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More investment in libraries needed to bridge Victoria’s digital divide

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When was the last time you dropped into your local library?

If you’re finding that it’s been a while, you might want to dust off that old library card as a lot has changed in recent times.

In an increasingly digital age, Victoria’s public libraries are offering more than just books for loan, they’re building inclusive, productive and thriving communities.

Supported by greater access to WiFi and digital technologies, libraries have the potential to bridge the digital divide and enable greater social and economic participation for all.

New libraries cost up to $30 million to build, but they offer a return on investment governments can’t afford to overlook. Our research has found that every dollar invested in libraries generates $4.30 in economic and social benefits.

We recognise that many Victorians love their local library, as the state’s facilities generate more than 30 million visits a year.

So excuse us if we’re preaching to the converted here, but did you know that in addition to study and reading, across Victoria’s libraries, you can also find opportunities for free internet access, music, art and tutoring?

From providing a space for early childhood learning, to helping newly arrived communities stay connected, libraries are fast becoming dynamic spaces designed as the core of multi-purpose community hubs. Best of all – the services are free and accessible to all!

For example, North Melbourne library, located in bustling Errol Street, is one of many local libraries hosting homework clubs, as well as offering tutoring support and weekly story-time sessions. These services can prove crucial for parents and carers, particularly those who may have limited English and literacy skills.

Additionally, libraries are helping to bridge the digital divide where there is limited access to the internet and other technology at home. Children, young people and older adults can access a wealth of online resources that complement book borrowing such as digital newspaper archives, DVDs, games and other resources.

These technology hubs also support a variety of business needs, with start-ups, small businesses and workers using libraries for research, digital training and co-working spaces.

It’s important to recognise that navigating technology can be daunting for some, particularly older generations not used to working with smartphones and the internet. This has become increasingly challenging throughout the pandemic, where we’ve had to rely on technology to stay connected with loved ones and access the services we need. Library staff help to support people to overcome this digital divide. Many libraries, like in the City of Kingston, offer lessons in digital literacy for people of all ages.

Over in the growth area of Melton, Melton Library houses 11 meeting spaces and integrates a variety of services for community members – from flexible spaces for large and small groups, maternal and child health services for families, to English conversation classes for multicultural communities.

Melton Library also offers support for adult learning for people who have limited reading and writing skills, as well as hosting the “Job Lab” – where you can get useful tips on updating your resume and preparing for a job interview.

In Broadmeadows , the Hume Global Learning Centre allows newly arrived residents to stay connected to their communities by accessing digital e-newspapers in their own language.

Indeed, across Melbourne and Victoria, you can find a vast range of services, including after dark programs where people can view films, participate in game nights and meet their friends. In Docklands, you can even play instruments and record music at the library in a sound-proof room!

While the modern library offers a range of community benefits, the reality is that population growth hasn’t keep pace with investment.

Our 30-year infrastructure strategy identifies several funding gaps and opportunities where we believe the Victorian Government could provide greater support.

Our research shows that more than a third of Melbourne children under five are living in the city’s seven fastest growing suburbs. In these local government areas, there are generally fewer libraries per person when compared to established parts of Melbourne.

If we don’t shift the dial in the next five years, the gap is only set to widen. By 2036, the City of Melton is expected to support one library per 47,000 people aged 19 years and under, compared to the cities of Yarra and Port Phillip with rates as low as one library for 4000 young people.

This is why we’re calling for the Victorian Government to provide the growth area councils of Casey, Cardinia, Hume, Melton, Wyndham and Whittlesea with funding to plan and deliver more libraries over the next five years. This comprises $100,000 for library planning, as well as funding up to one third of the cost of a new facility, capped at $10 million.

We also think that all Victorian households should have access to reliable internet services and recommend the government start a five-year funding program to support libraries to operate for longer hours in regional towns and rural areas. Look at Foster library in regional Victoria that operates 24/7, with residents provided with swipe cards to access the library even when staff are not on duty. This is in recognition that a higher proportion of regional households don’t have access to the internet, particularly those in remote communities, on low incomes, or in social housing.

If you’d like to find out more, check out recommendations 73 and 86 of Victoria’s 30-year infrastructure strategy.

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