Libraries: How might we describe them today? A living room, a bedroom, a study, a playground, an office, a friendly place.

I recently attended a GLEAM forum hosted by Hayball, short talks about galleries, libraries, education, the arts or museums, as the acronym suggests. This particular one was titled A Community Living Room: The evolving role of libraries. The speakers were Kim Sherwin from the City of Sydney Libraries and Joy Suliman, from the City of Canada Bay Libraries. The session was hosted by Andrew Fong from Hayball.

Andy, Joy and Kim
Photo: Hayball

As a young teacher, my first job was a primary school teacher librarian. Not actually what I was prepared for, but I can be methodical (cards, catalogues and borrowing procedures), I loved creating visual displays and I loved reading to kids, so I muddled my way through for a few years, before I acquired a class teaching role. This photo, which I have used before, shows me undertaking a critical role of the time, “Who hasn’t returned their library book?”

A recent report by the ABC, here in Australia, proclaimed the headline School libraries hit by the loss of a dying breed as teacher librarians enter ‘survival mode’. The piece refers to research from Edith Cowan University regarding the alarming loss of qualified teacher librarians (which I was not, by the way) and the insecurity many teacher-librarians now feel. Schools are more likely to look for more cost-efficient personnel, to manage systems and collections, “They said the library was often the first place principals looked when they needed to cut costs”.

As we develop and disrupt as a society, we often need to ask the overarching question, ‘Why?’

  • Why do libraries need to exist?
  • What purpose do they fulfil?
  • Who are they serving?

These questions don’t seek to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but realign purpose to ensure that we aren’t just doing the same things the same way, because that what we’ve always done. I think schools can learn from the ‘other’ libraries.
In her talk, Kim identified the four key roles of libraries, to provide:

  • Place
  • Space
  • Community
  • Connection 
  • Experience

She also made the point that libraries exist in a wide range of places, not just educational institutions and local communities, but they play an important role in corporate and civic organisations.

Kim had previously worked at Arup, a global multi-disciplinary engineering and design consultancy, setting up the library in the corporate space, a winner of an ALIA award.

Arup Library (Australasia), is part of Arup University, an internal university, whose aim is to promote and achieve technical excellence through the development of its staff. The Library team comprises of 6 highly skilled librarians, capable of carrying out in-depth research that supports the business with winning work, complete project work and help keeps
the region up-to-date with clients, technology, industry and more. 

This text from the award submission recognises the importance of the role of the librarians to the commercial success of the business.


Next, Joy spoke about The Learning Space, a place for people to come, belong, connect and learn. Actually, there are no books, but there is a lot of tech and places for human connection. Joy reinforced the human factor, that staff greet each person with a smile and this culture was evident in community feedback. The space is owned and loved by the local, and managing its popularity and success is its greatest challenge.

As I travelled home that evening and reflected, the resounding message, was that libraries are about people. Libraries exist for the community they serve, their needs and expectations. The expertise of the staff matches this need, whether it is for research, physical/material elements (including wifi, power and furniture), a place to be, or even books.

When I take study tours, we often visit libraries as learning spaces. Here are some libraries in Denmark, Finland and Netherlands…

Anyone interested in a library study tour?


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