It is often said the true measure of any society can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable.
I’d say the value a society places on knowledge, learning and the creation and dissemination of ideas can by judged by how it treats its public libraries.
In Wellington, questions around the future of the earthquake-prone and mothballed central library have been raised since the building was closed in March 2019.
In last week’s council meeting focusing on the city’s Long-Term Plan, mayor Andy Foster surprised councillors and the people of Wellington by proposing the privatisation of part of the central library building and cutting the libraries’ resources budget by 40 per cent.
The proposals passed a vote of councillors and will now be included in the plan when it goes out for public consultation.
Respect for knowledge, learning, information and ideas seems lacking in these proposals.
Although the scheme to sell part of the library building does not represent wholesale privatisation of the library service as we have seen elsewhere in the world, an acceptance that a private company has a role to play in the provision of public library services could be viewed as the thin end of the wedge, introducing privatisation by stealth.
The proposed redesigned and refurbished central library has the capacity to be an exciting and dynamic public space in the middle of the city, open to all. Currently, the people of Wellington, through their democratially elected representatives, control this important public space, but removing part of it from public ownership will reduce public influence over the space and could undermine its “public good” remit.
Any private company involved in the central library will be focused on turning a profit, that is their raison d’etre after all – to maximise return for their shareholders. With a private company owning and managing part of the building, its main function will be a commercial one rather than a social one, and this raises questions about the kinds of activities and, indeed, the kind of people who will be “allowed” in this space.
The beauty of the public library space is that people from all walks of life can enter it without question, encountering those outside their usual social circle and interacting with them, or not if they don’t wish to. For the isolated, in particular, the library can play a hugely important role, providing opportunities to socialise and make contact.
I’ve heard many anecdotes from librarians of library customers telling them they are the only person they have talked to all day or even all week. In fact, even though library customers may not actually talk to anyone else in the library, the mere fact of being in other people’s company is often enough for people to appreciate the library as a public community space.
People can “just be” in the central library space – nobody questions you and nobody is pushing you to buy anything; it is a non-profit-making oasis in the busy, commercial heart of the city. Do we risk losing this with privatisation of part of the building? Spaces controlled by private interests are rarely as welcoming or inclusive to all-comers as those managed by public and democratically accountable bodies and have profit motives underlying all their activities.
The mayor’s plans for privatisation of part of the building as well as the swingeing cuts proposed raise the question once again of whether New Zealand needs stronger public library legislation. The Local Government Act 2002 states only that if a local council provides public library services people in the community are entitled to free membership.
There is no obligation on councils to fund public libraries to any kind of standard, nor do they have to provide resources or services for free, except for membership. A 2010 amendment to the Local Government Act listed public libraries as a “core service” of local authorities, but the language is still weak, instructing councils to “have particular regard” for the contribution libraries make to the community.
Although experiences in the United Kingdom teach us that a Public Libraries Act does not prevent the closure of public libraries, nor reductions in services, stronger legislation could ensure more reliable and stable financial support and guide the future development of services throughout the country.
The proposals for the refurbished Wellington central library offer a vision of a space in which people can meet, interact and participate in a range of educational, cultural and information-related activities that promote democratic access, social exchange and diversity. The privatisation of part of the building endangers this vision, with associations of commercialisation and homogeneity.
The council’s treatment of its public libraries does not suggest it values the role they play in supporting access to learning, knowledge and the free exchange of ideas for all in our communities.
Anne Goulding is Professor in Library and Information Management in the Wellington School of Business and Government at Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington. This article was originally published at Stuff.co.nz.