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In searching for ways to deal with these changes they must look to the community for confirmation of the validity of any new roles, and must be to shift focus as the community requires.
They must acknowledge the right of funding bodies to expect full justification of financial support and they must present arguments that have sound economic and social rationale.
They must also consciously seek out new partnerships across sectors-partnetrships which will enrich their communities, impress the funders, and ensure their long term survivalů
Australia, like many other countries, has embraced new economic theory as the linchpin for future sustainability. National Competition Policy has played a major role in altering the organisational structure and practices of many local government authorities. Workplace reform aimed at increasing productivity levels, strategic planning, and the implementation of accounting models better suited to a competitive environment have changed the face of public libraries operating under the banner of local government forever.
Greater emphasis on customer driven planning and operational activities signifies greater accountability for the products we produce back to the community. Detailed surveys targeting specific outcomes will provide the rationale for service change. Libraries need to be aware that this is a two edged sword: regardless of best practice or trendy direction, the only assurance for continued survival will be successfully fitting the library key products to the local community. Best fit to your community as reflected in community feed back to all levels of government.
These critical changes will have long term repercussions for service delivery in public libraries. There is no doubt that technological change has transformed the library forever. As part of the wider organisational structure of Council, libraries will be increasingly required to be accountable through performance measurement, closer alignment to structured policy, and transparency: both to the elected members and to the community, about what we hope to achieve through the vast and expensive networks set up in the name of advancing information exposure.
In this paper I make no distinctions in the type or quality of service the public can expect from a large library, or through the smallest mobile library.
Technology has progresses libraries beyond the argument of the viability of, or indeed, the necessity of a PC on the desk or in front of a user. Even the oldest, most undistinguished mobile library can be wired simply and cheaply to provide access to the global information network. In Australia, connectivity is the major cost variable.
A greater co-ordinated effort is needed to ensure that remote and isolated communities are not disadvantaged by lack of infrastructure to ensure cheap consistent and speedy communication pathways. In Queensland, major discussions are currently taking place between government and service providers to address the obvious inequity in the provision of internet services to our coastal strip for less than $2 hour while many outback towns pay $12.00 for the same privilege.
Addressing the training issues surrounding new technologies will continue to be a major issue for efficient service provision. The best equipment, the best will, and the best facility will not deliver if staff are not adequately trained. Training does not stop once staff understand search and bookmarking processes - training must be seen in its broader context, and must address the future of libraries as publishers, libraries as interpreters, libraries as intermediaries.
The organisational and cultural changes necessary to ensure that training is on the financial agenda, and is accepted as a key financial investment, are significant. To further support expansion of training opportunities away from navigation, and towards manipulation or creation, a major shift in the priority training receives in budgets, and in the development of a case for new financial initiatives, is necessary.
The profession expends a lot of energy discussing the global information change. But what of the local information change? Here is a whole new opportunity for the local public library - with the emphasis on the local! Information kiosks are springing up in service stations and shopping centres, offering interactive opportunities to the individual in a variety of financial return formats.
What of the local community information database? The value of information is not debased just because it is local and should therefore be easy to obtain. But is it? Often it is easier to find the telephone number of the nearest foreign embassy than it is to find out the number and name of the current president of the local tapestry club. Libraries are very well placed to develop key local information systems which can then be made available to a wider audience. The library of the future will rely heavily on structured community feedback through a range of surveys which will heavily influence further funding opportunities. The importance of getting it right at the local level cannot be emphasised enough. Technology should not just be seen as a global contribution to the quality of life of communities. The local information economy has immediate, long-term and sustainable implications to the perceived community value of the library. Libraries also have the opportunity to act as brokers in the development of local web pages specialising for a particular market: tourism, beach conditions and surfing reports, local cultural event web pages.
A further opportunity on the home front is Council information. The internally developed Council Intranet offers a wealth of information which can have a positive influence on the quality of life of residents. There are major efficiency gains to be had in local government as stronger partnerships between traditionally quite separate departments are developed. Branch libraries and the mobile are often the only evidence of Council presence in the outer suburbs and rural areas. Could the library, through the Council intranet, provide access to other Council services? Libraries have a high profile in the community. Individuals use library services to their own advantage and retain a positive image of the transaction. Other Council departments, on the other hand, often only connect with the public in a negative situation - a complaint, a dog in the pound. Libraries are securely entrenched in community goodwill: here is an opportunity for the rest of Council to benefit from some reflected glory- and it won't hurt the library's next budget bid, either!
Can the public library extend this further? In Queensland there are 121 Local government authorities with 322 public library facilities and 19 mobile libraries, dotted about the state. All local authorities have at least one library with access to the internet, most have all. By extension, all of these public libraries have access to each other. There is a plethora of federal and state government agencies who want access to the grass roots community. Often the type of access required is limited to distribution and reception of specialised information. Libraries are perfectly placed to become the brokers of that information exchange.
In Queensland, a trail is presently being conducted with the state's admissions body to a university (QTAC). Prospective students come to the library to make an admission application via the Internet. Details are downloaded and feedback to that student comes back to the library, where the student can continue to adjust information, and ultimately have a tertiary place confirmed. The library staff facilitate this process. The trail has enormous implications to prospective students living in remote communities, to the accuracy of detail keyed in, and to the timeframes for acceptance. Such facilitation of education and information creates new opportunities and relationships for libraries in all communities, especially the small and isolated, and has enormous potential Australia wide.
In Victoria, where services from banking institutions have been shrinking in rural townships, mobile libraries are trailing the delivery of electronic banking facilities.
The opportunities are endless. Libraries, if they are to take advantage of their unique spread and connectivity, will need to develop new marketing skills and to redesign their objectives to include electronic brokerage as a legitimate and non threatening use of the public library.
Libraries have no divine right to spend from the public purse. Technology has created a host of opportunities for libraries to improve their service delivery
However, in our new world of stricter accountability and transparency, the subsidised library infrastructure must take steps to ensure that the community really do find the library indispensable. In the first instance that the right to access information is necessary and desirable. In the second instance that libraries are a cheaper, more efficient and more democratic dispersal of information services than a privatised alternative- which would not be accountable to the public in the same manner as are libraries, and may ultimately lead to monopolistic control of information.
Public Libraries are challenged by the new window of opportunity electronic advances have offered them.
Libraries must do all of these things, and do them well, to ensure that they have a place, a mandate, a right to exist all through the 21st century!