With the rise of the internet, public libraries were supposed to be on borrowed time. But they're thriving - their renaissance as much about community as the literary riches they contain. It's enough to make you Dewey-eyed.
Don Royce had an exceptionally happy marriage. "I was the luckiest person I knew," says the 72-year-old former school principal. When his wife, Laura, died in 2016, Royce felt as if the ground had gone from beneath his feet: "We had been together for nearly 50 years, and suddenly my life ... It was like I went over a cliff." What saved him, or at least cushioned his fall, was his local library.
Australia has about 1500 public lending libraries. Royce, who lives in the Victorian city of Geelong, is one of the nine million of us - more than one-third of the population - who are card-carrying library members. When Laura was alive, he would duck in, grab a few books or magazines, and head home. After her death, he was in less of a hurry. "I wasn't loitering at the library," he says, "but I was spending more time there than I had."
He discovered that his library and others in Geelong offered free tuition on a range of subjects, from tracing family history to efficiently operating a laptop, and he started signing up for classes: "They were useful information sessions. And they were valuable distractions." Having somewhere to be at a particular time forced him out of bed in the mornings, and into the world. "It just got me up and about."
Since then, Royce has recovered his equilibrium. He is back to being an occasional rather than constant visitor to the library, but whenever he goes, he is struck anew by how cheering the place is. "Young mothers with their babies meet there," he says. "I walk past the open windows and see some old guy with a bunch of young people playing chess." What Royce understands is that local libraries have many different purposes. People go to them for company as well as for literature. They're centres for research, for recreation, for respite from the daily slog. They're refuges for the broken-hearted. "They're really important," he says.
I would say the people are just as important as the books. That's something the planners never really understood.
If attendance figures are any indication, the public library is our most valued cultural institution. In the year to July 2018, about 7.6 million people visited Australian libraries - more than went to museums (6.7 million), art galleries (6.3 million), plays (3.9 million) or musicals and opera (3.5 million). But it was the return rate that really set libraries apart. Whereas at least half of those who visited museums or the theatre went only once in the year, three-quarters of library visitors went back at least three times, and one-third visited more than 10 times. Australians make about 114 million visits to public libraries annually.
"Thirty years ago, people were thinking libraries wouldn't survive the internet - that they'd just die out," says NSW State Librarian John Vallance, who supervises NSW's public library network. "A lot of city planners and council planners were actually planning for a future without local libraries, because the assumption was that everyone would be at home looking at their screens. It's hard to imagine pundits getting something more wrong." Far from losing relevance, "libraries are undergoing a renaissance", says Vallance. It turns out that people love being around books. "And around other people. In fact, I would say the people are just as important as the books. That's something the planners never really understood."
Being with people in a pleasant indoor setting usually carries a price of admission, whether it's $5 for a cup of coffee in a cafe or $100 for a theatre ticket. Even in shopping malls, security guards are likely to ask you to move on if you look like hanging about indefinitely without spending money. "The public library," says Vallance, "is the one place where absolutely everyone - regardless of their background, their wealth, their status - can be assured of a respectful welcome and a friendly reception."
Entry to the library is free. You need a (free) library card to borrow items, but anyone can amble in and stay for as long as they like, reading the newspapers, browsing through the books, using the computers, cramming for exams or just occupying a comfortable chair. "You don't have to buy anything," says Patti Manolis, chief executive of the Geelong Regional Library Corporation, who, like most librarians she knows, is driven by the conviction that every member of the community deserves access to knowledge and culture. "In Geelong, just under 40 per cent of our members are on incomes of less than $30,000," Manolis says. "That makes me really happy, because it means our services are reaching those who I believe need them most."
Oscar-winning documentary maker Michael Moore once said admiringly that librarians were a more dangerous group than he had realised: "You think they're just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They're, like, plotting the revolution, man." Manolis laughs when I remind her of the quote. "That's right!" she says. "That's us." Chris Buckingham, president of Public Libraries Victoria, agrees that when it gets right down to it, libraries are about people power: "The pursuit of a just and fair society sits at the very core of what we do." Buckingham thinks of librarians as subversives with big hearts. And a lot of patience. "I mean, they get a thousand questions a day."
Some of which aren't easy to answer. "The other day someone came to the desk and asked, 'How do you have a good life?' " says Monica Dullard, who works at inner Melbourne's St Kilda Library. The inquirer was a middle-aged woman. The librarians on duty found her some books and articles they thought might be enlightening. Also, "they had a nice chat to her," Dullard says. "The thing is, we take the time."
People phone with questions, too. "We had someone ring up and ask us how to make chicken soup, because he was feeling a bit poorly," Dullard says. "We've got a huge collection of Jewish cookbooks, so we got a recipe from one of the books we knew was really good and talked this bloke through it, step by step. He made the soup and came in the next week saying he felt much better."
Even now, in the digital age, the thousands of volumes that line a library's shelves are its greatest asset. As NSW State Librarian John Vallance likes to point out, "the most cost-effective, long-lasting and energy-efficient form of data storage is paper". People with library cards have the option of downloading digital versions of books, magazines, music or movies to their electronic devices. But of the 41 million loans a year from NSW public libraries, less than 5 per cent are in digital format. "People still love having something that they can hold in their hands," Vallance says.
