Information studies is a broad field. And in all parts of the industry, from records and data management to university and parliamentary libraries, facilitating access to knowledge – for whoever needs it – is at its heart.
That guiding principle is especially important when it comes to work in public libraries.
The public library system is very significant in Australian society. This gives information studies professionals a lot of scope in their career and in the services they provide to communities. Public libraries play an important role in ensuring people – including groups that are often marginalised – can gain knowledge and access information. They also offer a whole range of benefits to communities that are perhaps not as immediately obvious.
Dr Kim Thompson, a senior lecturer in information studies at Charles Sturt University (CSU), sees the role public libraries play in helping those who experience disadvantage when it comes to accessing information as a central part of their social function.
“In Australia, there is a real sense of libraries being important to communities – especially regional communities. This notion was founded on parliamentary acts, and still has a lot of state support. Even small communities tend to have a library, even if it’s small and only open part-time.
“And there are many service programs across Australia, in all types of libraries, that are directly geared towards meeting the needs of, for example, immigrant and refugee groups, and people whose first language is not English. And there is also a lot of work done by libraries, particularly regional libraries, in creating repositories of Indigenous knowledge, as well as in enhancing computer literacy for the elderly.”
Programming public access
Dr Jessie Lymn, a lecturer in information studies at CSU, highlighted a couple of these initiatives in New South Wales.
“There are programs such as Tech Savvy Seniors delivered through public libraries that help older people with digital literacy. This means they can develop the skills and confidence to access information and services online. And there is the Language Café in the Wagga Wagga City Library. It gives people for whom English is not their first language the chance to meet and practise language conversation skills.
“Most libraries these days also have video game machines set up to enhance the sense of the library as a community space. They can attract people who might not otherwise use the library, who can then explore the other services available.”
How technology in public libraries makes a difference
Dr Lymn sees technology in public libraries generally as being key to increasing equity in terms of access to information.
“The digital literacy realm will become increasingly important. Sure, Google is there for information, but librarians will play a key role in helping people access the information that they need; for example, how to best use Google’s many available features. Today, libraries also have lots of digital services available offsite, such as lending eBooks and audiobooks. So it is still about access, even if not in the physical library space.”
Dr Thompson feels that technology in the public library service is also important in terms of providing access to all, including those who may not be able to actually get to the library.
“Lots of libraries are working to increase access to digital information from home. This helps geographically disadvantaged people and those with, say, anxiety and depression for whom going to a physical library is hard.”
Maximising access to information
There is still work to be done in ensuring that the public library service in Australia provides for everyone. However, Dr Thompson feels that research is leading the way towards making this a reality.
“There is a lot of research and training going on about what users need and how services can meet the needs and expectations for different social groups.
“For instance, I’m currently working on projects looking at libraries hiring people with disabilities. One of the PhD candidates that I am supervising is looking at libraries in the context of users with invisible disabilities. That’s things like autism, Tourette’s and post-traumatic stress disorder. Prison libraries is another area where more research is needed.”
Libraries provide many future career opportunities
Dr Thompson believes that the future for public libraries in Australia – and for those working in them – is bright, particularly when compared to some other nations.
“You can look at other countries, such as the United Kingdom, where public library services are being cut by austerity and hope that won’t happen in Australia. But providing exceptional services is a way to help keep libraries relevant to communities. Expanding opportunity with things like heritage research and family and local history archives – making libraries repositories of local knowledge – will mean they retain their importance for people.”
Dr Lymn agrees that libraries – and how they can empower people – must keep evolving to ensure they keep benefiting communities.
“The public library system in Australia is well regarded, in both cities and regional communities, . But librarians and library associations have to keep advocating for their importance. We need to keep reinventing what libraries do, responding to community and social needs.
“And we mustn’t forget that libraries have a role in leisure and pleasure. That means everything from reading to accessing information about hobbies. They are spaces for enjoyment and librarians can enhance that for people – for all members of a community.”
You can help communities too
Start or develop your career in information studies with CSU. We have the course you need – whether at undergraduate or postgraduate level – to take your next step in the field. It’s why more than half of all information and library studies students in Australia choose to study with us.
Contact us to discuss your options.