The Days of Library Fines Are Overdue: What Can We...

We’ve teamed up with RMIT’s School and Media and Communication and asked students to respond to the themes of Melbourne Knowledge Week and reflect Melbourne’s future. This response by Kirby Fenwick explores the future of libraries. 

“People can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned.”
― Saul Bellow

Long the cornerstone of a vibrant community, how will social and economic and technological change impact on what a library is or can be? A self-confessed devotee of libraries in all their guises, Kirby Fenwick delves into the possibilities and wonders what does the future of the library look like? Kirby is studying Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT University.

I step up to the glass doors. The retinal scan activates. I stiffen—do I have any outstanding fines? My heart races as I wait. The doors beep and slide open.

Inside, the holographic librarian flickers, a smile stretched across her distorted face.

“Welcome to the library,” she says, the words warm and smooth as they fall from her simulated tongue.

Incubators. Accelerators. Co-working spaces. Drones collecting overdue books and holographic librarians. Secular temples. Co-located with hospitals or swimming pools or maternal health services. Beautiful buildings without any books.

What does the future library look like?

Arguably the original example of the sharing economy, libraries possess an inbuilt sense of nostalgia. Something about the stacks of books, the possibilities among their pages, transports us back to our childhood. And that’s something Justine Hyde, Director of library services and experience at the State Library of Victoria is conscious of preserving.

“Nostalgia is beautiful…you don’t want to let go of that because it’s really powerful. But you want to create a new nostalgia around libraries, so that people are having new experiences and new memories and engaging with what libraries do in the contemporary space as well,” she said.

Balancing the traditions of the past with the opportunities of the future is possibly the greatest challenge facing modern libraries.

Some two million people visit the State Library every year. More than 2.5 million Victorians are members of their local library. And while library collections may be shrinking and book circulation decreasing, the number of visitors to libraries is going up.

While this seems paradoxical, it points to the fact that the evolutions of libraries—from institutions like the State Library of Victoria to the network of public libraries across the state—has already begun.

On the third floor of the Docklands Library, there is a recording studio and editing suite. There’s also one at the Kathleen Syme Library in Carlton. And after the State Library of Victoria’s recently announced $88 million renovation is completed, they’ll have one, too.

Book clubs, coding workshops, poetry slams and exhibitions. Children’s story-time, writer’s groups, maker hangouts where you can access 3D printing and robotics. Digital literacy classes, live music, literary festivals and craft workshops. All these things are happening in libraries right now.

It’s this move from passive to active, this shift from the library as a place of consumption to a place of production that is significant. Libraries are growing into places of cultural creation rather than simply being book repositories.

According to Justine Hyde, the public are increasingly using libraries to create things.

“You see that in the maker space movement, you see that in the emphasis on things like digital production facilities, in programs around creativity,” she said.

“The principle of the library as a place where you can come and learn and use that learning to further your career or your life’s ambitions, that aspect hasn’t changed. What has changed is how we realise that,” Ms Hyde said.

This shift positions the spaces and people within a library as two of their most important assets; it places value on the ideas of collaboration and community.

From here, it’s an easy jump to libraries as incubators, spaces where entrepreneurs can dream up ideas and access the resources to pursue them.

Helen Garner famously wrote Monkey Grip in the Dome at the State Library.

The question today is, if Helen Garner can write a novel in the library, why can’t someone build a social enterprise or develop a business or record a podcast?

Libraries have historically levelled the playing field, offering access to knowledge and technology for free. A virtue that goes some way towards dismantling socio-economic disadvantage. These principles make libraries inherently democratic. And increasingly important.

The only barrier to accessing a library is your ability to get to the physical space. But even that is shifting.

Around 4.5 million people visit the State Library of Victoria’s website every year and the library is actively working to digitise collections and acquire more digital born content. They’re also increasingly producing content for their website and social media that delves into the libraries enormous collections.

Many local libraries now offer an increasing selection of digital books and magazines that can be ‘borrowed’.

What does all this mean for the future of the library?

What a library looks like in 50 or 100 years is really anybody’s guess. While some may argue the end of books is nigh and libraries will become places where you can ‘check out’ the expert rather than the book they wrote, others would suggest that books as a cultural artefact will only increase in value and you won’t see the end of library stacks anytime soon.

Perhaps the reality is somewhere in between. A combination of the library we recognise from our past and the library we can see taking shape in front of us right now.

What we do know, and can sure of, is that the evolution of the library ensures they are cementing their place in our communities. By pursuing and embracing technology and being willing to engage in non-traditional roles and activities, libraries are building the future, not just existing in it.

All that’s really left to do, is to join your local library.

Written by Kirby Fenwick.

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