Gideon Haigh, pictured outside Geelong’s new library, believes smaller, local facilities better serve communities. (ABC News: Cameron Best)
Gideon Haigh was giddy with excitement as he headed to his local library to pick new books for the coming week.
It was a ritual for young Haigh, a special time which opened a window on the world from Geelong in the 1970s.
The weekly library run was also valuable bonding time for the Haigh family, encouraged by Haigh’s librarian mother who passed on a most valuable gift to her brood — a deep, life-long love of books.
And it was free.
Graduating to the senior section of the library, where he could take out six books a week instead of just four, seemed like an obscene luxury for Haigh.
He spent his formative years tucked away in the embrace of the library, escaping into a book and plotting his future career as a journalist and author of more than 30 books of his own.
The slightly dowdy libraries of Haigh’s upbringing have evolved with time.
“These days, I think they’re a lot more vibrant, they’re a lot more community connected,” he said.
“I think they’re a lot more aware of their role as a social space, as a space of repose and sanctuary.
“Libraries have been under immense cost pressures over the last 10 or 20 years with the general dwindling of public services, and as a result they’ve had to work much harder to justify their presences and the best of them are as good as they have ever been.”
But those cost pressures have put the squeeze on small community libraries in favour of larger regional library hubs.
Just a couple of years after the opening of a grand library and heritage centre in the middle of Geelong, the local council made the decision to close three suburban libraries by the end of September, angering locals.
Protesters made their feelings known at a recent Geelong council meeting. (ABC News: Cameron Best)
It’s part of a long-term vision to provide district level libraries with larger book collections and research facilities, plus a myriad of the services libraries are now required to provide in the digital age.
How many libraries are too many?
The council’s administrators argue there is overlap in the catchment areas of the local libraries, and Geelong’s measure of one library for every 17,500 people is too generous.
“We looked at Bendigo and Wollongong, for instance, where they’ve got one library to about 30,000 people, so in that sense we’re over-serviced,” City of Greater Geelong administrator Laurinda Gardner said.
“We’re pretty committed to providing good quality 21st Century libraries, it’s just how you distribute that library service across a large geographic area.”
More than 200 residents recently took their concerns, and a petition bearing thousands of signatures, to the council.
They’re calling on the administrators to rescind the decision to close the three libraries in Highton, Chilwell and Barwon Heads, or at least put it off until council elections later this year.
“We would expect any council, whether they were elected or appointed, to consult with the communities because it is clear they haven’t got a real handle on what the role of the libraries are or how valuable they are,” local resident Hilary Hoevenaars said.
Chilwell Public Library is set to close because the council says it is under-utilised and not cost efficient. (ABC News: Cameron Best)
For Jan Laidlaw, her local library of the past 45 years in Chilwell is as much a meeting place and community hub as it is a book repository.
“Part of my commitment to the community is walking to the library,” she said.
“It takes me half an hour to walk there, but I’m part of my community, I meet friends there, I interact with other people and people from other countries.
“It might not be high-tech like [the new Geelong library], but it has a warm, homely feel that we all appreciate.
“This [new library] may be big, beautiful and wonderful but it’s not warm, it doesn’t have the connectiveness with the community.”
Gideon Haigh agrees.
“It’s very important for libraries to be in the communities that they serve, not to force the communities to come to them,” he said.
Geelong administrator Peter Dorling said the council would consult with the community over the closures.
“We made a decision in good faith based on a report from the Geelong Regional Library Corporation, however it’s now quite clear that there’s a different mood in the community that we probably didn’t see first up,” he said.