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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee
Issues facing diaspora communities in Australia

McKERRACHER, Ms Sue, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Library and Information Association

VALLANCE, Dr John, State Librarian and Chief Executive Officer, State Library of New South Wales

Evidence was taken via teleconference—


CHAIR: We'll now move on to witnesses from the Australian Library and Information Association and the National and State Libraries Australia. I will just say that we are running over time, and I apologise for that. We will probably only have about 15 or 20 minutes. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Do you have anything to say about the capacity in which you appear today?

Dr Vallance : I'm the director of the State Library of New South Wales and I'm representing the National and State Libraries Australia.

CHAIR: Lovely. I love the State Library of New South Wales. I invite you to make a very brief opening statement, because we are a little over time. We have submissions from you. Then we'll proceed to questions from the committee. Ms McKerracher, would you like to start with a very brief opening statement?

Ms McKerracher : I'd like to pass to John for that, thank you.

Dr Vallance : Thank you very much. I sent my statement through last night, so senators can have a look at the whole of what I said. I'll be very brief. As I said, I'm representing the chair of NSLA, the group made up of the directors of state and territory libraries and the National Library in Canberra. Together we serve nearly 10 million Australians, and nearly 112 million visits are made to Australian libraries. Libraries are a hugely important and, I think, quite often under-recognised constituency in Australia, and I think that libraries across the country could have a lot to offer senators in their deliberations on these matters. It's interesting that people thought libraries were going to die out as a result of the internet but they're arguably stronger than they've ever been before.

As far as your current terms of reference are concerned, I think it's fair to say that libraries are becoming much more culturally sensitive to difference and are serving more and more people from diverse linguistic backgrounds. Libraries across the country are now becoming places where everyone knows they can be safe, welcome and treated with respect regardless of their class background, their wealth background or their social background. Libraries stand outside party politics. I know that governments sometimes worry about political bias in cultural and educational institutions, but libraries are truly ecumenical in that secular sense. They offer judgement-free access for all people to the materials they need to enhance and improve their lives. Libraries, for a long time, have played an important bridging role between governments of all kinds and diaspora communities, and libraries are very keen to be recognised for the work they do in this regard.

One of the focal purposes of libraries, and education generally, is to teach us how to get on with one another. In very practical terms, libraries lie at the heart of this purpose. Perhaps of interest to senators at the moment is that people who don't speak English as a first language can mix at libraries with those who do. We do a lot of work in supporting English language teaching, but at the same time we allow diaspora communities to maintain contact with their own cultures and their own oral, visual and literary histories. The goal of collecting materials produced by diaspora communities is an important focus of the NSLA submission to this inquiry.

In summary, the library network across the whole country is very keen to support senators as they seek to address the issues. We believe that we're very well-placed, in fact, to help you address all the issues that are listed in your terms of reference.

CHAIR: I might start by asking about formal connections between libraries, including local libraries, and diaspora communities. How does that work? Is that done through your local government authorities? How would people know, if they're newly arrived in Australia, that they can go to a library and there would be materials in their native tongue—how does that work?

Dr Vallance : That's very much the case. Libraries are a combined effort of local government, state government and other groups as well. The arrangements are different [inaudible]. Certainly in New South Wales libraries are front and centre with immigration programs, welcoming new arrivals. Outside metropolitan cities, a lot of refugee programs are very, very closely tied up with libraries. I know that a lot of the libraries we inspect in New South Wales will serve more than 40 different language groups, and the library is a very, very key part of the welcoming and the assimilation of new arrivals.

CHAIR: I might ask you to take this on notice: could we just get a snapshot of the situation in each state? I was the chair of the Yarra-Melbourne Regional Library Corporation when I was [inaudible] of Melbourne, and I know that we used to provide services for newly arrived people in the City of Melbourne and the City of Yarra. Could you take on notice what the situation is around Australia?

Dr Vallance : We'd be delighted to.

Senator ABETZ: Ms McKerracher and Dr Vallance, thank you for what you do. As a Tasmanian senator I can vouch for the good work that the libraries do in Tasmania, especially in Glenorchy, which is referred to in the submission, and the very important role of teaching our diaspora communities the English language, because it's so vital to protect people from exploitation and, on the positive side, or the more positive side, to allow them to be full members of the community. Can I just ask: how balanced is the approach taken by libraries between—and I suspect it would be different with each library—the importance of making the immigrant community feel welcome; recording, possibly, some of their background stories and history; and also enabling them to learn the English language?

Dr Vallance : May I answer that? I've got a little bit of background information in the statement that I sent through last night, but these are very much front and centre when it comes the mission of libraries. We take that very, very seriously. We recognise that unless people can speak English they can't fully participate in Australian life. But, at the same time, libraries enable people not to lose touch with their own backgrounds and their own cultures, and we do that in a whole host of ways, from collecting and adding to our own national collections, but also public programs and connections with other local institutions. But this is something we work very hard at.

Senator SHELDON: I have just a quick question. You mentioned in the submission the need to strengthen the offering of current library services, and you mentioned the diversity material. Could you expand on that and the additional assistance that could be given to the community?

Dr Vallance : I think you're referring to the part of the submission that relates to strengthening the collection of material produced by communities, and that's partly a NSLA project aimed at digital collecting, collecting oral histories and other materials and then making it available digitally across the country.

Senator SHELDON: Are you comfortable with how that's progressing? And is there some way of strengthening that work?

Dr Vallance : Yes. We launched something called the National edeposit scheme last year and this is something that is a priority for us the moment. This is one of the areas where we do need some support federally. I think a couple of million dollars would completely transform our capacity to support all the things I've just been mentioning across the country. Libraries are an area where you get a very large amount of bang for relatively little buck.

CHAIR: Dr Vallance and Ms McKerracher, there being no further questions, can I thank you for your appearance today and for your evidence. We really appreciate it. For any questions you've taken on notice, if you wouldn't mind having those answers back to the committee by 6 November. That will be very helpful for the committee in its considerations and in the writing of its report. Thank you very much once again.

Proceedings suspended from 10 : 17 to 11 : 15