"Borrow Here' sign captured from angle over a bookshelf.

Sign of the times: Public libraries in a post pandemic light

As the tell tale blooms of spring arise, change is surely to be seen in all places and phases of life. For Belad Al-karkhey, it came about in the replacement of a treasured local library in early September.

There was nothing quite as thrilling as the sense of independence when borrowing your first book from the local library as a child. The converging scents of old books and older carpets was dizzying, almost like a high in and of itself.

A librarian would wait, often impatiently, as you squirmed and fidgeted and searched for a membership card that seemed to constantly throw itself into the deep abyss of your school bag like an homage to Greek tragic Icarus.

Now that memory fades to myth: an urban legend of what life was like before one had millions of books ready to choose from under the force of a single thumb. As society further integrates technology and the digital world into the mundane, blurring the lines between the outside and the online, public libraries are faced with one truth.

Adapt to the times, or get left behind.

The State Library of NSW’s most recent data collections report a decline in physical visits to public libraries across the state, dropping by half from 35 million in 2016 to 17 million by 2021.

With the Covid-19 pandemic closing down all public community services for visitation during government mandated lockdowns, libraries were thrust further into the direction of digitising their collections for members of their community.

An increase was seen in the 12.5 million website visits recorded across NSW during 2020/21, up by 500,000 from the previous year’s data.

Technology doesn’t always help us connect in sustainable ways.

Sarah Ayoub

Ebook loans also increased by 400,000 during this period to 2.4 million across the state.

As users are taking a stronger interest in loaning digital copies of books and other published materials, libraries are limited in their capacity to provide the resources due to lack of permission by creators. This is based on the growing concern held by authors and publishers that they are not being compensated fairly and accordingly to the value of digital loans.

Australian books recorded in public and educational libraries are financially supported under the Public Lending Right (PLR) and Educational Lending Right (ELR) through a federal government scheme which allows eligible creators to receive payments for any income lost “through the free multiple use of their work.”

The downside of this scheme? It does not recognise ebooks and audiobooks as part of the criteria for lending rights payments.

City of Parramatta library front entrance via Fitzwilliam street, August 2022.

It’s 2022 now, and as spring begins to bloom, so too does the hope that life will return to the normalcy we once took for granted.

The City of Parramatta library is one I know all too well, permanently etching itself into the fabric of my childhood memories like an ink stain on a school jumper.

It grew alongside me, in a way, almost like a sibling.

As a child, 1 Civic Place was a playground. As a teenager, 1/3 Fitzwilliam St was an escape. And now, as a young adult, the library is adrift: transitioning from one location to the next once more; half here and half there.

Relocating to the PHIVE, a vibrantly coloured building designed in the newly developed Parramatta Square (formerly Civic Place), the library made the temporary move to Fitzwilliam St in 2016 while construction was still in its early stages.

In its last days at Fitzwilliam St, I set out on the quick journey to visit the space one last time.

The space is void of books when I arrive, save for a lone shelf near the front entrance. The upstairs, where a vast majority of the books were stationed, feels uncomfortably larger in their absence.

For a second, I question why the library is even open: what purpose it is serving as a skeleton of itself.

At first, I hear it answer me in the form of a softly spoken women asking an employee how to connect her laptop to the free internet: in the giggles and hushed whispers of a group of high school students, dropping their backpacks onto the carpet in a bid to claim the corner for their study session.

Then, I see it in a frustrated man in his senior age: seeking assistance with the computer in front of him, unsure how to log on to his email.

Caitlin Santos is one of the many that have roamed the library over the years in search of something, whether it may be a safe space to read or in search of resources for an assessment she’d yet to complete.

“Physically going into libraries helps create that connection that can’t be created virtually- like with most things,” Santos explains further in a passionate expression. But alas, the recent university graduate holds grave concerns that the local negative influences caused from a global pandemic are here to stay.

“The people who came back to the library after Covid are the regulars,” she says, “there is simply nothing that the library offers as of right now that can bring new people in… there isn’t enough space to innovate libraries without losing the things that are central to [them].”

Some of the things frequently on offer at the City of Parramatta library are author readings, language classes, access to historical archives, school holiday activities such as arts & craft workshops and storytelling, and more mature literary workshops hosted by authors and educators alike.

Upon walking past the several empty chairs and spaces, I find myself remembering one day in particular in 2014 when I’d been a budding student at one of these workshops myself.

It had been hosted by Sarah Ayoub, a celebrated Western Sydney published author and journalist. To meet an Arab woman creative I could look towards for guidance felt rare then, and I’m reminded of that as I reach out to her after all these years.

While Ayoub recognises the toll that Covid-19 has had on the public library and service industry, she senses a shift was inevitable in light of the digitisation of books amid the growing immersion that the internet has in our day to day.

“Access to the internet is a [big] reason” why visitation numbers have lowered since even before March of 2020, she’s sure, though ‘technology doesn’t always help us connect in sustainable ways.”

Human connection is part of the charm and necessity of public libraries being community services, and as such can foster more personable and memorable experiences.

Ayoub is also quick to throw in, “there’s only so many workshops you can run online!”

Photo: Graphic of City of Parramatta library in newly developed PHIVE building at 5 Parramatta Square. Source: atparramatta.com

In the context of book consumerism, the physical library experience is necessary to preserve as it “allows us to browse” bookshelves in their entirety, Ayoub reminds me, in freedom of the “gatekeeping and formulas of the digital search engine.”

It can allow readers such as Santos to indulge creatively in spaces designed with comfort and reliability in mind.

Like the people of the community scattered around me, it can provide resources for those who are unable to access or navigate technology or internet.

And like my own, it can shape a child’s memories and enthusiastic approach to understanding the world one story at a time.