Broken promises: 

NSW State Government’s contribution in funding its public libraries is the lowest in the country. It currently contributes only 7 cents out of every dollar of costs. 

In the run up to the 2011 NSW state government elections there were various undertakings made by the then opposition, Liberal-National Coalition, to increase funding. According to Mr Robert Knight, Executive Director of Riverina Regional Library, “That hasn’t happened”.

Then in October 2012 the Library Council of NSW, the governing body of the state’s public libraries, provided a confidential submission entitled Reforming Public Library Funding to the State Government.

The evidence-based submission recommended that the ‘recurrent public library funding to councils be modestly adjusted from $26.5M to $30M per annum from 2013/14’. Many NSW local government councils wrote to Hon. George Souris, Minister for the Arts, urging the State Government to adopt the strategy. 

But when the state budget was delivered in June 2013, the recommendation was sidelined. “There has been no response from the government,” said Mr Knight.

The submission also recommended that future state contributions be indexed. “The problem is that the fund is not indexed to population growth nor to CPI,” said Mr Knight. “So in fact the money that we’re getting every year in the absence of any increase is less in real terms than it was in previous years,” he said.

Lifelong learning

On October 24th 2013, Hon. Jan Barham, The Greens Member of the NSW Legislative Council, issued a motion about libraries at the NSW Parliament House. Her motion states that ‘libraries are a fundamental part of the educational and cultural vibrancy of community, providing lifelong learning and opportunities for social interaction’ – a sentiment shared by Michelle Simon, Manager Library Services at Canterbury City Council Library. “We play significant role in lifelong learning for all sectors of the community,” she said.

Last year Canterbury Library claimed to be the first library in the world to offer electronic tablets as part of its lending services after the launch of Digital Canterbury project. The Library Council of NSW supported the project with a grant of more than $50000. “With the grant money we purchased iPads, tablets and other mobile technologies,” said Ms Simon. “Because Canterbury is a low socio-economic area, we have the responsibility to teach digital literacy and make new technology available to people,” she said.

“I believe the council put as much into the library as they possibly can but all local government have reached funding fatigue,” Ms Simon said. The library had already reduced its Homework Assistance Program due to funding pressure. “We can’t afford to offer them as many afternoons as we’d like,” she said. Ms Simon is concerned that this kind of program would disappear altogether if state funding doesn’t improve.

“The attrition of state funding is actually starting to bite,” said Mr Knight. The effect is quite wide spread. Funding available to buy new collections, sustain or increase opening hours, educational programs and mobile library service provision are all potentially at risk according to Mr Knight.

“If our member councils determine that they are no longer able to provide a particular level of funding required to support the provision of all services, then some of them would need to be withdrawn,” he said. “This is a scenario that I hope never to be confronted with but the ongoing reduction in state funding increases the likelihood of attrition in library services,” he said.

Partnership with non-profit organisation

Some community-building programs run by libraries across NSW are made possible by seeking partnership with non-profit organisations.

Fairfield City Libraries in partnership MTC Work Solutions – Youth Connections have been running a program called Finding MY Place since 2010. It is aimed at young people at risk of disengaging from the school system before they are legally allowed to finish school due to behavioural, motivational and other issues.

“We look at the needs of our community and see that Fairfield has one of the highest youth unemployment figures in the country. It is crucial that we get involved in proactive solutions,” said Catherine Bourke, a staff member at Fairfield City Libraries.

The program runs for 6 to 8 weeks, one morning per week during school time. It involves workshop style sessions with speakers who can inspire students with their stories. Tony Hoang, a former drug addict, dealer and member of Sydney’s notorious crime gang Cabramatta 5T, gave a motivational talk to students who joined the program.

The program shows young people “the opportunity to see some other possibilities for their lives and be inspired to change direction,” said Ms Bourke. “The more young people who complete their schooling effectively and therefore move into either further study or work, the better for the economy and society in general,” she said.

John Steinmetz, Relieving Principal of Canley Vale High School, sent a letter to the Fairfield City Council, co-sponsor of the program, late last year expressing his gratitude because of what the program had achieved. ‘The result of this project has been a significant reduction in teacher referrals and no suspensions for over a term. As the sponsoring council, I thought you should be told of this successful initiative by your library staff. You have made a significant contribution to our school curriculum in 2013’ the letter states.

But programs funded by non-profit organisation are subjected to funding cuts too. “The food for the students breakfast and lunch has to be paid for and our partner MTC Work Solutions has had their funding cut. We have had to request that the school pay the cost of the food,” said Ms Bourke. “If the library had more funding, this program it could be extended. Currently we only run 2 programs a year,” she said.

Review of the Act

“The Library Act currently only specifies $1.85 per capita funding to NSW councils. This figure has not been changed since 1994,” said Mr Knight.

Ms Barham’s motion calls on the government to review the subsidy rate prescribed in the Act and index it to CPI. It also calls for the increase in the State Government share of funding from the current 7.5 per cent to 20 per cent.

“When the Library Act was made in 1939 it was 50/50 split between the State and Local Government,” said Mr Knight. “By 1980 it was down to 23.6% and now it is around 7%,” he said. Local councils are now paying for most of the operating costs. To date 38 local councils have sent letters to the State Government ministers concerning the funding issue.

Mr Knight, who is also a committee member of the NSW Public Libraries Association, the Amalgamated Body of NSW Metropolitan and Country Libraries Association, said “We are asking the government for around about double the amount we’re getting now in incremental stages over a four-year period”. That would put NSW state contribution higher than the next lowest state, which is QLD at 12%. “It’s not like we’re asking for a lot of money or an unreasonable increase,” said Mr Knight.

The NSW Public Libraries Association is currently running a campaign to seek community support urging the state government to increase its contribution. So far they have received over 10000 signatures. “We’ve tried the official way of doing things. We are now trying to get community support through the campaign in order to make this happen,” said Mr Knight.

The 2014/2015 state budget will be delivered on June 17 under the NSW newly elected Premier Hon. Mike Baird.

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