Essential connections: schools, parents and public libraries

Paper delivered at Friends of Libraries Australia (FOLA) 4th biennial conference
Sydney 17-19 May 2002
Dr Alan Bundy
President, Australian Library and Information Association and Member, Friends of Mitcham Library Service, South Australia

This paper, and others by the author, is available at The University of South Australia (

Abstract Friends of Libraries (FOL) groups are the body in the community which can speak to a local authority about the disparate needs of the clients of its library service. Important clients are students and parents. FOL groups and FOLA therefore need to interact with the groups representing parents and students at the local, state and national level. This is because those groups are largely unaware of the complementary educational importance of school and public libraries, and have the potential to be strategic partners in improving public library provision

At the FOLA conference in Adelaide in 1998 I gave a paper entitled Leading, fighting, persisting: libraries in Australia and the development of FOL groups.1 That paper observed

At the end of the nineteenth century there was optimism that the new century and federation would see Australia following the lead set by the US and UK in the provision of free public libraries accessible to all. However nothing occurred for fifty years, following the 1935 Munn-Pitt and the 1947 McColvin reports, in the latter of which the author noted 'better library services for Australia won't just happen... The few must lead, must fight, must persist'. That injunction still applies as Australia nears the twenty first century with a substantial but uneven network of 1520 public library outlets. An August 1998 survey of Australian public libraries confirms that there is strong, but not unanimous, support for Friends of Libraries (FOL) as one focus for the 'few'. The survey also confirms that FOL groups can be politically and operationally valuable to libraries, and that Friends of Libraries Australia (FOLA) has an important role, in association with the Australian Library and information Association, in fostering citizen advocates for public libraries.

The paper I had the privilege of presenting at the last FOLA conference in Canberra in 2000 Libraries: a living force2 highlighted that from a very slow start, mainly only after 1950, Australia now has one of the most accessible and heavily used public library networks in the world, ranking within the top ten nations. However from a July 2000 survey much needs to be done in the 21st century to highlight and address issues such as poorly located and unattractive buildings, lack of space, poor opening hours, limited book and other resources, technology constraints, and the lack of specialist librarians. This will require a local and national public program by ALIA and FOLA, in particular, to develop an awareness among all governments, and particularly local government, of the contribution and potential of the libraries for which they are responsible.

I concluded that paper by observing that:

At the end of this century there is much to celebrate in Australia, not least the living force of its public libraries as the agency to which more Australians have recourse than any other. The task for the 21st century is to ensure that living force not only continues, but becomes an even greater force as a unique testbed for Australian civic values and citizenship. That task challenges Friends of Libraries Australia (FOLA). It challenges the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA). We should tackle it together.

I am pleased to report to you that there is now a stronger engagement between FOLA and ALIA. There is much work still to be done, and I share with you ALIA's Core values statement which was approved in March 2002. This sets the context for ALIA's partnerships in progressing during this century an information enabled clever, creative, enlightened and democratic country.

ALIA Core Values Statement

A thriving culture, economy, and democracy requires the free flow of information and ideas.

Fundamental to that free flow of information and ideas are Australia's library and information services. They are a legacy to each generation, conveying the knowledge of the past and the promise of the future.

Library and information services professionals therefore commit themselves to the following core values of their profession.

You may be a little surprised that the first object of ALIA makes no reference to libraries or librarians at all, but is 'To promote the free flow of information and ideas in the interest of all Australians and a thriving culture, economy and democracy'. Librarianship is the only profession in Australia which has that unequivocal and disinterested commitment.

Supporting democracy

You may also be surprised that ALIA casts a wide net in defining 'all Australians' to include those refugee claimants held in the detention centres. It thus has a project now underway to visit all of the centres to evaluate what access the detainees have to library and information resources. It is important that it does so, in part because as the NY Times editorial of 16 November 1998 asserted 'One test of a democracy is whether it grants equal access to tools that make knowledge possible'. It is perhaps of some consolation that those in the detention centres who survive the experience with their sanity and optimism intact will have access to one of the very best things about their new country- its free, multicultural, public libraries.

