Changing times: Once described as 'cemeteries for old and forgotten books', libraries are fast evolving. Photo: Nic Walker
It is Tuesday morning, it is 11 o' clock, and here at Belgrave Library that means it is story time. For the past 10 minutes or so, a gaggle of parents has been browsing and mingling in the children's section while the preschoolers in their charge rifle through books, climb furniture and dive into a makeshift mound of floor cushions, their anticipation building.
Finally, the door into the adjacent meeting room is opened by Rosie Yates, psychology student and casual storyteller (the regular is on leave). The children, wearing name tags, pigtails, tiaras and Thomas the Tank Engine T-shirts, amble through the door and congregate in the middle of the space, while their chaperones take seats on the periphery.
''Let's all have a stretch,'' Yates says. ''As big as you can go; now as small as you can be. How about we begin with a song? Everybody. If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands …''
Storytime at Belgrave Library. Photo: James Boddington
It is a bold opener. But it works. They are happy, they know it and they bring their hands together as one. The only grandfather in the room leans back in his chair with a grin of satisfaction spreading beneath his yellowy-grey moustache at the prospect of half an hour's peace, stretches out his legs and unfolds a newspaper.
According to Albert Einstein, who certainly knew a thing or two: ''The only thing that you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.''
Registering more than 27 million visits to local libraries each year, with 2.6 million memberships accounting for more than 48 per cent of the population, Victorians seem well aware of their libraries' whereabouts. But few may realise that their funding has been under threat.
Victoria has 262 public library branches that cost $200 million a year to run. In 2011, the state government announced it would cut its contributions to library funding by between $5.7 million and $7.1 million over four years. Under pressure from the Municipal Association of Victoria's quietly effective Save Our Libraries campaign, the state reversed that decision and launched a review into services and funding.
This has led to the Tomorrow's Library report, a recommendation from the ministerial advisory committee to Local Government Minister Jeanette Powell. The report advised state government funding is essential for initiatives to keep pace with customer expectations in a digital age. These are likely to cost an extra $20 million, according to John Murrell, who is president of advocacy group the Public Libraries Victoria Network and a member of the committee that worked on the review.
The response Treasury makes to the report's recommendations, through the context of the May budget, will shape the future of our public libraries for the next decade and beyond.
It is easy to imagine public libraries have been around forever, but in 1932, when the Carnegie Corporation of New York funded a survey and report on Australian libraries, it found only a smattering of ''wretched little institutes'' that were ''cemeteries for old and forgotten books''. Although the report led to the establishment of the Free Library Movement in NSW, progress was painfully slow throughout Australia. The public library network as we know it, with a presence in suburban and rural communities, barely existed before the 1960s.
Toorak/South Yarra Library is a squat, black building with tinted windows, fronting one of the dowdier stretches of Toorak Road, opposite a nature reserve and a trio of '70s-built apartment blocks. Over on the reserve, a bearded man of indeterminable age and dishevelled dress lies sleeping on the grass, while two young mothers, babes asleep in parked prams, are put through their paces by a personal trainer. It is Monday morning.
Inside the library, the three staff members behind the main desk are all occupied so, rather than join what is already a long queue, I take a stroll between the shelves. Ah, yes, the ''Large Print'' section. I'm going to be grateful for that one of these days, already squinting down the barrel of a bifocal future.
I wander around to one of the study areas, and notice a young woman carrying a backpack the size of a cow. Klara, it transpires, is a Swedish tourist, returning home today following 1½ months Down Under. She has dropped into this library, her soon to be ex-local, to print out her flight confirmations. ''Plus, it's fun to hang out in libraries,'' she says.
Klara begins to explain how she is returning to Sweden early due to homesickness, when I notice a woman sitting at a nearby PC-pod repeatedly turn around and grimace our way. ''Oh, I'm sorry,'' I venture, ''are we disturbing you?''