If it's a real page-turner, all the better. The most borrowed books in Australian libraries in the 12 months to March were The Midnight Line and Night School, both by bestselling British thriller writer Lee Child. (It was the third year in a row that Child topped the chart.) Next came two Australian novels: Tim Winton's The Shepherd's Hut and Jane Harper's Force of Nature. The most borrowed non-fiction book - the 10th most popular book overall - was The Barefoot Investor, by money-management adviser Scott Pape.
For those who visit libraries to use the computers and free WiFi - one in seven Australian households aren't connected to the internet - the bonus is having someone on hand to help with, say, navigating a job-search website, preparing a resumé or filling in an online citizenship application form. Through necessity, librarians have become tech experts, says Dullard. "At Mother's Day and Christmas, we get a flood of people coming in, 65-plus, who have been given an iPad as a present and don't know how to use it. They're too embarrassed to tell their children, so they sneak into the library and we teach them how to set it up."
Sometimes staff have to intuit what it is that customers require. Hobart librarian Ryan Burley was shelving books one afternoon when a man who looked to be in his late 20s asked where he could find something to read on anger management. Burley led him to the right area and pulled out a few titles. Sensing that the man wanted to talk, he asked him if he was okay. The customer said he had lost jobs and girlfriends because of his inability to control his anger. Burley said he himself had suffered from depression. The ensuing conversation was long and candid, and by the end of it, the man seemed relieved. "It was like he had actually been heard for the first time," Burley says. "One key thing stands out to me: libraries are safe spaces. We don't judge. We don't discriminate. What that guy needed was empathy, and to know that he wasn't alone."
At Burwood Library in inner-western Sydney, librarian Helen Kassidis formed an instant bond with a woman who, after asking for information on divorce, confided that she was going through a painful marriage break-up. "I said to her, 'Look, I know how you feel,' " says Kassidis, who had been through a divorce of her own. Library visitors spill out their troubles quite often, in Kassidis's experience. "Sometimes there are tears, theirs and mine. Sometimes all I can say is 'I'm sorry'. " But usually she can point them toward a possible source of assistance - be it a book title, a website address or the phone number of a government agency. Librarians are in the business of helping people make informed choices, she says. "Whether it's a kid who chooses that they're going to read Harry Potter or Enid Blyton, or somebody who's making massive life decisions, you are, in a small way, empowering them."
Burwood Library, like others around the country, has customers who practically live there. "Our regulars have formed friendships among themselves," Kassidis says. "They read the papers and they all have a chat. It's super-cool." Over the years, this loose-knit band has contained some colourful characters. "One person we called Cardboard Man, because he made sleeves and collars out of cardboard and wore them every day. He also wore a black cardboard moustache, beard and eyebrows. We totally understood why he never came to the library in a downpour."
The tide of humanity that washes in and out of the library engenders both fondness and fascination in Kassidis. "I think a lot of people are lonely," she says. "And working in a library, there is the privilege of helping somebody not feel so lonely, even if it's just for a couple of minutes." Basically, she regards her job as a gift. "People and books! It doesn't get much better than that."
When John Vallance was a boy in Sydney, lending libraries were parsimonious with their books. "You weren't allowed to borrow more than three at a time," the NSW State Librarian says. Similar restrictions applied in Brisbane, where I grew up. My mother, a former librarian and voracious reader, would be at the library to swap her books for new ones the minute the fortnightly borrowing period elapsed. When my uncle died, my aunt kept the news from the library so that she could take out books on both their library cards.
These days, the sky's the limit for borrowers. When Vallance visited the NSW Hunter Valley town of Raymond Terrace, which is serviced by a mobile library, he saw an old man with a suitcase leaving the converted semitrailer. "He opened the suitcase and there would have been about 50 books that he'd borrowed," Vallance says. "The suitcase was so heavy that he had it in a wheelbarrow."
I admire that fellow's style. The thrill of knowing I can borrow anything I like hits me every time I walk into my local library. I'm usually there to collect a book I have reserved online, having read a review of it somewhere, but I can rarely resist picking up a couple of extras. What's most exhilarating is that the system runs on trust: I take the books on the understanding that I will return them on time, in good condition, for others to enjoy. The library lifts my spirits because it makes me feel that I live in a civilised society.
Most people do bring books back by the due date, says Public Libraries Victoria's Chris Buckingham, who applauds a trend to abolish fines for late returns. The sums may seem low - about 25 a day - but some people are on such tight budgets that every cent counts, Buckingham argues, and if they forget to return a book, racking up a few dollars' debt, it can be enough to stop them going back to the library. In places where financial penalties have been scrapped, he says, the number of people borrowing books has risen.
It seems to Jenny Thompson, of Wollongong City Libraries, that library patrons overwhelmingly want to do the right thing: "There's a lot of respect there from most people." In Wollongong, the central library's most loyal customers gather outside each morning, waiting to be admitted. On the days it doesn't open, they have to find somewhere else to go.
