Are Australian public libraries one of the first points of contact for new arrivals?

In December 2016, the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) was one of many high profile organisations to make a submission to the Federal Government’s Smart Cities Plan. This plan aims to position Australian cities to succeed in the 21st Century economy, supporting productive, accessible, liveable metropolitan and regional cities that attract talent, encourage innovation and create jobs and growth.

ALIA’s submission outlined that Australia’s over 1,500 public libraries have an important role to play in the Smart Cities vision, and that by investing in libraries, governments are investing in smarter communities where everyone has access to the internet and new technologies; to leisure, work and study spaces; to learning programs; to books, film, music, news media, journals, electronic databases, and to the expert guidance of library and information professionals.

ALIA produced a fact sheet, 10 ways that libraries power smart cities to showcase public libraries’ contribution to their communities. One of the 10 ways includes:

The public library is one of the first points of contact for new arrivals. There are newspapers, magazines and books in first language, and English classes for those who need them. Library staff help migrants find out about government services and the support that is available to help them find work or study opportunities.

However, many staff are well aware that public libraries are not one of the first points of contact for each and every new arrival; and they are not always the primary source of information for newcomers to a community. And the challenges public libraries in Australia face, when wishing to meaningfully engage with new arrivals in a local community, are not new. As a result, public libraries have been exploring engagement strategies aimed at reaching out to hard-to-reach groups in local communities, in particular culturally and linguistically diverse communities in a few of which I have been involved.

The first project was WELCOME toolkit (We Love the Community Outreach Model of Engagement, 2016) which is a simple community engagement framework developed by a team of participants in the 2015 Library Leadership program sponsored by State Library of Queensland. Eight representatives from across five Queensland public library services developed the model, including the Cities of Logan, Gold Coast, Noosa, Sunshine Coast and Gladstone. It helps libraries to plan, develop and evaluate community outreach and engagement strategies by providing a simple checklist to help guide libraries to plan, develop and evaluate community outreach and engagement strategies aimed at hard-to-reach groups and non-members.

Building upon the WELCOME toolkit, Two Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Master of Social Work students put the framework to use in their 2016 library research reports that were then shared on the State Library of Queensland’s Public Libraries Connect Blog Welcoming diversity in your library (24 May 2017). This project, which was conducted in partnership with State Library of Queensland and Logan City Council Libraries, separately targeted local Vietnamese and Indian communities in the City of Logan. The development of the project was also informed by strategic documents such as:

To collect their data, student researchers undertook an engagement survey within the City of Logan in a number of the most popular meeting spaces for these two communities. The survey data highlighted that many respondents were either not library members with no knowledge of public libraries in the city, or the services they offered; or they were frequent users of their local libraries, but not aware of the full range of services on offer. Respondents identified as being completely unaware of some of the collections, programs and services Logan City Council Libraries provide, specifically targeting culturally and linguistically diverse communities, e.g. Languages Other Than English (LOTE) collections.

The full reports of the Masters students can be found on the Public Libraries Connect Championing your library web page.

These two projects have been invaluable in helping both the State Library of Queensland, Logan City Council Libraries and other public library services enrich both their services and tailor outreach and engagement into previously hard-to-reach communities. Having many synergies with the above-mentioned projects, our current LISRA RADAR project is designed to contribute to the same research agenda. Targeting non-library user immigrants in the City of Logan, the project aims to look more deeply into the information experience of this part of the community. Its in-depth interviews aim to explore non-library user immigrants’ information engagement in their day to day lives to see how such an understanding can inform public libraries, and in this case, Logan Central Library, to further improve or modify their services and programs (or even create new ones!) to enrich their non-users’ information experiences.

Debra Cooper, on behalf of the LISRA-RADAR Project team

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