Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

ALIA Public Libraries Summit

Location: National Library of Australia, Canberra



Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to the traditional elders, both past and present.

I would like to thank Jan Richards and ALIA – the Australian Library and Information Association – for inviting me to today’s event.

And thank you to Jan Fullarton for allowing us to meet in this magnificent library.

I also acknowledge the Hon Lily D’Ambrosio, Parliamentary Secretary for Community Development in the Victorian Government.


What a wonderful gathering of dedicated library advocates we have in this magnificent place. From the far north, far west and from just down the road, you’ve been brought together by a shared passion for our public libraries – or, as ALIA likes to call them “the new village green.”

Contribution of Libraries

Libraries have always been close to my heart too, but since I began championing the government’s social inclusion agenda I’ve realised just how much they are precious common ground in which social inclusion quietly blossoms.

The opportunity to talk to you today brought to mind a presentation given recently by UK futurist Richard Watson, where he mentioned the work he was doing for the British library association. He confessed that before beginning the work he had been pessimistic about the future of libraries, believing that books would move mostly online making libraries obsolete.

However, after a few weeks of work, Richard began to realise the crucial role of libraries as community hubs, neutral spaces, places of learning and for gaining access to the internet and other sources of e-learning. He completely changed his mind about the future role of libraries, realising that they will remain as vital a part of our world in the future as they have been in the past.

Richard’s epiphany is, of course, unlikely to be news to you. You know that through libraries people get access to information and knowledge, that libraries are the neutral “third space” where people can participate in activities and connect with others in their community of all ages and backgrounds.

From children sitting in a circle on the floor learning to read, to young people with head phones downloading the latest music, to our seniors chatting about a book over morning tea.

Libraries have come to adopt a variety of forms – gleaming new city buildings such as the new ACT civic library, country halls where the library might share the space with Centrelink and a bank, and mobile libraries traversing bush terrain. What unites these disparate forms is their capacity to connect people with the outside world.

When I started teaching in the 70s libraries were silent places -or at least that’s what we wanted the students to believe. Basically, they were places to borrow books.

Today, as you know, they are dynamic places.

Just the other day when I dropped by my local library to pick up a book, I was struck by the lively scene I encountered when I walked through the doors. People were browsing the shelves, all the computer terminals were in use, the meeting room was home to the Saturday ESL class and children were tucked up on colourful couches reading with their parents.

Libraries today are a hub for community life, offering programs, community services and a neutral, safe space to gather.

They have become people focussed, tailoring their offering to the needs of their community – from multicultural groups to Indigenous people to those individuals dedicated to lifelong learning who sign up at the library to learn about Bebo, blogs and Flickr.

Through your computers you have revealed the Internet’s limitless potential for connection to people who may have otherwise never have had the chance.

Libraries have responded and adapted to the challenges of the information age.

Role of ALIA

Of course ALIA has played a huge role in this. You have engendered innovative approaches to customer service and provided professional development to maintain the skills and status of librarians.

You’ve created innovative ways to encourage reading and raise awareness about the opportunities libraries provide with events such as Library Lovers Day on the 14 February every year, the National Simultaneous Storytime initiative and the Summer Reading Program for adults during the Christmas holidays.

Social Inclusion Agenda

Public libraries clearly play a central and valued role in strengthening communities, developing people and building inclusive societies. So it’s not surprising that social inclusion was one of the four key themes reflected in the many submissions to this forum.

The synergies between your goals and the government’s social inclusion agenda are clearly apparent. So I’d like to tell you a little about the government’s social inclusion work to help set the scene for some of your discussions today.

On coming into government, we made a promise to the Australian people that we would work towards a stronger, fairer and more inclusive Australia. We wanted to create opportunities for all Australians to be able to participate actively in the economic and social life of our country.

Social Inclusion is about ensuring all Australians have the opportunity and capability to learn, work, engage and have a voice. It’s about meeting the needs of our most vulnerable people, and it’s also about building engaged communities, active citizenry and the kind of rich civil society we all want to share in.

