There was a time when a library was regarded as a sanctuary that fed a hunger for literary sustenance or a yearning for quiet time. It was a time when the only permissible sounds within its four walls were whispers, hushed footsteps and the soft rustling of paper.
That time has passed.
“We’re not just home to a collection of stuff,” says Cos Ambrose, operations librarian for the Melbourne Library Service. “We’re a space that caters to many different needs whether it’s providing a safe refuge or a learning centre or a meeting point. A community must have spaces where people can come together for different reasons and needs.”
The City Library, where she's currently based, is one of those spaces. This interview takes place in a corner on the second floor, a spot that Cos chooses more so for its availability than anything else.
We lower our voices a notch so that we don’t interrupt those within earshot. But no one so much as glances at us for having an audible conversation in a library. The same way almost no seems to mind when someone plays a tune on the piano in the art gallery behind us. The gallery is Cos’ favourite section and yet another testament to the changing face of today’s libraries.
“I love working wherever there’s art,” she beams. “The gallery here focuses on emerging artists. The exhibitions change every month which is great because it means I don’t have to go out to see their work! And I’ve had some fantastic conversations around the artwork here.”
“Libraries are one of the few community services left that are about inspiring people, not just about supporting and helping them. And every culturally rich community has one.”
I first joined in a casual role as a customer service library officer and was then lucky to get a full time job as an operations librarian. I was part of the team that opened the Kathleen Syme Library.
Mainly keeping the library doors open which means handling staff hires and rosters, conducting customer service training and overseeing the shelving teams at our other libraries. It’s very much a behind the scenes role to keep the library running.
The hidden conversations that take place. Readers leaving notes in books for other readers – we find something quirky at least once a month. We’ve even had someone leave chocolates with little notes on the shelves at North Melbourne Library.
Sometimes the notes include suggestions and feedback for librarians. We have a suggestion section on our website and people can always talk to us in person. But some of them like to communicate in this hidden way.
The City Library is busiest - we have an average of 3,000 patrons a day. East Melbourne Library is in a fantastic sustainable building with a collection to match. Southbank Library at Boyd shares the building with other services and artists so it has a different feel.
Library at the Dock is shiny and big with some great spaces. North Melbourne Library is a community space; it gets a lot of families and our children’s team is based there. Kathleen Syme Library is still finding its feet but is in a beautiful building and houses our healthy ageing team.
The community. It’s so diverse that you don’t know who’s going to walk through the door. It’s customer service without selling anything for money. And I love it. You get the strangest questions and have the best conversations.
You know, we get so many strange questions that we don’t even blink an eye anymore! One question was around why the number of flies in the city had increased. That one was a bit odd and left of centre.
Another frequent question is from parents asking if we can take care of their children while they go shopping. We tell them, unfortunately no. Children under the age of 12 must be accompanied so when we do find a child left here alone, we call their guardians or sometimes even the police. It really depends on the situation.
This is a tough one! I’ve had great conversations with patrons about books we’ve read and loved, and hilarious conversations on the big questions in life. I’ve also had conversations with kids about a series I’ve recommended which they have loved, and sometimes they recommend a series to me in return.
Flexibility and the desire to help people. Technology has changed our libraries. The community and what it wants a library to be has changed too so you have to be flexible to respond to all that. And also at a personal level because there is so much to learn if you truly want to help patrons.
There are new trends in the kind of help that people are seeking. Many people now want information or technical help on accessing eBooks on their personal devices. We’re also getting heaps of enquiries about general online living. There are services like eGov where everyone needs to register online. All that involves digital literacy, which not everyone has, so that’s the kind of help they’re asking us for.
In so many ways. The self-serve kiosks, for instance, free us up to have interesting conversations with people. Our sorter machine means we’re not manually sorting book returns and can spend more time organising workshops or connecting with community.
Our stock take is also easier since we began using radio-frequency identification. There’s an electronic tag in each book so all we need to do is wave a scanner in front of a collection and it will pick up all the books. And because of this, we’ve actually found a lot of books that we thought were missing but were in fact wrongly shelved or tagged.
Respect, patience and kindness. People visit the library for different reasons and those reasons can sometimes come into conflict. For instance, someone might be here for quiet study but someone else might want to play the piano. So we try to provide spaces that cater for everyone. We have a quiet study room and a piano in the gallery so we ask that everyone respects that people use the library for different reasons.
That libraries aren’t about just books anymore. We have online magazines, online learning courses and films that can be streamed online. Our website is chock-a-block with these treats - it’s just about diving in deep to find them. We also have heaps of workshops and events. So much goes on in here!
Favourite city café: I get my coffee from a café around the corner. It’s tucked away and I don’t even know what it’s called. There’s artwork on their cups, that’s why I like them.
Favourite place to look at art: The NGV. I love that big building. And my grandfather installed that glass on the front. It took nearly a year.
Best place to eavesdrop on conversations in the City Library: I’ve heard some interesting things on the stairs.
Biggest myth about libraries: That we get paid to sit around and read!
A real Melburnian…is fussy about their coffee