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A love letter to libraries



I probably wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for libraries. And by that I mean I wouldn't have read the books I did, particularly those that inspired me to believe that being a writer was even a possibility.

Children read library books while their iPad tablet battery runs flat. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonDuring one of the loneliest periods of my childhood, I would enter the warm and well-lit library of my public school every morning to return the book I'd finished overnight before borrowing another. I'd chat brightly to the librarian, Mrs Hollis, an ever-comforting presence.

To quote writer Rebecca Solnit, libraries are 'temples of books, fountains of narrative pleasure, and toolboxes of crucial information'. But a library is far greater than the sum of its books. Not only are they places that help sustain literary culture, they're important as public spaces in themselves.

I've spent countless hours in libraries and they've had a renewed presence in my life of late, but I wasn't planning to write about libraries for a while — until a few weeks ago, that is, when an op-ed appeared on Forbes entitled 'Amazon should replace local libraries to save taxpayers money'. The writer, an economist, put forward his idea that libraries 'don't have the same value they used to'. It caused a public outcry all over the world.

I particularly appreciated an Australian response from Justine Hyde, a writer and director at the State Library Victoria. In her piece, 'For the love of libraries', she skillfully decimates the arguments in that now infamous op-ed, which was redacted the same day it was published. Hyde specifically addresses the financial aspects of the argument with the available data, which is compelling. I lingered over her comment that a great many people rely on libraries, 'particularly the under-privileged, marginalised and disenfranchised'. Who did she mean by that?

Perhaps that definition could be applied to someone like me, who grew up far less privileged than I am now. We had some books at home so I wasn't wholly deprived but I did have to discover reading without any real parental guidance; and, anyway, English wasn't even our home language. But then when I started working at my local public library — the first job I held after high school — it became clear that while I might have been the child of refugees, for many, libraries themselves were a refuge.

I can still recall one of our regular patrons, who wore the same clothes every day and habitually avoided eye contact in an out of the way corner as he quietly read magazines. I was disturbed by his presence and didn't know how to bridge what felt like the unbridgeable distance between us; I feel ashamed now that the best I managed was regularly asking my manager whether we should call a social service to help him. The staff, in any case, just let the man be, because in this suburban public library everyone was welcome.


"Libraries were inaccessible and rarefied spaces in Vietnam. My father was ambivalent about many aspects of our life in Australia but libraries were certainly not one of them."


What other public buildings do we have which are driven by the same open-hearted ethos? Back then I didn't appreciate how the library must have been so precious to him, since he clearly didn't have a home to return to. He was just one of the many people who needed that library far more than I did, which I would also think about whenever I'd shelve the large print books, magazines in different languages, and audio books. Many of these items were brought back by the mobile library, an important outreach service which would visit patrons who couldn't get themselves to the library without great effort, if it was even possible for them to leave home at all.

At another job I held some years later at a local council, our flagship library had a dedicated space for young people, with Playstations as well as computers with internet access. Back in 2004 this was a radical shift in policy, especially as it was a space in the library where you could even eat and talk without being reprimanded. Whenever I visited in the late evenings, there were always young people staying right until the library's closing time, dragging their feet to go home only because they had to.

Of course, most who visit public libraries are not necessarily disenfranchised. I know this because I'm in a local library at least once a week, especially in recent years since I started working on my laptop and now have a toddler as well. Libraries are where I see students hanging out and studying, people applying for jobs and conducting job interviews on the phone, mums with kids browsing books, older people learning how to use computers — and other patrons just sitting there quietly, doing whatever in peace. In the different parts of Sydney I frequent, there's a great deal of cultural diversity as well: white men, women in hijabs, Chinese grandparents — all within metres of each other, sharing the same space.

One of the features of Australian culture that my father has never lost his awe over is public libraries, as libraries were inaccessible and rarefied spaces in Vietnam. He was ambivalent about many aspects of our life in Australia but libraries were certainly not one of them. He still finds it incredible that you can just borrow a book and take it home, on the mere promise of returning such a valuable item. You could never just borrow a book like that in Vietnam, he'd often say.

During a two-week stint in Dili last year, I visited the Xanana Gusmão Reading Room on a number of occasions. It was clearly a much-loved place full of young people making use of the resources. However, it wasn't lost on me that Timor-Leste's only public library had a fraction of what an average public library does in Australia.

There's no doubt that buying and owning books can bring much pleasure — yes, including from Amazon — and nowadays I have the kind of personal library I never dreamed was even possible as a child. Yet I still borrow books and spend time in libraries, and I wholeheartedly support the call to renew our libraries and increase funding to them — particularly in NSW, which receives the lowest amount of state funding in the country.

How much poorer would our civic life be without all of our vital public libraries serving communities right across Australia and, indeed, the world.



Sheila PhamSheila Ngoc Pham is a writer, producer and radio maker. She currently teaches public health ethics at Macquarie University and is a PhD candidate at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation. She tweets as @birdpham

Topic tags: Sheila Ngoc Pham, libraries, refugees, Vietnam



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Existing comments

We all have places that are special to us. The two libraries in the district where I live are such places for me and many others. I even have the privilege of working in a voluntary capacity at the smaller of the two libraries. I proudly wear a badge "Volunteer" and so people are kind to me when I make mistakes, they accept me and thank me. And I say "thank you" back. Periodically, libraries come under threat of closure. However, people who love libraries rally and tell others why these special places are so important.