No less is it a test of democracy how it responds to events such as 11 September 2001, which can be too readily used by governments as a rationale for restrictions on the free flow of information and ideas, actions to gladden those who Manning Clark referred to as 'the straighteners' and Doris Lessing as the 'sleeping jackboots'. It is not a new danger. As Benjamin Franklin stated two centuries ago

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

What a library offers

By contrast a library, and particularly a public library, represents the antithesis of the restricting preoccupations of those 'straighteners' and 'sleeping jackboots'. A library offers expansion of the mind and imagination, freedom, opportunity, safety, integrity and valuation of individuals and the rights of minorities. Or as President Eisenhower so eloquently put it in a 1953 letter to the President of the American Library Association, and to which I referred in my 1998 Adelaide FOLA conference paper

Our librarians serve the precious liberties of our nation: freedom of inquiry, freedom of the spoken and the written word, freedom of exchange of ideas.

Upon these clear principles, democracy depends for its very life, for they are the great sources of knowledge and enlightenment. And knowledge- full, unfettered knowledge of its own heritage, of freedom's enemies, of the whole world of men and ideas- this knowledge is a free people's surest strength.

The libraries of America are and must ever remain the homes of free, inquiring minds. To them, our citizens- of all ages and races, of all creeds and political persuasions- must ever be able to turn with clear confidence that there they can freely seek the whole truth, unwarped by fashion and uncompromised by expediency. For in such whole and healthy knowledge alone are to be found and understood those majestic truths of man's nature and destiny that prove, to each succeeding generation, the validity of freedom.

The local gateway to knowledge

In similar vein the Unesco Public library manifesto 1994: a living force asserts that

Freedom, prosperity and the development of society and of individuals are fundamental human values. They will only be attained through the ability of well informed citizens to exercise their democratic rights and to play an active role in society. Constructive participation and the development of democracy depend on satisfactory education as well as on free and unlimited access to knowledge, thought, culture and information.

The public library, the local gateway to knowledge, provides a basic condition for lifelong learning, independent decision making and cultural development of the individual and social groups. This Manifesto proclaims UNESCO's belief in the public library as a living force for education, culture and information, and as an essential agent for the fostering of peace and spiritual welfare through the minds of men and women. UNESCO therefore encourages national and local governments to support and actively engage in the development of public libraries.

The essence of Eisenhower's words and the UNESCO statement have been translated into the US Twelve ways libraries are good for the country3 which states 'It will take all of us, in a spirit of pride and freedom, to maintain libraries as a living reality in a free nation into the 21st century'.

The twelve ways are:

