John Lloyd Fillingham was in the midst of a frustrating and unsuccessful search for a remote working space when on a whim, he did something he'd never done before.
He stepped inside one of the oldest libraries in Australia and never looked back.
"This place is so beautiful that I didn't think I'd be allowed to come in," Mr Fillingham said at the State Library of Victoria's picturesque La Trobe reading room.
"I don't know why I thought that libraries were for other people and not for me. I'm not sure why I waited until I was 55 years old to realise what amazing spaces they are."
The editor and filmmaker uses free wi-fi, a desk and other facilities at the State Library and can't believe he considered paying to use a co-working space.
Mr Fillingham is one of a growing number of Australians returning to libraries after many closed their doors at the height of the COVID pandemic.
State Library Victoria chief executive Paul Duldig says predictions libraries would decline due to the internet and e-books were "vastly overstated".
He believes the key to engaging people is offering varied experiences such as family history help, recording studios, exhibitions and specialty spaces for children and businesses.
Libraries are also taking advantage of the latest technology.
"If you're studying, the last thing you want is to ask ChatGPT and hand that up and find that you actually plagiarised or used information that doesn't exist," Mr Duldig told AAP.
"We're looking at how we can engage with ethical, verifiable AI."
There were more than 56 million library visits across the country in 2021-22, well below pre-pandemic levels. Memberships remained stable at about a third of the population.
Anecdotal evidence suggests visits increased in 2022-23, the Australian Library and Information Association's acting chief executive Trish Hepworth said.
Libraries have enduring appeal because they are safe, offer free resources and are open to everyone, she said.
Ms Hepworth believes the growing use of AI offers librarians the chance to debunk false information and help users find accurate resources.
"We also can see lots of real benefits to some AI tools," she added.
"We've got a lot of people who come into libraries because they need help, say, writing a job application or they need help filling out forms.
"A lot of these generative AI tools, with support, will help these people to write more fluently."
Libraries are adapting to the changing needs of their communities and it's particularly visible in Victoria's Gippsland region, where facilities lend surfboards, sporting equipment, seeds, induction cooktops, home energy efficiency kits and other products for free.
The 'library of things' program is co-ordinated by Myli Libraries, and chief executive Leanne Williams says membership numbers are at an eight-year high.
"It's been driven by the needs of our communities in the sorts of things that they asked for," Ms Williams said.
Melbourne entrepreneur Vincent Phan missed the institutions so much in lockdown he started an Instagram page called 1000 Libraries.
It has grown to half a million followers and is on track to being published as a book with Kickstarter funding.
"Different libraries all around the world are doing different things... for example you have libraries in China or in Japan that hold mediation sessions, whereas here you have kids book clubs," Mr Phan said.
"I feel like what's really important for libraries to be able to modernise is to keep that nostalgic feeling, but at the same time bring technology into it."
Back at the State Library, Mr Fillingham says he keeps coming back not only for the beautiful setting but because it offers a refuge.
"If people are wondering whether it's for them, they should just come in and sit down and spend 10 minutes," he said.
"I think they'll realise that (it's) nourishing for the soul."
Australian Associated Press
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