Port Phillip Libraries. A pitiful state of decay and neglect. An opportunity for real progress.

A walk around the outside of St Kilda library, Port Phillip’s largest, shows a building in a sorry state of neglect. Crumbling walls, water damage, crude renovations and poor maintenance have destroyed this once elegant and airy 1973 building. The decaying library stands in shabby contrast to the expensively renovated Council offices opposite.

The library’s interior is in a similar state of decline. Stained carpets, a tired collection of books, shabby desks and seating, poorly designed mish mash of signs and staff who are not clearly identifiable.

While not in such a bad state of repair, similar conditions exist in the other Port Phillip libraries at Albert Park, Middle Park, Port Melbourne and South Melbourne.

This decline had been tolerated for many years but came to a head on a warm night on 15 November 2017.

Late that night six of the nine Port Phillip councillors, presumably overcome by a moment of collective madness, voted to support their council officers’ proposal to remove all the books from one of the libraries.

This action infuriated and galvanised the local community.

After receiving a petition from over 900 local residents the council went into damage control; councillors and a consultant/arbitrator, specially flown down from Brisbane, came to a public meeting attended by 150 angry community members.

The result? The proposal was put on hold, “a whole of libraries” review was commissioned; two more sets of consultants were employed; a revolving door of senior managers; and over two and a half years later the draft  Library Plan has still not been approved by council.

It became abundantly clear to the local community that their councillors and officials had a great many opinions about libraries, but very little knowledge.

The community decided to conduct a review of the 44 public libraries run by nine inner Melbourne councils. The investigation was based on visits to the libraries and the large amount of data that the library services are required to submit to the Public Libraries Victoria Network (PLVN) Annual Statistical Survey.

How do Port Phillip’s libraries compare?

  1. The shortest opening hours. On average 46 hours per library per week. Hobsons Bay 57.4 hours per library per week.
  2. The oldest collection of books etc. 46% under five years old. Stonnington has 90% under five years old.
  3. Spent less on books etc. In 2017-18 than in 2014-15 and are planning a 25% cut 2020-2021.
  4. Spent the least on capital. Between 2014-2018 Port Phillip spent $63,620. Yarra spent $17,287,282.
  5. Has the highest staff cost as percentage of expenditure. 77% of the budget is spent on paying staff. Glen Eira 44%.
  6. Poor staff morale. While staff in other municipalities were eager to discuss their libraries and their future plans Port Phillip’s staff were cautious and defensive. There has been a rapid turnover of senior managers. Absenteeism is a problem. Ideas and initiatives are met with an attitude bordering on contempt at the general manager level.

Libraries are alive, well and flourishing in eight of the nine inner Melbourne council areas surveyed.

  1. In Carlton, Melbourne, at the refurbished Kathleen Syme Community Centre, the library works closely with community groups using the centre and other council departments to tailor resources and events to their needs.
  2. In Yarraville, Maribyrnong, a small shopfront library has been revived by working closely with the local primary school and has breathed life into the local shopping strip.
  3. In Northcote, Darebin, home of the 1911 Andrew Carnegie endowed library, a new library was built in 1985. It has been refurbished twice since 2012.
  4. In North Melbourne every Friday the library staff go into local schools and kindergartens to welcome kids and their parents to libraries and books.
  5. In Greythorn, Boroondara, a tiny library in a community centre has just been built, and the whole collection is changed every six weeks.
  6. In Balwyn, Boroondara, the large library has been completely refurbished at a cost of $6.4 million.
  7. In Hobsons Bay, the council has invested over $28.9 million in five new and refurbished libraries since 2006.

In 2019 an 88 page copy of the community’s review was given to all nine councillors and senior council officials in 2019.

What Port Phillip Council needs to do to turn around its library service:

  1. Define the role of the City of Port Phillip library service.

The library service exists to encourage literacy and to inspire life-long learning with the lending of books and children’s books as its core activity.

  1. Match each library to its community.

Each library, however big or small, stand-alone or part of a community centre, should be tailored to serve the needs of its local community.

  1. Drive literacy.

PISA studies show that reading benchmarks across Australia are falling when compared with other countries. As in North Melbourne, Port Phillip library staff must start going into and working with local schools.

  1. Champion libraries in the council chamber.

It is no surprise that the Hobsons Bay libraries are thriving. When asked about this Hobsons Bay library officials spoke enthusiastically about Councillor Angela Altair’s commitment. Port Phillip needs an Angela Altair.

