Madam Speaker, I rise today to speak in support of the motion moved in my name.
Madam Speaker societies have been recording their histories in many forms for centuries. The first records came in the form of oral records passed through generations. The Aboriginal and Torres Islander cultures of this country have been recording their histories, stories and culture this way hundreds of thousands of years. Accounts and stories of the dreaming, traditional ecological knowledge, language knowledge and more recent historical information all make up part of this wealth of knowledge in this form of, en essence, oral library.
As writing developed across the ancient world so to the want to collect and store written articles. This began the tradition of the written library.
As far back as the 2000 BC, these libraries were beginning to be compiled in Mesopotamia and Egypt amongst other places. They were written on clay tablets in the Cuneiform script or on papyrus in heiroglyphs.
These first libraries were private collections belonging to universities, religious institutions, or individuals with restricted access.
While a little later in history, one of the most famous of these ancient libraries was of course the Library of Alexandria. Constructed around 250Bc under the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty, the library contained the equivalent of one hundred thousand books at it’s peak.
The original purpose is believed to be an undertaking by the Ptolemaic Dynasty to collect all knowledge from the world. A lot of resources were spent sending agents out to collect material for this collection.
However, given the levels of literacy in this period, the extreme stratification of society in Ptolemaic Egypt and the fact that much of the material was in Greek, a language that the majority of the population of the City of Alexandria and Egypt could not even understand, it was not exactly a useful nor accessible community facility to say the least.
This model of private, exclusive and inaccessible libraries continued for another two thousand years. There were similar examples in the Roman Republic, Roman Empire, Middle ages and into the colonial period.
The push for equality within society at the turn of the 20th century led to a push to open up libraries as well, and make knowledge and lifelong learning accessible to the masses.
The first local public lending libraries were championed by wealthy philanthropists and in particular a Scottish man by the name of Andrew Carnegie in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and other countries during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Carnegies model was to provide a comparatively small amount of money to a city or jurisdiction to build and initially staff a small and simple but functional library that was accessible to all. Part of the agreement was that the jurisdiction would continue to fund, staff and maintain the library for the benefit of the local public. This is in contrast to previous public libraries, which while free to access, were bigger, grander, located in bigger metropolitan areas and less accessible to people in general.
Work by Carnegie really pushed the idea that libraries should be simple but highly functional and accessible institutions for everyone, leading to the subsequent development of the library model we now recognise from the 1890s onwards.
Madam speaker, the library as a place of written record keeping and lifelong learning came to Australia through colonialist aspirations and has been a feature of Australian Society since for over 150 years.
The Melbourne Public Library, which is now well known as the State Library of Victoria, was established in 1854. This means that it was not only the first public library to be opened in this country but also one of the first to be opened in the world.
South Australia has a particularly interesting history of acknowledging the importance of libraries. The plans for the public library were already in the works before colonists arrived in 1836. The intent of this group of colonists was to bring written material to provide for, and I quote “the cultivation and diffusion of useful knowledge through out the colony” end quote.
Moving even closer to our time, the Government of Gough Whitlam employed the respected librarian Allan Horton to come up with ways to improve the usefulness of libraries and their connections to the community. He put together a report called “Libraries are Great Mate, But they could be greater”. From this report the government expanded and improved libraries in the late 1970s and onwards.
Madam speaker, this long history of improving on, maintaining and expanding library facilities shows the acknowledgement of the importance libraries play in social, cultural and educational access and infrastructure.
Libraries have evolved over this time to recognise a wide range of histories that historically have been invisible such as the oral histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that I mentioned earlier.
Libraries such as the National Film and Sound Archive for example, hold oral recordings and videos of traditional stories, historical accounts and language. This includes an 1899 recording of Fanny Chochrane Smith, and is the only recording of a Tasmanian Aboriginal Language native speaker in existence. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal And Torres Straight Islander Studies is continuing to add to it’s library of indigenous languages dictionaries, stories and histories. Much of this material can be found more and more easily through both ACT and other public libraries.
For example, a Ngunnawal language Handbook is available through Libraries ACT, as is Footprints On Our Land by Ngunnawal elder Aunty Agnes and a book about Traditional Ngunnawal plant use.
