Call to overhaul Victorian library system

By Julian Bajkowski

Victoria’s network of council run public libraries could soon be set for a centralised overhaul after a key government report recommended the adoption of a single state-wide library card, radio-frequency tracking of books and new platform to allow digital resources like e-books to be borrowed.

The biggest review of public libraries ever conducted in the state has proposed that the much-liked institutions should adopt a centralised management system that not only allows collections and materials to move between library services, but also let borrowers return items different to the ones they borrowed from.

Known as the ‘Tomorrow’s Libraries’ review, the two year-long probe is intended to help libraries adapt to the future needs and demands of the community against a backdrop of rapid technological disruption and constrained funding resources.

The big challenge that council libraries across Australia face is that as largely individual services, they have not yet been able to realise the aggregated efficiencies and benefits that would allow much greater mobility and access to their resources.

The Victorian government is now proposing a system that would let borrowers use a single card to take out and return items from any public library in the state.

But to do that the state’s 79 councils would first have to sign-up a “a centralised statewide Library Management System to support all public libraries” that would use so-called RFID tags “to enhance the movement and tracking of resources between libraries and improve handling and sorting efficiencies.”

The Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) has cautiously welcomed the key recommendations, but has strong concerns about where councils are expected to find the money for the big upgrade from.

“A key challenge for local government remains the deterioration in State funding contributions which has occurred over many decades. The review has not clarified how this matter will be resolved,” said MAV President, Bill McArthur.

“Councils’ primary role in decision-making and service delivery warrants a business case assessment of the Victorian Library concept to be undertaken by the Government as a priority next step,” he said.

Councils are backing a recommendation from the Ministerial Advisory Committee that a formal State-local government partnership agreement be set up as the principal mechanism to guide future negotiations.

Mr McArthur said the MAV was pleased that the review also endorsed the creation of an agreement that would outline both responsibilities and funding commitments “regardless of the implementation of the Victorian Library concept.”

“Funding certainty for service planning is needed ahead of councils’ 2014-15 budget preparations and our State Budget submission will seek investment to undertake the business case analysis,” Mr McArthur said.

Victoria’s consideration of a centralised library system follows the rollout of a similar single library card in South Australia that has proven a success.

However even with a centralised system, all libraries still face the daunting challenge of how to offer digitised services for content over devices like e-readers and tablet computers.

One problem is that as books and other once physical media shift to digital formats, distributors and aggregators become more wary of avenues that allow free access to content that they believe they might otherwise turn a buck from.

And while libraries once traditionally only offered books and printed literature to the public, many have now diversified into offering toys, music, games and services like access to computers and the internet that some members of the community might not otherwise have ready access to.

Some councils and community groups have also extended the concept of a shared pool of resources that community members can borrow from to items of hardware that range from hammers, drills and saws to garden tools and lawnmowers.

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