Please refer below to the 1-page Aplis December 2009 Editorial.
A BETTER, MORE ACCESSIBLE, PUBLIC LIBRARY SYSTEM FOR ALL IN AUSTRALIA: WHOSE RESPONSIBILITY?
As the Australian public library sector contemplates, post the July 2009 first Australian public libraries summit, A vision and national framework for Australian public libraries for submission to the federal, state/territory and local governments of Australia in 2010 it needs to be unequivocal about its political and funding responsibility focus – and that focus should not be local government. There has been too ready an acceptance in the sector and elsewhere that because local government has generally the operational and part funding responsibility for the Australian public library system, that public libraries must continue to swim, tread water or slowly drown according to the vagaries of local decision makers and finances.
To reverse this acceptance requires a greater understanding of how much, and why, the sector is poorly funded relative to international best practice; relative to its demonstrable return on investment; and relative to very much higher and sometimes wasted national expenditure on related educational and other agencies. That understanding is lacking, or is tacitly ignored, by those practitioners in the sector who assume that they must continue to struggle on shoestring budgets within the local government, and that the only possible panacea is federal government funding for public libraries. There is certainly a role for the federal government in supporting national public library initiatives, technology and infrastructure – as it is now effectively doing in contributing economic stimulus funding to a number of new and redeveloped public library buildings, and also through the national bibliographic, digital and reference initiatives of the National Library of Australia. Also, just as the federal government is now holding to account the states and territories for the equity, social inclusion and performance of their public education, health and other systems, it should consider doing so for the nation’s public library system – a first Australian public libraries review for 35 years would be a useful start. The recurrent funding of that system is, however, not the responsibility of the federal government – and nor should it be.
For it is the states and territories of Australia which are responsible for the performance of public education, public health, public housing, and other people critical areas within their jurisdictions. Their now universally available state or territory wide public library systems no less – yet they have in the last 25 years to varying degrees been allowed to handball that responsibility to local governments pressed to meet and fund other community needs devolved to them. One outcome has been that all are now contributing, to a greater or lesser degree, tokenistic funding to their public library systems. If the state and territory governments had maintained over the last 25 years their public library funding relative to that of local government and as a percentage of their own annual expenditures, the 2009/2010 investment in Australia’s public library system would likely now be double the current total funding of only $800 million pa – and this wealthy country would be investing in its public library system not at a lowly one third of international best practice, but at a more commendable two thirds.
So if a way forward is sought to change the poor overall investment in Australia’s public library system, look not to the federal government, only partly to local government, but largely to the dismal leadership and performance of the state and territory governments, particularly those of NSW, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia.
The current Australian federal government was elected two years ago with a promise of a new approach to cooperative federalism, dispelling the ‘blame game’, and strengthening the partnerships between the three levels of Australian government. Nowhere is a new approach, and more responsible partnerships, required than in ensuring much better investment in the Australian public library system in the 21st century. This requires clarity about what should be asked of the three levels of Australian government for that system, and its unequivocal exposition in A vision and national framework for Australian public libraries.
Aplis 22(4) December 2009 141
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