes the Berejiklian government’s proposed investment, Mr Knight said it was just a first step.
“At this point it is an election pledge, so the rubber will hit the road when and if the government is returned to power and the money is actually presented.”
...another crisis is inevitable unless there is legislation written which protects funding commitments for another 15-20 years
At the 2018-19 state budget in June, the NSW government announced an 18 per cent cut in library funding to $23.5 million. The remaining funding is footed by the state’s local councils.
In 2016-17, that expenditure was a total of $335 million.
The Renew Our Libraries campaign was launched by the NSW Public Libraries Association (NSWPLA) and Local Government NSW (LGNSW) earlier this year. It is calling for a doubling in State Government funding as well as a long-term funding solution.
LGNSW President and City of Sydney councillor Linda Scott, said members of the public relied on their local library for a diverse range of reasons. This includes citizens looking for cool and warm places during extreme temperatures, and start-ups seeking business spaces.
Cr Scott also said library goers don’t just attend programs, borrow from collections and access the internet. There were 11 million visits to public library websites and over 860,000 e-book loans in 2015-16, according to data by the State Library of NSW.
Cr Dallas Tout, NSWPLA President, said cutting services will impact communities in both metropolitan and regional cities.
On the chopping block are essential programs like conversational English classes for newly-arrived Australians, Clr Tout said.
“That’s why we’re being so vocal this time. We just can’t let it happen.”
The City of Wagga Wagga, Tamworth, Kempsey Shire and Port Stephens councils are among several regional local governments to publicly throw their support behind the campaign.
Cr Tout said the Berejiklian government’s promise of a record $60 million in funds was “heartening”.
“It’s an acknowledgment by the government of the importance of and how close to their hearts communities hold their libraries.”
However, Cr Tout said another crisis is inevitable unless there is legislation written which protects funding commitments for another 15-20 years.
“There’s still a lot more to be done.”
“The campaign hasn’t slowed down – we’re just going to move to the next level,” Cr Tout said.
State Library of NSW data reveals almost 35 million Australians visited a NSW library in the 2015-16 financial year. In that same period, Italian Bingo was one of nearly 85,000 public library programs.
Announcing the new funding in the run up to the Wagga Wagga by-election, Minister for the Arts, Don Harwin, said: “This significant investment demonstrates that our government supports the hundreds of libraries across the state.”
“The funding will be particularly significant in areas such as Wagga, where populations are growing and library needs are evolving,” Mr Harwin said.
Earlier this year, the Opposition announced a Labor NSW Government would similarly boost public libraries funding by $50 million. This would include $25 million for infrastructure within its first term of government.
Without a sustainable funding model, programs such as Five Dock Library’s monthly Italian Bingo could face the axe.
Dedicated volunteer, Josie Pappalardo, said the program helped older citizens who were feeling lonely.
“People go away feeling so happy that they’ve got a place to make friends, to exchange ideas and to have a laugh,” Ms Pappalardo said.
Each month, at least twenty locals attend the program over morning tea. All running costs are absorbed by the City of Canada Bay Council.
Participant Connie Denaro, described by friends as a ‘bingo queen’, said: “When somebody can talk to you [in Italian], you feel stronger to face what is tomorrow.”
Italian Bingo is one of several library activities at Five Dock and Concord Libraries which targets migrants, refugees and other minority groups.
At the 2016 Census, almost 20 per cent of Five Dock’s population was of Italian background.
Multicultural Services Library Officer, Sarah Wild, who coordinates the Italian Bingo program, said some local councils do not have the money to provide what the public needs.
“We try and make our budget stretch as much as possible.”
“If we still want to run programs, and stock our shelves with nice books – the result of that is that we’re then more dependent on local government funding,” Ms Wild said. “And some councils just honestly can’t afford it.”
Cr Scott said: “On behalf of the state’s 128 councils, we will continue to call on all parties running in the state election in March to put commitments on the table for sustainable funding for our libraries.”
Cr Scott will be meeting with Mr Harwin and Shadow Minister for the Arts, Walt Secord, to workshop the details of both proposals.
The NSW state election will be held on March 23, 2019.