Pam | 10 August 2018  

Good article! Libraries perform an invaluable public service. I have a book written by Eric Hoffer who became blind as a child. When he regained his sight he became a voracious reader. He was a working man who self-educated himself by reading from libraries. He worked for many years on the waterfront at San Francisco and became known as the “longshoreman philosopher”. He wrote 10 books and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983. Not bad for a product of public libraries!

Ross Howard | 10 August 2018  

Bravo, Sheila! It's not surprising that among the first targets on the hit-list of ideologues is the library.

John | 11 August 2018  

I too grew up in a family not flush with money, therefore the local library was also my place of refuge. As a result, I grew to love reading; what joy when I could borrow the maximum number of books - 3! As a young teacher, our school relied on the fortnightly visit of the mobile library. Many of the children would not have been able to get to the local library, our school had no library, therefore their opportunity to enter the exciting world of books would have been severely diminished. These days, a friend who works in a small local library has the children from the school across the road come to borrow books, supplementing their school library. Where would they all be without this service? Since retiring, I have once again taken advantage of visiting my local library, once more being able to devour many, many books. The library too is a hub of "activity" for Mums and babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers, students, the elderly. Where would we be without our library? Thank you to all those dedicated staff who help bring much pleasure to so many, who, without our local library, would not have.

Muriel | 13 August 2018  

As a JP I am part of a group of volunteers who provide a service to our community at the local library twice a week which is much appreciated. You even get to listen to the nursery rhymes being sung by the pre-schoolers.

Barbara Matthies | 13 August 2018  

Sheila, thank you for writing in praise of libraries. I wholeheartedly agree with you. They are a user-friendly and irreplaceable resource in our communities, and I think they are my favourite public spaces. We are so fortunate to have such places where we don't have to pay to enter, and where we can feel safe and welcome for the entire day and often the evening as well. They offer sanctuary, as you say, as well as the pleasures of reading and learning and equal access to the cultural riches books and other library holdings can offer.

Jena Woodhouse | 13 August 2018  

Excellent article. A totally joyful read as I love libraries myself for all the wonderful reasons cited. Thanks for sharing.

Sergio | 14 August 2018  

Thanks Sheila. Lovely appreciative piece. There was a time when Premier Kennett wanted to charge for library services in Victoria. Someone commented: "That's the end of democracy". I thoroughly agree with your belongingness and communitarian qualities of libraries. I love to go there to write. Writing is a lonely art and somehow a library helps contain me as a writer. It should also be said that librarians as a professional group were early adapters if not leaders in developing 'client focused organizations'. They made the change from conservators to facilitators. In illustration of which a librarian told me a story about a former head librarian at Harvard meeting a colleague who asked him how he was. "Fine," he replied. "There were two books out of the library. I have found them. They are under my arm and will be back in the library directly"

Michael D. Breen | 14 August 2018  

When I was 15 years old I nearly failed English in the Intermediate high school State examination. My unjustifyingly adoring mother believed I was a good English student and paid one pound to have the paper re-marked. The re-mark confirmed that I was hopeless. I knew that I was hopeless, couldn't write English and knew bugger all of a literary nature. So I paid 25 shillings to join the local library and soon realised that I had purchased the world - a world that I had never realised existed. Two years later I earned honours in the Leaving Certificate for English. I reckon libraries are good things!!

grateful | 14 August 2018  

Sheila, thanks so much for this tribute to libraries. As a youngster growing up in Geelong in the early 1960s my parents introduced me to two community spaces that nurtured my love of learning. One was our local parish Church and the other was the Geelong Regional Library. I loved those shelves of a world waiting to be discovered and the sounds of the library stamp on the books leaving the building. I miss those wooden containers of manual record keeping in alphabetical order. I have fond memories of the mobile library that came out to North Geelong where we would catch up with the neighbours as we squeezed up and down the narrow corridor of books. Since those days I have haunted libraries of Universities and cities all over Australia. Now in my senior years I am slowly giving away "old treasures to new homes" and have cut back on my book purchasing. However thanks to my local suburban library across the road at Westfield I can continue to read, watch movies and meet celebrities from all walks of life. I often wonder why our Churches seem to be built closer to pubs than libraries.

Tony Robertson | 15 August 2018  

There is another important service that libraries provide and that is to shield the citizen from the abuse s/he would receive at the hands of the information publishing and distribution industry if 'the market' held all the strings. Just imagine how our access to pharmaceuticals would be gutted if we didn't have the PBS.

Ginger Meggs | 21 August 2018  

An important article. When I was small, I underestimated libraries. Now, being consciously old, I would really like to visit libraries with friends and alone more often, just to rest. I noticed that there are many non-literary books in libraries. it seems that such information as law, laws, and other important data does not make sense to keep on paper, since they tend to change almost every year. For me, as a writer, libraries play an important role, both for work and for life. I write different essays for https://papercheap.co.uk, so this library is a place for me to relax and be inspired, like nature or still life for the artist. I would like the libraries not to lose popularity!!

Alexa Author | 24 January 2019  

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