  1. Overhaul senior management.

High turnover, poor investment, low staff morale are the responsibility of the most senior council staff including the general manager. Nothing will change with the current management in place.

  1. Reject the draft Library Plan.

The current draft plan is a ragbag of whims and fantasies that will make the libraries the dumping ground of activities that should be taking place in community centres. Books and core library services should not be sacrificed to make way for the latest fashionable activity. A single page plan with clear objectives should be submitted for council approval within one month of the new council being sworn in.

  1. Make the collection fresh and vibrant.

Even if a collection is not the newest, it is possible to make the library’s collection look fresh. Daily changes of display in Newport and the complete change of the collection every six weeks at Greythorn have worked wonders.

  1. Free up library staff.

The introduction of automated sorting is proving successful in Melbourne and Glen Eira, freeing staff from drudgery to do what they are trained to do – help library patrons.

  1. Make librarians proud and responsible.

In New York the names of the managers responsible for each of the 92 libraries is clearly visible on the website. The same should be the case in Port Phillip. Currently Port Phillip staff would appear to be too embarrassed to wear their name tags.

  1. Communicate better with library users.

The library service holds a large quantity of data on what patrons have borrowed and used. This data can be used to tailor communication about the collection to current users and encourage greater usage.

  1. Communicate better with non-library users.

78% of Port Phillip residents are not active library members. A regular communications campaign to recruit new users should be tested and rolled out every four months.

  1. Communicate with other council departments.

In one Port Phillip library that is part of a community centre, there is no contact with the kindergarten, the maternal child health services, toy library, and community groups using the rest of the building. These artificial walls need to be broken down.

  1. Communicate with staff.

Port Phillip staff were unaware of the Library Plan being developed. They feel they are not listened to or appreciated by senior management. This must be rectified immediately.

  1. Opening hours.

Port Phillip libraries should be open at times that match their communities’ needs. In Darebin, Preston library is open until 10pm one night a week. In West Gippsland, Foster library is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

  1. Reinvigorate community shopping strips.

Many of Port Phillip’s shopping strips are run down and the current economic conditions will make things worse. Maribyrnong Council has shown at Yarraville how a small shopfront library can breathe life into a small shopping strip. The same could be done in Elwood, Fitzroy Street, St Kilda Road, and Acland Street.

  1. Establish a community liaison group for each library.

Engage the local community by holding monthly meetings with a local library support group as is being done in Darebin.

Do libraries and books matter?

We live in an era of increasing intolerance of differing views where “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted*”. Port Phillip Council’s running down of its public libraries over many years is a small but significant part of this dangerous movement. The council’s actions should be opposed and reversed before more harm is done. That would be real progress.

*Letter on Justice and Open Debate signed by 150 writers and intellectuals. Harper’s Magazine. 7 July 2020

Why our future depends on reading, libraries and daydreaming.

Over the past ten years inner Melbourne city councils have been investing in their libraries.

A brand new library in North Fitzroy; a renovated shopfront library in Yarraville; a new library in a bustling community centre in Carlton; a vibrant little library in Newport; an airy new library in Reservoir; a revolutionary mini library in Greythorn; and many, many more have been revitalised.

While most councils are aware of a library’s value to its community, one council, the City of Port Phillip, has chosen to cut its investment and steadily run down its libraries.

  • The CoPP spent less on new library materials (books etc.) in 2018-19 than in 2014-15*.
  • In 2017 a majority of councillors voted to remove all the books from a CoPP library.
  • In its revamped budget for 2020-21 the CoPP slashed $200,000 from the library new materials budget.

The following, from a speech by Neil Gaiman, a British author, are a salutary reminder to councillors and council officials of the importance of libraries to the community they serve.

“I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. How many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.  And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.

I suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m making a plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are and to preserve both of those things.

People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate. The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity.

You’re finding out something as you read that will be vitally important for making your way in the world. And it is this: the world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

Fiction builds empathy. You alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up, and met the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders.

Libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education, about entertainment, about making safe spaces and about access to information.

Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath resistant, solar operated, feel good in your hand. They are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them.

Books are the way the dead communicate with us. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us. The way that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over.

We have an obligation to read for pleasure. If others see us reading, we show that reading is a good thing. We have an obligation to support libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries you are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.”

This is an edited version of Neil Gaiman’s lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on Monday 14 October  2013 at the Barbican Centre in London  and his book Art Matters.

*Source Public Libraries Victoria Statistics Compararative Performance Report