When I was a child, having migrated to Australia at the age of three, the local library was my absolute favourite place to go.
My family originally lived in country NSW, and we came with little in the way of money and resources. Most of what we owned was secondhand or from the cheapest shops around. We knew very few people in town, and as migrants in a majority white town, there were challenges to being included and connected to the community.
As a family of voracious readers (I was reading chapter books by the time I was six), visiting the local library was one of the most exciting times of the week. We’d take out stacks of books, and my siblings and I would read all of them each before we returned them the following week.
More than just borrowing and returning, though, the library was somewhere we could connect to different community programs, learn to use the computer, and ask questions.
I remember, years later, when my Mum was supporting a recently arrived refugee family, the library was one of the first places she took the young woman who had arrived with two small children. There, she could get help filling out the forms she needed and access English language lessons.
Of course, libraries have come a long way since the early-90s and provide even more services to the community. And most importantly, they’re free to access, open to all, and staffed with professionals who are there to help. How many places are left in our society like this, where there is no motive other than to build community, encourage a love of reading, and connect people to services?
Through lockdown, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it would have been like for my family if we had migrated here just before a pandemic. There are so many people in that situation right now, having weathered the isolation and uncertainty of the past two years, unable to access services and places that would otherwise have been sites of inclusion and community building. It saddened me to think of people unable to find the comfort and support we found in the libraries we frequented.
Not just the newest members of our community will have suffered the loss of being able to visit their local libraries, but there are the socially isolated, the parents who make use of storytime sessions, the students who rely on the peace and free wifi, and the volunteers who get satisfaction from giving back.
Libraries ACT did a fantastic job adjusting to lockdown, offering home deliveries of library resources, online programs for kids, and extending due dates for items out on loan. But libraries offer so much value that simply can’t be recreated online, and it’s wonderful to know that those benefits will be available to the community again over the coming weeks.
Over the years in Canberra, I’ve watched several libraries close their doors, and I sometimes worry that as the majority of people in our affluent community find the resources they need online, the impact and value of libraries will be seen as servicing too few people to justify the cost of their operation.
I hope that COVID has provided us an opportunity to remember the importance of these cornerstones of our community and validated the impact of the local library.