How Canberra libraries are helping the city's homeless
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How Canberra libraries are helping the city's homeless

It's the place where hundreds of thousands of books are at your finger tips for free - but only if you have a fixed address.

Now Canberra libraries are hoping to make it easier for people who are homeless to access their services.

Director of Libraries ACT Vanessa Little. There are barriers that prevent homeless people from borrowing library books, Ms Little said.

Director of Libraries ACT Vanessa Little. There are barriers that prevent homeless people from borrowing library books, Ms Little said.

Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

Libraries ACT director Vanessa Little said the city's libraries were regular hangouts for people who were without accommodation, but few had a library card because proof of address was required.

This locked people out of borrowing books, accessing the library's digital catalogue and downloading free music.

"[People who are homeless] are most likely embarrassed about their position so we find that's a barrier for people wanting to join the library," Ms Little said.

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"There are people who use services face-to-face and don't join up but spend their whole day reading in the library and we're very open to that.

"We also suspect some of the people who ask us for help for job applications may be homeless as well, we support a lot of people in that."

Homeless people can use the address of a registered charity to sign up for a library card, but only with permission of the charity.

"We're working through how we might change that and tailor our services so people don't have to do that and access services without a home address," Ms Little said.

The ACT government has called for tenders for a new libraries management system, and Ms Little said this could provide an opportunity to change the way borrowing worked and open it up to more people.

A number of libraries in NSW have set up an "unconfirmed address" category and accept identification like Medicare or concession cards in exchange for a limited category of borrowing.

Anyone with a library card in Canberra can download free ebooks, which "self-destruct" at the end of the loan period, Ms Little said.

The can also download up to three songs a week for free under the ACT government's Freegal subscription.

The subscription costs $49,000 a year with 1442 songs downloaded on average per week.

Ms Little said it was her librarians' desire to "deliver the same service to anybody - homeless or not".

"Libraries are all about access and equity. In saying that you have to balance this because you're handing out community assets and we're responsible for managing those assets so see that they remain in the community's hands," Ms Little said.

Staff are also looking at installing lockers at libraries, so people sleeping rough can borrow books and leave them there overnight.

"One of the things homeless people say stops them borrowing books is if they get stolen, they can't afford to pay the fine or for the stolen item," she said.

Libraries ACT are also considering having street libraries, where some of the estimated 70,000 books that are discarded every year are dropped off at locations like the Early Morning Centre for homeless people to easily access.

They have also applied to become an Orange Sky Laundry stop, and are hoping "at least one branch" will be successful, Ms Little said.

An estimated 65 per cent of the ACT's population is a member of the library, and Canberrans borrowed more than 2.5 million books last financial year.

The library has more than 645,000 items in its collection.

Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.

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