Tuesday 19 February 2013

The local public library - Heart of a Community

Tomorrow night (Wed 20 Feb, 6.30pm) Rockdale City Council will discuss the future of the proposed new main library. 

Thirty years ago, the main library was demolished and the new council office building was built on that site. The library was relocated to the old Town Hall as a temporary measure, and has remained there since. Planning for a new main library has come and gone a couple of times since then with no result. Recently, longer term planning for the future of the city has identified goals out to 2025, and planning for a new main library began anew. it was slated for approval in September 2012, but with the council elections held around the same time, it was decided to delay a final thumbs up until the incoming councillors could understand the need, the plan, and the finances, estimated to be around $16m, with some exclusions.

It's been a long wait. That's not to say that libraries in Rockdale have been left to rack and ruin. There are five branches attached to the main library, and for a smallish geographic area, that's quite a few. Arncliffe branch was refurbished just last year, and the Sans Souci branch renovation is advanced in planning. The main library has done a lot, but has been constrained by a recalcitrant space.

There are many calls on the finances of any Council. Rockdale residents have recently been surveyed to ask which services they could live without, if they don't agree to a rate increase. Council has recently moved to plan and build a replacement swimming centre at Bexley, another infrastructure item that has a long planning history, and comes with a price tag of around $30m. And, I suppose the elephant in the room, and one that is always present for Councils in St George (Rockdale, Kogarah, and Hurstville), is possible future amalgamation. The area has three small councils in an area comparable to some individual council LGA's in Sydney, so is an obvious example.

But, just how hard can it be to get this project up and running? It should be easy to vote for a project that benefits every resident, regardless of whether they are old, young, play sport, are working, are caring for family, are studying, can’t use a computer, can’t read English or can’t read at all. Or all of those at once. When I look at the timeline of action since the library was relocated, I can’t help but wonder about the two periods of 10 years that seemingly passed by with no action. 10 years. That’s close to the entire schooling of a child.  Given the 30 years since the move to the temporary location, that’s a whole generation. In this area that’s big changes in sources of migration, in the density of housing, in education, and technology. In 30 years all communities have changed the way they live, the way they work, the way they learn, the way they connect with their community. The demographics  clearly show that the area has a larger than average group of families with school aged children, a larger than average group of families who don’t speak English at home, households increasingly living in higher density, and all in an area of relative socio economic disadvantage. It’s a community with dreams for the future. This kind of community needs a great public library. A well-designed and resourced public library gives the entire community opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Opportunities to learn new things throughout their whole lives, opportunities to quietly study away from busy homes, opportunities to meet others of like minds, opportunities to use wi-fi without ordering fries, opportunities to participate in civic matters by viewing and commenting on council documents and plans on display.

The draft Rockdale Town Centre Master Plan has called for a civic “heart” for the city, and the library is a large part of that. Residents can’t help but look at our near neighbours in St George and see how the library and town square at Kogarah, and the Library Museum Gallery model at Hurstville have each become a focus for cultural activities and community gatherings in their own areas, a real heart for their cities. After such a long time, I really hope the Rockdale councillors decide to finally deliver.

If you are near Rockdale, why not go down to the meeting tomorrow night? ALIA is hoping that Executive Director Sue McKerracher might address the public forum. Or if you live in Rockdale why not email your local ward councillors today? If you live elsewhere, send out some love to your local public library by posting on their Facebook site about something you appreciate about them, a great collection, or service.

Public libraries can be the beating heart of a community, given the chance.


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