Libraries in Australia booming in digital age

They are experiencing a renaissance after major makeovers and adapting to technology

The new "quad" that marks the gateway to the newly refurbished State Library Victoria in Melbourne. The 163-year-old library underwent an $82.3 million makeover.
The new "quad" that marks the gateway to the newly refurbished State Library Victoria in Melbourne. The 163-year-old library underwent an $82.3 million makeover. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN PEARLMAN

On bustling Swanston Street in the centre of Melbourne, the ornate facade of State Library Victoria - Australia's oldest public library - can give a misleading impression of what is now inside.

After passing the imposing row of Corinthian columns at the building's entrance, visitors enter a large, airy, freshly renovated hall filled with humming work desks, self-service kiosks and screens.

This hall, or "quad", provides access to four quarters, including a co-working space for small start-ups and entrepreneurs and a venue for workshops and lectures.

This quad and adjoining quarters opened earlier this month as part of an A$88.1 million (S$82.3 million) renovation of the 163-year-old library. It marked the latest - and one of the largest - in a series of library makeovers in Australia.

Despite concerns that the digital age would lead to the demise of reading and the end of books, public libraries across Australia have been experiencing a renaissance.

In Sydney, the State Library of New South Wales, which began in the 1820s and has been a public library for 150 years, has also been undergoing refurbishments which have included the opening of a new children's area with up to 20,000 books.

Other libraries in the suburbs have also had major refits.

Across the country, libraries are no longer focusing on just lending books or providing a place for hushed reading. Instead, they are becoming community and work hubs that can include work spaces and areas for cultural activities, events, galleries and meetings.

A media and literary studies expert, Associate Professor Camilla Nelson from The University of Notre Dame Australia, told The Sunday Times that these "libraries of the future" were necessarily adapting to changes in technology.

"We are living in a different world today, where there are vast quantities of information and art and poetry that can be summoned at the flick of a switch," she said.

"We need to let go of that nostalgia (about quiet reading libraries). I think there is a great beauty in this new information age and in new sorts of information systems."

Australia's renovated libraries have tended to be well-received and are often bustling.

According to data published by The Sydney Morning Herald, about 7.6 million people visited Australian libraries in the 12 months to July last year - or almost a third of the population. Three-quarters of these people visited at least four times in the year. In comparison, 6.7 million people toured museums and 6.3 million visited art galleries.

In Sydney, there has been a "libraries boom" - as the media has dubbed it - which has included several new libraries being built in suburbs with fast-growing residential populations.

In August, the inner-city suburb of Marrickville opened a new A$40 million library on the site of an old hospital. It includes an outdoor garden, a cafe and event room.

Mayor Darcy Byrne said the library would become "like an old-fashioned town square".

"I think we will see people coming from around the world to visit this new library," he told ABC News.

Most public libraries in Australia offer free Internet and provide free membership which allows people to borrow books and access online catalogues.

The State Library Victoria receives about two million visitors a year, making it one of the world's most visited libraries.

Experts said the recent renovation, which involved wide community consultation, represented "democracy in action".

"State Library Victoria already holds a prominent place in Melbourne's cultural and urban fabric," wrote two University of Melbourne experts, Ms Sarah Backhouse and Associate Professor Clare Newton, on The Conversation website earlier this month.

"It is now ready for the future... Far from causing the demise of libraries, the digital revolution has led to libraries being re-invented and re-invigorated."

Prof Nelson said libraries are reverting to their historical role of serving a wide range of educational and community purposes.

"If you look at the history of libraries, their legacy is that they were not always just about books," she said.

"They were community centres, many originated as book clubs or dinner clubs in Europe in the 18th century. They were not just for reading individually and privately in silence."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 22, 2019, with the headline Libraries in Australia booming in digital age. Subscribe