The woman, who, despite the cloudless 27-degree day, is wearing an expensive-looking raincoat, nods vigorously and places a finger to her pursed mouth. She is quite right, we are in a library, after all.
John Murrell, whose regular job is chief executive of the West Gippsland Regional Library Corporation, says local councils have for the past 30 years been picking up a bigger share of the costs of our libraries. In the early '70s, the state government provided 70 per cent of library funding, which has since dwindled to about 17 per cent on average.
''So it's been a complete turnaround of the funding model, with local government picking up more and more, and they're now at the end of their tether,'' he says.
He is optimistic about Tomorrow's Library's prospects, but knows Treasury won't be willing to pump more money into our libraries unless it can ''see something for it''.
The report outlines six clear initiatives, tangible and measurable, for funding consideration. These interrelated initiatives include a statewide library card, centralised database and e-book lending system, as well as a vastly improved and more mobile non-English language collection, all in the name of a standardised yet flexible, egalitarian and modern ''Victorian Library''.
And if the recommendations don't get funded? Or, worst case scenario, the report is iced and the original cuts are implemented?
''Then local government would have to seriously look at the service they'd be able to maintain. And would be seriously pissed off.''
Failure to act on the recommendations, the report warns, at a time of rapidly shifting demands and expectations, could threaten the future of the library as a valued public space.
Coburg Library is abuzz this Monday lunchtime, a public space to be cherished, though I'm assured this is relatively quiet. Almost every PC station is occupied, people of all ages wander the aisles, diligently pursuing interests, or sit at screens, managing their lives or scouring the internet.
Anne, the library assistant, aids a woman in a mauve dress with her photocopying. A man in baseball cap and singlet kneels beside a woman in a sari, gently talking her through some devilish manner of online bureaucracy. From the junior lit section, a young girl's voice entreats her mother to ''Look, Mum, look!'' A heavy-set man in his 40s swings his way on crutches between religion and true crime sections, muttering under his breath.
Technical services librarian Jenny Guadagnuolo and unit manager Fidelma O'Brien exude an infectious enthusiasm for their work, which these days apparently involves very little shushing, once a cornerstone of librarianship's skill set. By the sounds of it, they instead perform the duties of research assistants, IT troubleshooters and tutors, career counsellors, medical advisers and Melway specialists - and they seem to be loving it.
O'Brien, a Dubliner who came to Australia six years ago, enthuses over the connection with local community the library provides its users. And Guadagnuolo, who has been a librarian ''on and off'' since 1965, speaks with pride of the need for a pram valet to ensure safety exits are left clear on Rhyme Time mornings, such is the popularity of this early literacy support service, with sessions regularly attracting three-figure crowds.
''This gives little children an experience of traditional rhymes and rhythms,'' she tells me, ''which absolutely helps the brain in learning to read. And that's a joyful, wonderful thing. We're very lucky to be witness to that, I've always felt. That could be what got me into libraries in the first place.''
O'Brien continues to wax lyrical in lilting Irish brogue on the library's social virtues: ''There's a lovely story of a member of staff who was doing the delivery service for someone who was housebound, and went to take some books to them, but found no one home. She wondered where he could be and called social services, who told her he'd been taken to hospital that day. And she took down his washing and collected his post, so that no one would know the house was empty.''
Which, while a commendable act of initiative beyond the call of duty, raises the question of whether you'd rather be burgled or have the local librarian go through your smalls.
On which subject, I ask these women if they have noticed a surge in demand for erotic literature among their members, as has been experienced in Britain in the past year or so, in the wake of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon.
O'Brien is quick to respond: ''Well, we wouldn't be stocking anything that was, you know, extremely erotic, or offensive.''
Guadagnuolo, meanwhile, murmurs a note of dissent, softly pointing out: ''Erotic is slightly different from offensive.''
IFrankston Library is spacious, light and airy , filled with colour and activity. Wandering among its shelves can put a spring in the heel of the most jaded of browsers.
