Next Members’ Day, my bill, the Local Government (Public Libraries) Amendment bill will have its first reading in parliament.
The bill, originally drafted by Labour MP Grant Robertson, was drawn from the ballot a couple of months back and as its sponsor, I’ve been on an exploration of the wonderful services our Public Libraries and librarians provide.
I admit that while I’ve been a fan of public libraries for years, going back to my childhood and the childhood of my son, I haven’t been a regular visitor recently. So this bill has re-ignited my passion for libraries, for books, for knowledge, for history. It’s been wonderful seeing the national treasure of our public library services, from the small local library to those with bigger collections. These are indeed national taonga.
Public libraries play an important role in our communities. They give everyone access to information and improve literacy and reading. They are community hubs for a range of activities, and they help strength local communities.
Who could ever imagine that our libraries could be at risk, yet with the government’s focus on Local Government costs, with a nasty bill due to be reported back soon, increasingly, strapped Local Authorities may turn their attention to library services and more charges.
New Zealand has no legislation that guarantees free public libraries. We are out of step internationally with countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada – all of which protect free public library services via legislation. We are not meeting UNESCO guidelines where public libraries in principle should be free of charge and the responsibility of local and national authorities, financed by national and local governments.
My bill will help New Zealand meet UNESCO guidelines, address the issue of user charges and ensure that NZ’s public libraries are an essential component of any long-term strategy for culture, information provision, literacy and education.
Our Library services should not be bound by an individual’s ability to pay, but that is becoming increasingly the case. Statistics show that introduction of user charges result in lower usage of public libraries and this in turn directly impacts on our communities’ literacy outcomes – it adds to inequality by denying access to those who can least afford to pay.
Then there’s our precious collections, which store our history. Imagine these being developed on a user pays basis? Do we really want unbalanced, profit-driven libraries that cater only for immediate, popular choices, rather than non-profitable alternatives?
We are becoming an e-society, but without libraries and free access to e-government and other services, the digital divide will expand. It’s almost impossible to do anything these days without access to the internet – even looking for a job, where advertisements and applications are usually done on-line. Information about government services are increasingly only available through the internet.
Libraries play an important role in bridging the digital divide for those without personal computers or other devices.
There’s many reasons for this bill, but the most important one is keeping our public libraries free for all users.
Most important of all, let your MP know where you stand on this issue.