Back from the land Down Under
I've just returned from a week in Sydney, Australia. While there, I spoke to some 130 public librarians, mainly about the Douglas County Libraries model for managing ebooks.
Librarians are good people. Every where I go, I find colleagues who are smart, funny, and deeply passionate about the twin values of our profession: intellectual freedom and privacy. I like them. I think that our respective countries are right to trust librarians (because it's clear that they do). We're good stewards of public funds, and providing personalized quality service is part of our DNA.
In fact, there is far more about Australian and US public libraries that is similar, than dissimilar.
* We share a similar model of service. By far the biggest use of our libraries is for circulating materials.
* Our most powerful recruitment tool - and perhaps our key contribution to our respective nations - remains the children's storytime. New parents understand implicitly what librarians make explicit: early and frequent exposure to stories makes for bright and literate families.
* All of our libraries have people in them. Big or little, libraries generate traffic.
* We have clearly emerged as prime space not only for quiet reading and study, but also for access to technology. As in the US, Australians are moving from public PCs to wireless mobile connections. But they expect libraries to be connected. And I would say that public technology looks pretty good: new machines, big pipes for data, modern interfaces to our resources.
* Beyond that, the service model seems to change slowly. While libraries in both our countries are noisier and more popular than they were a generation ago, they still mostly look and work as they did 30 years ago. There are two significant barriers to vital public investment: first is the persistent meme that the Internet has made libraries obsolete; second, libraries compete against other municipal services (mainly roads, as I gather fire and police are a state service) for public resources. All of the public libraries in Sydney belong to "councils" - like our municipal libraries. Even within a major metropolitan area like Sydney, these councils subdivide the population into regions. Councils are funded by taxes - "rates" to them - and libraries compete for general funds. This parallels the library environment throughout much of America, where libraries simply fail to achieve sufficient aggregate size to marshall the resources necessary to retool.
* Marketing in both countries tends to focus on growing public awareness and use. Our publicity does little to generate messages of excitement, orientation to the future, the vitality of our contribution to our communities and the lives within them - in short, we still haven't got the knack of growing SUPPORT.
* State library staff - the good people working for the New South Wales State Library - are fabulous. Their interest and enthusiasm for our profession, their dedication to their many constituents, reminds me of the similar passion of the state library staff in the US. State libraries remain a vital part of our intellectual infrastructure.
More prosaically, the same Big Five publishers, the same two or three distributors, the same handful of library automation vendors, dominate both of our library markets. That means that our friends Down Under are grappling with the same market lockout, unresponsiveness, and lagging integration that US librarians face.
But it's also clear that librarians pay attention to each other. Experiments in Singapore, the Netherlands, and even Colorado are closely tracked. We're sharing what we learn, and just may be discovering that by growing our own technical expertise (a problem for both of us), and being just a little bolder in the market, is bound to be both more productive, and more fun, than passively adapting to change.
I should also say that Sydney is just a wonderful place to visit. I spent hours strolling along the magnificent and utterly beguiling harbor, walking through magnificent parks and gardens, and even checking out a museum or tour. Public transportation is plentiful, the food was fantastic, and the people were open and friendly. I hope to go back sometime. I'm deeply grateful that Ross Balharrie, Services Delivery Coordinator for the State Library of New South Wales, and others invited me down to spend some time with them.