Teenagers sit frowning over the homework on their iPads. A child of around 10 is going nuts in the games room, engaged in some kind of virtual athletics (yes, they have game consoles in the Frankston Library). Pale, drawn students study. A middle-aged woman listens to an audiobook through headphones, while her teenage daughter is slumped upside down in the armchair beside her, head dangling above the ground, stockinged feet hooked over the chair, reading Jane Austen. The atmosphere crackles with collective focus.
Toni Bean, who for some reason is known to the library staff as ''Gloria'', in a back-combed grey-blonde do, check shirt, black ski-pants and running shoes, is pushing her grocery trolley between the shelves, gathering her latest reading stash. I get chatting to Bean when I notice her finger the spine of the same gritty James Ellroy crime novel that I happen to be halfway through.
''Have you read the memoir he wrote, My Dark Places?'' she asks me. ''Well, you must. My heart went out to the poor man, it really did.''
Bean is a veteran of public libraries, has used them all her adult life, one she describes as having been ''formidable''. ''Books have been my family and my friends,'' she says, without the merest hint of regret. She visits Frankston Library twice a week on average, making the trip on the train from nearby Carrum. ''I'm deaf. I have a Cochlear implant, so the DVD collection is invaluable for me, too, as they always get the versions with subtitles.''
Bean is a persuasive cheerleader for her local library, and Frankston seems to have a lot going for it. Besides providing space for the enterprising Frankston Volunteer Resource Centre and a ''specialty recycling hub'' - a place the public can discard old batteries, light globes, obsolete technology and X-rays - the library runs an art-loan scheme through which the paintings that adorn the walls are available to borrow. This place gives me library-envy.
Not least when I hear Frankston Library team leader Martina Rasmussen describe her professional philosophy.
''Every customer comes through the doors with a problem or a need for information,'' she says in a no-nonsense Berlin accent that belies her 33 years spent in Australia. ''Even if they're just looking for a book off the shelf, some of them will tell you their life stories. If you do your job properly, they leave the library in a better place than when they came in.''
Little wonder regular recipient of Rasmussen's attentions, Toni/Gloria remarks that ''libraries are one of the things I'd march in the streets for. And I don't march in the street very often. Not since the Iraq war. There are two things: Libraries and the ABC. Any move on the ABC, and I tell you, I'll be organised.''
Malcolm Turnbull can consider himself warned.
The following morning, back in my humble local library of Belgrave, story time is drawing to a close. I ask young mother-of-two Aichling Ashburner what brings her here, aside from the obvious respite that story time affords.
''I come here regularly to get the kids familiar with the library, so they develop good memories of the place, and just get to be around books,'' she replies.
And what about her? Does she have good memories of the library from childhood? ''Oh yes. Mum took us to the library every week, without fail. That's where I learnt to love books. I want my kids to have that. And their kids, too.''
Libraries at a glance
■ 48 per cent of Victorians are library members.
■ More than 51 million items were loaned out in 2011-12.
■ In the past financial year, almost 300,000 e-books were downloaded, up from about 19,000 the previous year.
■ Victorian public libraries deliver a diverse range of programs including homework clubs, internet and iPad training, and home library services. Story Time is the most popular program; offered by most libraries.
■ About 1.7 million people attended library programs in Victoria in the past financial year.
■ More than 120,000 voluntary hours were contributed to public libraries in Victoria in 2011.
■ For every dollar invested in public libraries, the community receives at least 3.6 times as much value in return. In 2007-08, the community benefit was $681 million against a cost of $191 million.
■ Public libraries provide 4430 jobs and add $120 million to the Victorian gross state product.
■ A Libraries Building Communities survey showed 10 per cent of Victorian public library customers were in full-time work, 41 per cent were not in the labour force (retired, at home with children, students), 36 per cent worked part-time and 13 per cent were unemployed.
Sources: Tomorrow's Library and Dollars, Sense and Public Libraries reports