"But one public holiday, something went wrong and the electronic doors opened anyway," Thompson says. "The regulars were able to come in, even though the library was supposed to be closed." The absence of librarians was barely noticed: "The people who use the computers just went upstairs and got themselves onto the computers. The newspaper-reading guys sat down and started the newspapers. It was really quite funny."
Though well-ordered - the Dewey Decimal classification system still holds sway - libraries are less hushed and hidebound than they used to be. "We call it the community living-space," says Monica Dullard, who doesn't blink when backpackers use the bathrooms at the St Kilda Library to have a wash and rinse out their underwear, then emerge fresh and clean to Skype their parents on the computers. She loves that people now eat in libraries, even sending out for takeaway if they forget to bring a snack: occasionally a pizza delivery guy appears at the desk and asks loudly who ordered the margherita. "Sometimes you see people cooking," she says. "There are power points all over the place, and we have people who heat up rice, or two-minute noodles."
So relaxed is the atmosphere that when someone produced a foot spa, plugged it in and started using it, others presumed this was a new service the library was offering. According to Dullard, a queue quickly formed at the counter. "People were saying, 'Where's my foot spa?' "
Read more: The dramatic reinvention of Wollongong library
To the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, libraries were temples of learning and self-improvement. "A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people," said Carnegie, who put his money where his mouth was. By 1929, he had paid for the construction of more than 2500 libraries, most of them in the US.
Six years later, a report funded by the Carnegie Corporation painted a bleak picture of the situation in Australia. We had subscription libraries, but they charged membership fees and their collections were pitifully inadequate ("Wretched little institutes which have long since become cemeteries of old and forgotten books", the report called them). We had a public reference library in each state capital - the oldest and grandest being Melbourne's, with its magnificent domed reading room - but borrowing from these was not permitted. The books had to be read on the premises. In all of Australia, there were fewer than half a dozen free lending libraries.
Concerned citizens responded to the report by founding the Free Library Movement, and in 1939 NSW became the first jurisdiction to take decisive action, introducing legislation that promised state government financial backing to local councils that opened free lending libraries. As a nation, we haven't looked back. In the US, the Trump Administration has proposed eliminating almost all federal library funding. In the UK, funding cuts by the Conservative government have seen more than 800 libraries closed or handed to volunteers to run. Here, though, public libraries are not only surviving but thriving. Total government expenditure on libraries has risen to more than $1.2 billion a year, or just less than $50 per person. "In Australia, we're actually in a very good position," says Sue McKerracher, chief executive of the Australian Library and Information Association.
Librarians aren't by nature publicity-seekers. "They go to work each day in the knowledge that they make a difference in people's lives, and for them that's enough," says Public Libraries Victoria president Chris Buckingham. "They're not necessarily big on making a lot of noise about it." But when word goes out that this piece is being written, library staff across the country contact me, eager to pass on anecdotes.
From Port Stephens, north of Newcastle, I get a message about Les, the library regular who brings a bunch of flowers for the desk each week, and Lorna, who brings the librarians baked goods, and Frank, the keen gardener who presents them with home-grown produce. From Tasmania comes the tale of John, the retired butcher, who asked the library for help earning to read and write. Assigned a voluntary tutor, John made good progress. Within a couple of years, he was whipping through Agatha Christie novels and writing his life story for his grandson to read.
From Darwin comes news of a refugee couple who took their daughter to story-time sessions at the library and asked if they could celebrate her birthday there, because the place meant so much to them. "They brought a cake and the father gave a speech and thanked everyone," says Karen Conway, executive manager of library services in the Northern Territory's capital city. Obviously there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
I get emails about libraries that host concerts, book club meetings, knitting circles, author talks, English-language classes, puppet shows and Girl Guides' sleep-overs. Several correspondents impress on me that libraries are havens for the homeless - cool in summer, warm in winter and dry when it rains. Tracy Fraser, a librarian at Broken Hill, in far-western NSW, talks enthusiastically about the Outback Letterbox Library, a scheme that delivers parcels of books to people living in remote settlements across a 240,000-square-kilometre swathe of inland Australia. "We get letters saying it's like Christmas every time the books arrive," Fraser says.
Ed Oberg and Nathalie Fritzen met in the library at Thirroul, a suburb of Wollongong. Ed, a retired mechanical and industrial engineer, had long been an almost daily visitor to the library. On this particular morning, he arrived with his laptop a little later than usual and found all the tables already occupied. He asked Nathalie, an unfamiliar face, if he could share her table. She agreed, though he has since learnt she wasn't happy about it. "She wanted to be working there by herself," he says.
Ed noticed that Nathalie's laptop was a Toshiba, like his. That was an excuse to strike up a conversation, during which he discovered she was visiting from France. "She had a few issues with her computer and I was able to help her," he tells me. Romance blossomed, and 18 months later, in 2016, the two invited the Thirroul librarians to their wedding. Ed still spends most of his time at the library. Nathalie often joins him. "It's fantastic," he says. "We typically know everybody there, she and I."