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Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training
Adult literacy and its importance

TORNEY, Ms Kate, Member, National and State Libraries Australasia [by video link]


CHAIR: Welcome. I give you an opportunity now to give us a quick introductory statement. Whilst everything you say is not under oath, these are legal proceedings of the parliament. Giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and potentially a contempt—I'm sure that won't be the case. We've looked at your submission. It was a tidy and fairly short submission. Are there one or two points you want to raise about the role that libraries play in this space? If I can start with a provocative question, how do we get librarians to focus less on the resources and more on the readers and become potentially practitioners in the art of both identifying and doing something about low levels of literacy?

Ms Torney : Thank you for having me. I speak in support of the submission that we prepared for the inquiry and also in support of the submission of the Australian Library and Information Association. We have two principal messages and core proposals for action. Our first message is that libraries really are an essential part of any effective strategy to lift adult literacy levels. Libraries support the formal education system but they operate outside of it. Our teams are highly experienced in working with community members, particularly those who might be at risk of marginalisation. We provide services every day to people who otherwise could not access books, journals, newspapers, study spaces, computer facilities and online resources. Those are the resources they really need to learn.

We're free, public and welcoming spaces for discovery and access to information. We bring authors, educators and critical thinkers into the public programs for all people. We offer literacy and language programs for English-speaking and culturally and linguistically diverse communities. We support innovation and entrepreneurship. Libraries provide social connection, which has never been more important. We do know firsthand the direct link between literacy levels and employment, earning potential, health, community participation and life expectancy.

We play a critical role in boosting digital literacy for the 20 per cent of Australians who are not confident internet users, enabling governments to take a digital-first approach to service delivery. A great example that is addressing adult literacy was just mentioned—Libraries Tasmania. It provides dedicated adult literacy services as part of the statewide 26TEN program. That draws on government, community and private sector resources. The Tasmanian government and 26TEN submissions are, as you know, among those selected for the hearing.

Our second message is around adult literacy being addressed in the context of addressing early literacy. Previous speakers spoke so eloquently to that. We know that 75 per cent of brain development happens in the first three years of life and that early intervention in the development of literacy skills is absolutely critical to the development of adult literacy. So we know that literacy level programs for children have flow-on effects for adult literacy by supporting parents, as their child's first teachers, and providing social connection and support from other families. I can briefly explain two examples from our submission. The Better Beginnings program in Western Australia includes story time and free reading packs in English and Western Australian Aboriginal languages. This program encourages parents and grandparents to build their literacy skills by actively participating in reading sessions. That's recently been used to develop adult literacy skills for prisoners—asking adults to read picture books to children. The program makes children the reason for learning and takes away the stigma of low literacy. The success of this strategy has led to the development of the new public library program Learning English through Storytime, which uses preschool sessions for those from diverse language backgrounds, both parents and children, to improve their English literacy. The other one is the First 5 Forever at the State Library of Queensland, which is delivered in partnership with local councils and public libraries and Indigenous knowledge centres. This program also deliberately involves parents and caregivers and empowers them to take on the role of educator in their own homes. Its introduction to public libraries has really shifted the focus of story, baby and rhyme time sessions from entertainment to education, for parents and children. The program has had over three million attendees in its first five years, which is pretty remarkable.

In light of our submission, we'd like to just point to four recommendations. The first is that the federal government develop a national early language and literacy strategy building on the work already undertaken by the National Early Language and Literacy Coalition, with participation from the departments of education, health and social services and the National Indigenous Australians Agency. The second is that literacy be established as a federal priority by the appointment of a commissioner for literacy. The third is that adult literacy statistics continue to be collected through the Bureau of Statistics, with an adequate sample size so that we really can effectively monitor the program and the success or otherwise of any new measures to address it. And the fourth is that federal government departments and agencies include libraries in any national literacy program, regardless of its scope. We feel we know our communities well and we would like to help in whatever way we possibly can.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. We were jumping between the two submissions, but I think we managed to keep up. That was an excellent summary. I'll go to my colleague Ms Hammond and then I'll have a couple of questions at the end.

Ms HAMMOND: Thank you very much for your submission and what you just outlined there. I take the submission as saying that libraries—and I know this to be true—are more than just places where programs can be run; you are also actively engaged in developing your own programs and working with organisations like the Dear Dyslexic Foundation to run programs and to be part of them. Is that correct?

Ms Torney : Absolutely. I think the role of libraries over a long period of time—we're great partners. We do understand our individual communities, but also, at state and national level, we look for partnerships to serve the communities that we're here to provide support to.

