Digital Equity Private Members Motion 2022

I rise today to speak in support of the motion moved in my name. 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 Strait Islander cultures of this country have been recording their histories, stories and culture in this way for hundreds of thousands of years. Accounts and stories of the dreaming, traditional ecological knowledge, language knowledge and, more recently, historical information all make up part of this wealth of knowledge in this form of, in essence, an oral library.

As writing developed across the ancient world so, too, did the want to collect and store written articles. This began the tradition of the written library. As far back as 2000 BC, these libraries were beginning to be compiled in Mesopotamia and Egypt, among other places. They were written on clay tablets in various scripts or on papyrus in hieroglyphics. These first libraries were private collections belonging to universities, religious institutions or individuals, but they all had restricted access.

A little later in history, one of the most famous of these ancient libraries was, of course, the Library of Alexandria. Constructed around 250 BC under the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty, at its peak the library contained the equivalent of 100,000 books. The original purpose is believed to be an undertaking of 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, and bringing it back to Alexandria. 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 or accessible community facility, to say the least.

This model of private, exclusive and inaccessible libraries continued for another 2,000 years. There were similar examples in the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire, the 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 USA, UK, Canada and Australia and other countries during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Carnegie’s 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.

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 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 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 people who colonised South Australia was to bring written material to provide for “the cultivation and diffusion of useful knowledge throughout the colony”.

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.

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 Cochrane Smith, the only recording of a Tasmanian Aboriginal language native speaker in existence.

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies is continuing to add to its 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 a librarian hushing everyone to maintain silence while the library users 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.

In more recent times, with the advent of the internet and personal computers, the resources that libraries can provide have not only expanded in scope but reduced the need for physical floor space and allowed access to libraries from schools and homes. The successful provision of eResources under Libraries ACT’s collection demonstrates this government’s commitment to maintaining support for our libraries in an enduring, future-minded manner. Currently, eResources include free access for the community to a range of things such as encyclopaedias, 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 and equality in the ACT. We have already seen the ACT government begin work on this issue. The government has already shown its commitment to digital access and inclusion via the distribution of Chromebooks to all ACT public high school students and through the Technology Upgrade Fund Grants Program.

The role of the library in providing onsite internet access has been integral to the inclusion and connectivity of thousands of Australians for decades. However, as I note in my motion, investing in public library connections and infrastructure is necessary to maintain this community service. Solely providing a site for internet access may not be enough to maintain this level of community service anymore. Most libraries can only be open for so many hours of the day for access to their physical premises. If you do not have the internet at home, you subsequently do not 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. To further expand on this commitment to the community service that I have outlined, there have been successful pilots of wireless internet device loans, such as 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; and this was during the COVID pandemic.

Coralie, this librarian, started noticing some cars in the car park morning and evening, and thought it was very strange that they were staying for so long. 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 wi-fi, so that the kids could do their homework.

According to the 2021 Australian Digital Inclusion Index, 92 per cent of Australians earning less than $52,000 a year would have to pay more than five per cent of their household income to access a quality, reliable internet connection, and 14 per cent would need to pay more than 10 per cent.

Thomastown library undertook, during the midst of Melbourne’s sixth lockdown, to trial providing free wi-fi dongles with 60 gigabytes 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 in places such as the New York Public Library in the US, which was the direct inspiration for the Thomastown trial.

I feel that there is a lot of possibility for such a program to be investigated in the ACT and delivered through our libraries. The final part of the motion that I am moving today calls on the government to make improving digital access and inclusion a priority through the Imagine 2030 libraries co-design process, including through consideration of wireless internet device loans and other initiatives to increase access to necessary digital equipment.

Investing in good public infrastructure today means investing in equitable access to digital infrastructure and technology. We know for a fact that libraries often guarantee digital access on premises. According to the 2016 study on four libraries run by the Newcastle City Council, libraries “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 and internet access that customers usually 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, and a whole range of things that are now part of our normal everyday activity. 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, and access to the internet is pretty integral to educational and social connectivity in this era. Without the internet, you are often less socially connected, and it is nearly impossible to undertake education and extremely difficult to find a job. In short, we live in a digital era.

I commend my motion to the Assembly and look forward to the subsequent work on reimagining our libraries and building digital equity and equality into them.