This is no simple task and the government recognised early on the need for expert advice to help us achieve this vision. We established the Australian Social Inclusion Board – a group of eminent people with academic and practical wisdom on building inclusive communities – to provide us with advice.

The board has identified three initial priorities for its work: jobless families, children at greatest risk of long term disadvantage and locational approaches. And I will explain a little more about each of these shortly.

One of the important points to make is that social inclusion is not only a vision for Australia, but also a way of working. The social inclusion approach is about acknowledging that deeply excluded people suffer multiple disadvantages and that we need to find ways of delivering a holistic response that wraps around the person in the place that they live.

This is a very different way of working to the traditional siloed approached of isolated treatments for individual problems. We know that these kinds of approaches have not worked. So we need to bring about enormous change in the way government develops policy and programs for excluded groups in order to really make a difference.

There has been a lot of work done “backstage” in the public service in introducing new norms of policy development and we have also advocated strongly for a focus on excluded groups in our work with other governments.

There’s also much work underway on the board’s priority excluded groups. In the area of Jobless Families, we are funding innovative employment services for the most disadvantaged job seekers and finalising a National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy.

There is much work taking place on protecting children at risk. The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children and the National Early Childhood Development Strategy are just two examples of recently completed work.

And locational disadvantage has been a prominent priority lately with the Jobs Fund grants program and the appointment of Local Employment Coordinators to help create jobs in 20 priority locations across Australia.

Tackling social exclusion is a huge task – one that government can’t achieve on its own. And that’s why I’m so encouraged to see that today you’ll be grappling with how libraries can play their part.

You have some very inspiring speakers here today – people like Frank McGuire who’s Global Learning Village has been a model of how access to education and information can change lives. And Roxanne Missingham from our wonderful Parliamentary Library who is a strong advocate for an inclusive digital Australia.

However, perhaps the most important people at this forum are you in the audience today – you who influence and direct the work of public libraries, which every day “walk the talk” of social inclusion.

It’s important that you use this rare occasion of being all together in the same space to share experiences, float ideas and develop concrete proposals on how you can make your facilities even more of a force for social inclusion.

How can you welcome people from non English speaking backgrounds, make your buildings more accessible for those with a disability, cater to the needs of older people, build connections between people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds?

Are there ways that libraries can work with other organisations and government to help people find jobs or volunteer opportunities, locate help in times of crisis or have their voices heard?

These are some of the important questions that I’m hoping you’ll be discussing today.

It’s particularly important that we find ways of working together. As I said before, the complexity of social exclusion defies isolated, individual responses, and partnerships across all three sectors – public, private and non profit – will be essential.

One of the ways that we in government are looking to improve our partnerships is through the development of a national compact – which is a form of partnership agreement between the government and the non profit sector. The aim of the compact is to affirm and strengthen the sector and in doing so, to create inclusive and resilient communities.

I know that one ALIA’s stated purposes for today’s summit is to develop a stronger relationship with the Australian government. And that in it’s submission to the Productivity Commission’s study into the non profit sector, ALIA spoke of the need for better communication between government departments and non profit organisations, and working together to craft evidence based policy.

Participation in the compact consultation process is an important way for you to pursue these objectives.

A draft compact will be released for public consultation early next month. There will be a variety of ways to provide comment and feedback – an online forum, public gatherings, through email or the post. You’ll be able to find out more on the social inclusion website in August – www.socialinclusion.gov.au.


In your invitation to me to speak at this forum you said that there are strong synergies between the government’s social inclusion agenda and the ethos and work of public libraries.

This is definitely a sound basis for working together to create the inclusive and resilient Australia to which we both aspire.

Libraries are perhaps one of our greatest assets for social inclusion. They hold a rare and privileged position in the nation’s heart as a community hub where everyone can belong.

This has been the way since the times of the very first libraries when the words “Hospital for the Mind” were inscribed on the library at Alexandria. And the words ‘Medicine for the Soul’ above the library at Thebes.

Over 2 000 years later the truth of these inscriptions lives on.

So it’s with great pleasure that I formally open the ALIA Public Libraries Summit. I hope today’s summit will reinvigorate you to continue the wonderful tradition of our ancient forebears.