  1. Libraries inform citizens
    Democracy vests supreme power in the people. Libraries make democracy work by providing access to information so that citizens can make the decisions necessary to govern themselves. The public library is the only institution in American society whose purpose is to guard against the tyrannies of ignorance and conformity, and its existence indicates the extent to which a democratic society values knowledge, truth, justice, books, and culture.
  2. Libraries break down boundaries
    Libraries provide free family literacy programs for low-literate, illiterate, and non-English-speaking people. In addition, hundreds of librarians across America lead outreach programs that teach citizenship and develop multilingual and multicultural materials for their patrons. Libraries serve the homebound elderly, prisoners, and other institutionalized individuals, the homeless, and the blind and hearing-impaired.
  3. Libraries level the playing field
    Economists have cited a growing income inequity in America, with the gap between the richest and poorest citizens becoming wider year by year. By making all its resources equally available to all members of its community, regardless of income, class, or other factors, the library levels the playing field. Once users have access to the library's materials, they have the opportunity to level the playing field outside the library by learning to read, gaining employment, or starting a business.
  4. Libraries value the individual
    Library doors swing open for independent thinking without prejudgment. Libraries offer alternatives to the manipulations of commercialism, from the excellence of public-television productions to the freethinking of renegade publishers and the vision of poets and artists outside the mainstream business of art and literature.
  5. Libraries nourish creativity
    In the library we are all children. By stimulating curiosity - parent to the twin forces of creativity and imagination - even the most focused and specialized library serves the purpose of lifting the mind beyond its horizons. Libraries store ideas that may no longer work but can serve as the raw material that, cross-fertilized in the innovative mind, may produce answers to questions not yet asked.
  6. Libraries open kids' minds
    Bringing children into a library can transport them from the commonplace to the extraordinary. From story hours for preschoolers to career planning for high schoolers, children's librarians make a difference because they care about the unique developmental needs of every individual who comes to them for help. Children get a handle on personal responsibility by holding a library card of their own, a card that gives them access to new worlds in books, videos, audiotapes, computers, games, toys, and more.
  7. Libraries return high dividends
    What do Gallo wines, the I Can't Believe It's Yogurt chain, and billboard-sign giant Metromedia have in common? Libraries made millionaires out of each of these companies' grateful owners by providing crucial start-up information when they were no more than wannabe business titans. Libraries are there to help people with more personal goals, too. The seed money expended for these and other success stories? Less than $20 per capita per year in tax dollars.
  8. Libraries build communities
    No narrow definition of community will work in a library. Each community has its libraries and its special collections. Libraries validate and unify; they save lives, literally and by preserving the record of those lives. Community-building means libraries link people with information. Librarians have become experts at helping others navigate the internet. Before there was talk of cyberspace, there were libraries, paving the way for the superhighway.
  9. Libraries make families friendlier
    The American family's best friend, the library, offers services guaranteed to hone coping skills. Homework centers, literacy training, parenting materials, after-school activities, summer reading programs, outreach - like the families they serve, libraries everywhere are adapting to meet new challenges.
  10. Libraries offend everyone
    Children's librarian Dorothy Broderick contends that every library in the country ought to have a sign on the door reading: "This library has something offensive to everyone. If you are not offended by something we own, please complain." This willingness and duty to offend connotes a tolerance and a willingness to look at all sides of an issue that would be good for the nation in any context; it is particularly valuable when combined with the egalitarianism and openness that characterize libraries.
  11. Libraries offer sanctuary
    Like synagogues, churches, mosques, and other sacred spaces, libraries can create a physical reaction, a feeling of peace, respect, humility, and honor that throws the mind wide open and suffuses the body with a near-spiritual pleasure. But why? Perhaps it is because in the library we are answerable to no one; alone with our private thoughts, fantasies, and hopes, we are free to nourish what is most precious to us with the silent companionship of others we do not know.
  12. Libraries preserve the past
    Libraries preserve the record; a nation, a culture, a community that does not understand its own past is mired in its own mistakes. Libraries enable us to communicate through distance and time with the living and the dead. It is a miracle kept available by the meticulous sorting, storing, indexing, and preservation that still characterizes library work - work that will carry, in the electronic environment, challenges and a price tag yet unknown.

Australia has no such statement yet, but FOLA may wish to consider developing one in association with ALIA.


As each goose flaps its wings it creates an uplift for the birds that follow. By flying in a V formation, the whole flock adds 71 per cent greater flying range than if the birds flew alone. The lesson from this, says Milton Olson, is that 'People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust of one another'.

Strategic partnering has tended to become a mantra in the corporate world, and on the whole partnerships do make sense if entered into carefully, realistically and for the right reasons.

Librarians and libraries have recognised this for a very long time and can fairly claim to be the world's most cooperating and sharing profession and agency locally, nationally and globally. It is thus no accident that one of the ALIA Core Values is

Partnerships to advance these values

We advocate cooperation between all library and information services, and with related agencies, for the private and public good

A partnership now exists between FOLA and ALIA but it is embryonic. As ALIA increases the momentum of its advocacy campaign for libraries it will need to engage more with FOLA, because FOLA and FOL groups can achieve what it is difficult for ALIA to do- influence perceptions of the local community about the need to invest in Australia's public libraries beyond the current meagre 6c per Australian per day, compared with the now 11c per day for the ABC.

An outstanding investment

We face this reality despite the fact that:

Too many people have an impression that public libraries are expensive or ultimately even a luxury, when they are the most cost-effective return on investment of public funding in the whole of the country, a return on community investment from recent US research exceeding the Dow-Jones industrial average. This impression unquestionably inhibits pressure on local and state governments to improve their meagre investment in them.

There are also still too many people who do not know what they should expect from a modern public library, or scared to ask for something better for fear that what they already have is taken away.

Changing perceptions

The critical issue thus becomes one of changing perceptions through a freer flow of information about public libraries which is, ironically, why better libraries are needed. Politicians, bureaucrats and local decision makers have to be targeted. There is an increasing number of tools to enable this,5 but FOL groups now have a responsibility to go beyond the fundraising, and reactive support of libraries to engage in the debate at the local level about better funding for them. They need to do so from an informed basis.

