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Library cards as the building blocks of social capital

By George Seymour - posted Wednesday, 19 January 2011

As a form of protest it was as unique as it was striking. Faced with the threat of the closure of their public library, the people of Stony Stratford in Buckinghamshire UK withdrew the maximum allowance of 15 books. By January 14, 2011, within a week of the start of the campaign, all 16,000 of the library’s books were withdrawn.

The empty shelves foreshadow the void that would be left in the community were the library to close.

Emily Malleson from the Friends of Stony Stratford Library said they were amazed at how everyone in the town had pulled together. However, it shouldn’t be surprising that such a co-ordinated response to a threat should come from a community of people who value and share a public library.


In seeking to foster community development and build resilience, local governments should take the time to focus on a significant asset already in their hands. An asset capable of being at the core of social inclusion and community development.

Public libraries can be what Hugh Mackay has described as the new village green in our communities. They are community hubs, which provide a focal point accessed by the community for a range of purposes. They are free and safe public places staffed by professionals.

Public libraries are too often undervalued and underutilised as social infrastructure. In devising community development strategies, governments and NGOs should place an emphasis on them as public places where people interact, learn, share and grow.

There are almost 1,500 public libraries across Australia and they are attended more frequently and by more people than any other cultural and sporting venue. Over 68 per cent of these libraries are open for more than 30 hours a week, more than 32 per cent are open more than 45 hours per week.

The proportion of the population that is a library member has fallen from 49 per cent in 2004-2005 to 46 per cent in 2008-2009. Despite the decline, this high level of voluntary membership would be hard to find in any other institution.

Properly resourced libraries will evolve to meet community expectations and desires. Unsurprisingly, the growth area in library use has been internet use. The total number of public access terminals is rapidly increasing. The latest number of 8,652 for 2008-2009 was an increase from 7,821 in the previous year. 92 per cent of service points have internet terminals.


Through its public libraries, local government is the largest educational provider in Australia. They have become the university of lifelong learning. This is achieved on a total expenditure on public library services per capita of $40.34, of which $5.36 is for new materials.

The austerity measures which jeopardise the Stony Stratford Library threaten similar libraries and communities across the UK. We can expect to see many more protests and increased debate about the value of libraries in the coming months as local governments there struggle to come to terms with the massive cuts in funding from Tory/Liberal Democrats coalition government.
Libraries in Australia don’t presently face the threat of their UK counterparts, indeed funding has increased steadily over the past five years. However, while half the population does not hold a library card there is a need for libraries to better engage with the community and demonstrate their value. This is the aim of the annual Library Lovers Day organised by the Australian Library and Information Association for Valentines Day, February 14.

Social capital refers to the networks and relationships of trust and reciprocity that bind society together. The decline in social capital in American society is well documented in Robert Putnam’s seminal work Bowling Alone, similarly Andrew Leigh has recently documented the decline in Australia in Disconnected.

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About the Author

George Seymour is a solicitor and local government councillor. He is the President of Youthcare Hervey Bay, a homeless shelter providing support to young people on the Fraser Coast, Queensland.

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