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From Tenterfield to Bourke and back

A guest blog post by Dr Alex Byrne, State Librarian & Chief Executive

One of the great joys of being the NSW State Librarian is the Library’s involvement with the public library network across this wide and diverse state. I have challenged myself to visit as many as possible of the 367 public libraries and to date have been to nearly 150 from tiny Manildra to expansive Willoughby and Bankstown.

Visiting the more distant requires considerable planning to allow for the travelling times and to see as much as possible in the time available. So last week I went to the libraries strung out in the band south of the Queensland border and west of the Dividing Range. It was quite a trip: 2758 km visiting 14 libraries from Tenterfield to Bourke and back. 

 Inside Tenterfield LibraryOn chilly Monday, I entered the magnificent heritage reading room of the Tenterfield School of Arts where Henry Parkes gave his inspiring speech to advocate 'a great national Government for all Australia'. Refurbished and imaginatively extended, the library joins with the Henry Parkes Museum and the cinema to provide a great resource for a historic town. Then to the Glen Innes Public and TAFE Library which shows the strength of bringing together community and educational facilities, including an attractive art gallery (featuring works by an Indigenous artist) and a centre for UNE students. The children’s area reflects the strong support of the community by commemorating the construction of the first Glen Innes Library by the APEX Club. On to Inverell where the beautifully extended public library presents a very extensive range of programs attracting nearly 5000 participants last year.

The following morning, the little library for the community of Warialda was opened especially for me to see with adjoining toy library. Conveniently across the road from the public school, it attracts children from that school and the catholic school, emphasising the importance of literacy. Down to Bingara where the library is the old courthouse with the magistrate’s bench providing an imposing location for computers, a tangible demonstration of the importance of connectivity and access to online resources and services. Both are members of the Central Northern Regional Library, out of Tamworth, as are the next two visited, Narrabri and Wee Waa, both of which are inspiring. Together with the other members of the Regional Library, they demonstrate the strength that comes from working together.

 Outside Brewarrina LibraryWednesday started with the long drive across to Brewarrina, ‘Bree’ as it is called locally, which is famous for its dramatic Aboriginal fish trap in the river.  The energy of the library staff is palpable although the facilities are very limited. It is a member of the ‘Big Sky Libraries’ network based in Moree and again shows the benefits of collaboration. Then more kilometres to Bourke, the historic Darling River town, where the public library supports the needs of the 3000 people in the town and across Bourke Shire. Showing their enterprise, library staff gained a grant in 2011/12 to digitise the Western Herald which is now available to all on Trove.

 The next morning, back 230 km to Walgett where the small library has been doubled in size, beautifully redecorated and is actively engaged with the needs of its predominantly Aboriginal community. A strong emphasis on literacy and programs for children and youth address the needs of the town and Walgett Shire which also includes Lightning Ridge and Collarenebri. ‘The Ridge’ is quite different with 57 languages from around the world reflecting the lure of opals. A well supported public library is energetically meeting the needs of that diverse community. It draws on the State Library’s multicultural collection to provide reading materials in many languages including Serbian, the second language after English.

The small library at Collarenebri is accessed by collecting the key from the butcher’s next door. It provides a simple range of reading materials, refreshed periodically. Down the highway, Moree Plains Public Library is in a fine Art Deco building. It hosts the Big Sky Libraries regional library service which is revolutionising library services across that broad and very thinly populated region working with the Brewarrina, Walgett and Moree Plains Shire Councils.

And, finally, on the way back to Sydney, a brief stop at the small library serving Boggabri. Despite being located on a busy highway with B-doubles trundling past, there is strong commitment to the needs of the community which it has served for many years.

The welcome and hospitality in each of the libraries was overwhelming. It was very valuable to talk with library staff, Councillors, General Managers and Directors of Community Services and sometimes clients. My thanks to all for making me so welcome and so openly sharing achievements and challenges, all of which inform my thinking about public libraries and advice to the Government. Thanks also to Consultant Ellen Forsyth and all who helped to organise this itinerary: I appreciate your thoughtfulness.

It is tremendous to see the good work being done in far flung places against the challenges of distance, thin populations and thinner resources. Each is particular to its community, shaped by its community and in turn shaping its community. The visits reinforce the importance of the support that the State Library and the regional library networks provide to local libraries and library staff in our shared aim to provide a consistent standard of library service for the people of New South Wales.