Library services have also been adapted to enable more varied and nuanced ways of engaging with the library. Gone are the days of librarian hushing everyone to maintain silence while library uses sit quietly, studiously reading line after line from a pile of books. Now we have all sorts of resources, programs and activities. There are English conversation classes, story time for younger kids, Story Dogs who help slightly older kids with their reading confidence or apprenticeship and employment assistance.
Of course, there are still quiet rooms where one can go and read studiously if they wish.
In more recent times, with the advent of the internet and personal computers, the resources libraries can provide have not only expanded in scope and reduced in the need for physical floor space but allowed access to libraries from schools and homes.
The successful provision of eResources under LibrariesACT’s collection demonstrates this Government’s commitment to maintaining support for our libraries in an enduring, future-minded manner. Currently, eResources includes free access for the community to: Encyclopedia; Language learning resources; Coding material for kids; Personal and professional development; and much more.
The ACT Government is currently undertaking a community co-design process on the future of libraries through the Imagine 2030 project, recognising that the role of libraries in our community and society is continually evolving. My motion today calls on the ACT Government, as part of this project, to consider ways library services can improve digital equity in the ACT. We’ve already seen the ACT Government begin work on this issue.
This government has also already shown it’s commitment to digital access and inclusion via the distribution of chromebooks to all ACT Public highschool students and through the Technology Upgrade Fund Grants Program.
The role of the library in providing on-site internet access has been integral to the inclusion and connectivity of thousands of Australians for decades now. However, as I note in my motion, investing in public library connections and infrastructure is necessary to maintain this community service.
Solely providing on site internet access may not be enough to maintain this level of community service anymore madam speaker. Most libraries can only be open so many hours of the day for access to their physical premises. If you don’t have internet at home, you subsequently don’t have access to any of the library’s resources.
Governments across Australia and around the world are increasingly recognising the leading role that libraries play in improving digital equality and access, and to further expand on this commitment to community service I have outlined, there has been a successful pilot of wireless internet device loans at Thomastown Library in Victoria.
One of the librarians at Thomastown library was one of the staff working early and late providing care packages of books and the like which our fabulous librarians in the ACT also undertook.
However Coralie started noticing the same cars in the carpark morning and evening and thought it was very strange. She ended up going to say hello to some of them and discovered it was parents and children spending hours there, within range of the free Library wifi, so the kids could do their homework.
Madam speaker, According to the 2021 Australian Digital Inclusion Index, 92% of Australians earning less than $52,000 a year would have to pay more than 5% of their household income to access a quality, reliable internet connection and 14% would need to pay more than 10%.
Madam speaker Thomastown library undertook during the midst of Melbourne’s sixth lockdown, to trial providing wifi dongles with 60gb per month to 100 families for a year. To date, this has been a successful trial and there are multiple other trials underway in Victoria. This is a service that has also been tried and rolled out in other countries including the New York Public Library in the US, which was the direct inspiration for the Thomastown trial.
Madam speaker, I feel that I have clearly set out the need for the possibility of such a program to be investigated for Libraries ACT.
The final calls on part of the motion I am moving today calls on the government to: Make improving digital access and inclusion a priority through the Imagine 2030 libraries codesign process, including through consideration of wireless internet device loans and other initiatives to increase access to necessary digital equipment.
Madam Speaker, investing in good public infrastructure today means investing in equitable access to digital infrastructure and technology and we know for a fact that libraries often guarantee digital access on premises. According to a 2016 study on four libraries run by the Newcastle City Council, libraries, and I quote “play a significant role in deprived areas in relation to the provision of IT services otherwise inaccessible for the majority of users who live in the area. In the Newcastle case, the libraries provide PCs, scanners, printers, Internet access that usually customers do not have at home.
This means that these resources are the only ones available to support their work/study/entertainment/ordinary activities/communication/online social connections. Hence, this helps to reduce the first level of the digital divide.”
However, there is still a divide for those who may not have ready access to the internet in their home. Access to the internet is pretty integral to educational and social connectivity in the modern era. Without the internet you are often less socially connected, it’s near impossible to undertake education and extremely difficult to find a job. We live in a digital era.
Madam speaker I look forward to support from both sides of this Assembly for this motion and the subsequent work to come.