The parental connection

As 'the umbrella institution of the learning society', 'the community's meeting place' and 'a safe place to go'6 the performance, location, and accessibility of the local public library affects many people in a community- even local traders benefit from the drawing power of a good public library.

Not the least, what the public library does and how it partners with local schools during the formative childhood years of tomorrow's decision makers is critical to future investment in all Australian libraries. There are many groups within local communities with which a FOL group can engage for mutual understanding and support. The public library is, in a sense, a community catalyst because any community group can benefit from what a public library provides. During this conference you may wish to consider the local groups with which you currently interact or have the potential to- from playgroups, to chambers of commerce, to senior citizen's groups.

However, because they are the future, if there are groups worth giving priority to it is those representative of parents and other caregivers of preschool and school students.

The reason for including preschool parents is that too many children and their parents are being short-changed because the local public library does not employ a specialised children's librarian and in still too many rural areas, no qualified librarian at all. Public libraries have a key educational role to play in school readiness. The issue is that children need to be introduced to books and reading before their school years because they learn more in their first five years than at any time in their lives. Numerous studies have now shown that children who are read to from an early age learn more sounds, extend their vocabularies, imaginations and understandings of concepts, and learn to read by themselves more easily- some, perhaps many, parents need family friendly encouragement and support in providing early learning experiences for their child. As South Australian writer and educator Mem Fox has stated 'reading aloud is the most important tool in literacy education'.

Public libraries across Australia need a bigger investment in children's libraries and resources by local and state governments to partner parents in this important need for their children. This is for the future of Australia, because illiteracy comes at an enormous cost to the life and potential of the individual. It also comes at great cost to the community in terms, for example, of crime at all levels, particularly that committed by young males. Remediation of illiteracy, when it can be achieved, also comes at great cost.

A FOL group may be the only local group really aware of, and able to promote, the critical role of the local public library in literacy development and remediation. Every Australian community needs leadership such as that provided by Mayor Daley of Chicago who on 11 February 2002 announced an expanded Get wild about reading public library program to improve reading scores in public schools by getting 'children excited about reading before they are old enough to read'. What a difference it would make if every local authority in Australia had such mayoral leadership.

The other way in which a FOL group could usefully connect with local parents and students, apart from promoting junior FOL groups, is through the P&C or P&F associations and councils of local schools. This is because as Professor Sara Fenwick in her report School and children's libraries in Australia,7 observed

Both school and public library will be responsible for learning that will span lifetime, and the education of children will be only the beginning. To recognize these developing needs there must be continuous planning of all community organisations, but especially of schools and public libraries, for this challenging common endeavour.

School/public library interaction

In 2001 I undertook the first ever national survey of interaction between secondary schools and public libraries. The outcome of that survey has attracted considerable interest, and has been published in several sources. 8 What it found was that

It also found that high percentages of public librarians and teacher librarians had an unawareness of the dynamics, issues and concerns of each other. This is a communication and connection challenge within the library profession itself. That unawareness, however, would likely translate to P&Cs, P&Fs, other school associations, councils and teachers as far as knowledge of the educational and complementary roles of the school library and public library. Few would be aware, for example, that public libraries in aggregation are overwhelmingly the largest learning provider in Australia, and that a high percentage of their users- typically around 30 per cent- are primary and secondary students. And too many may have the gullible media's simplistic view- sometimes even held by educrats and school principals- that the internet and information technology have replaced the need for good, broadly resourced, school libraries mediated by qualified teacher librarians.9

I am therefore suggesting that if a FOL group perceives its mission as to promote and support the public library in the community, it should particularly and proactively engage with these bodies representative of parents of students, and those representatives of students such as student representative councils.

A starting point would be to inform itself about

FOL groups are increasingly becoming the one body in the community which can speak to a local authority about the disparate needs of the clients of its library service. In the UK they are being required to play that role. A FOL group may be the only way that the voice of students and their parents can be informed and heard- an essential connection, an important responsibility.

At the macro level, the time may also now be right for FOLA, as the national organisation, to work with ALIA in developing strategic alliances with the state and federal associations of P&C associations and school councils to promote the importance of school and public libraries for the literacy, information literacy, education and future of all young Australians.

At the moment school and public libraries are not on the agenda of those associations, largely because they are unaware of their complementary educational significance. This needs to change, because such associations could be powerful strategic partners in achieving what we all consider important- better investment in libraries for an information enabled and learning Australia.


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