Ms HAMMOND: I don't know if it's the same across Australia, but are local libraries initiatives of the local councils, the local authorities, or are they—

Ms Torney : It's different in every state. For example, in Victoria local governments fund and are responsible for the delivery of local library services, but in other states, for example, the state library has a role to play in relation to oversight of public libraries. It's different in every state.

Ms HAMMOND: One thing that I noted throughout my period, prior to parliament, being involved in education was the changing nature of libraries as places. You're not quiet in them anymore, a lot of them. Remember the good old days, when you had to be quiet in a library? Libraries have been quite good at adapting. What have been the major changes, from your perspective, in the nature of the library as a community facility?

Ms Torney : I think that's at the core of the transformation of libraries. Twenty years ago, a lot of people were talking about the demise of libraries—why would you need libraries when you have more information at your fingertips? I think it is a remarkable story of transformation that libraries, most libraries, have never been busier. I think that's a critically important thing to think about in the context of this. If you think about why some libraries are incredibly busy, it is around the participatory support services that are being delivered. In the submission, we make the point that there are great examples of the agility of libraries in understanding how to deliver services that, at times, are quite delicate. Adult literacy, for example, requires knowledge, understanding and compassion around how you do it in a supportive way. I think the transformation of libraries is around identifying services to be delivered for the 21st-century needs of the communities that we're supporting.

In hundreds of libraries across Australia we have library managers who know their communities very well. The library sector is a professionally generous sector. If something works well somewhere, we will share the knowledge. That might be modified and rolled out in a library thousands of kilometres away, but with a bespoke understanding of community needs. At a national and state level we're able to offer very clear and disciplined frameworks for delivery of services, and we share and learn from each other, but in a bespoke way. I think that's why libraries are incredibly busy in the 21st century. They're community hubs, they're welcoming and there is a low barrier to entry. We don't ask you why you're there and we don't ask for any transaction. When we're thinking of childhood and adult literacy, that's a critically important framework to remember.

Ms HAMMOND: Yes—to be that welcoming space. I do have to say it is an amazing transformation, because the libraries of my youth were places where the librarians were invariably scary and told you to be quiet, and you got fined for doing things. It has been an amazing transformation.

As we go ahead and think of what recommendations we're going to put forward, I do think that libraries have a vital role to play, as we've just been talking about, not just as spaces—although having a welcoming space cannot be underestimated—but also as partners in local communities. One thing that's come up in all of the submissions we've had and in chatting with people today is that there's no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing adult literacy or numeracy issues; it has to be tailored. A library that's based in a remote, far-flung part of Australia might have different needs to one that's located in suburbia in WA, but then that can be shared. You're saying that the network in libraries is very good at sharing?

Ms Torney : Absolutely. It is. I joined this sector six years ago and I have been blown away by the professional generosity but also the sense of learning from each other with, as you point out, a real lens of understanding bespoke community needs. You've got the best of both worlds. You've got formal, structured, national and state based frameworks, but those frameworks are there as a spine for delivery to communities. Library managers know their public communities so well. In Victoria, more than 40 per cent of Victorians are members of their public libraries. It is an extraordinary resource. Our message is: please, we want to be part of this. We want to work with you to deliver really meaningful outcomes, and we feel that we have a role to play.

CHAIR: I don't want to be too—

Ms HAMMOND: I'm just finishing, Chair. My office here is right next to the local community library. It's a fabulous space and it is very welcoming. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Hammond. That's been wonderful. Thank you so much to all of our participants. You will get the transcript in the following days and you can check that everything that has been recorded is accurate, plus follow up with any evidence and data. From the libraries, certainly, I'd love to know a little bit more. You referred to millions of attendees and the percentage of the community who are members. Do we know how many of them might be having trouble with literacy? Provocatively, I could argue that only those who are literate walk into a library. I want to make sure that's that's not the case. Do we collect that kind of data? And do we have any interface data? More than just giving instructions across the counter, how much time do library FTEs spend in deeper conversations that might elucidate issues like challenges with literacy? How much of it is a bit more diagnostic and less transactional? That kind of data would be very helpful.

To our last witness: thank you very much for being part of today's proceedings. Obviously, contact our committee secretariat in relation to any other matters that might have arisen out of today. That concludes our hearing. I thank everyone who has participated, as well as my colleagues, for a long but fascinating day.

Committee adjourned at 16:30