We don’t consider ourselves to be experts when it comes to libraries by any means. In fact the National Library in Canberra has more than 1,000 times as many books as the small libraries we have visited on our trip around Australia.

However as parents of a 10 year old bookworm, and as high-demand users of Wifi, we seem to have spent a great deal of time in the local libraries of Australia. We’ve visited more than 50 so far and surprisingly, we’ve only been able to borrow from 6 of those – most of them part of the free Rural Libraries of Queensland tourist membership.

rlq-tourist-cardLibraries are so important to road schooling families, as we often need a comfortable space to do our schoolwork and we can’t carry many educational resources due to space restrictions. We found early on in our trip that we needed things like globes and atlases to deliver our Year 4 lessons and libraries are the best place to find them.

Anyway here’s what we look for in a library.

Customer service

Whether you are an outback local or an international traveller, at the Winton Library you are welcomed with open arms and offered help if required, followed by warm country hospitality. This usually takes place right at the front door as regular passers drop in to say hello.  At Cooktown Library, we met a super friendly librarian too, but sometimes librarians make the kids feel like they are interrupting them so we tend to do our own thing.  The librarians at Cassowary Coast library at Innisfail also seemed to work really hard to help computer and printer users navigate their IT resources.

Discussion time

It gets noisy at Winton Library, and at first we were amazed that the librarians weren’t shooshing people to be quiet, then we realised it was the librarians making most of the noise.  However overhearing the conversations, we became instantly impressed with these librarians. They were offering friendship and support to locals, supervising the young children who hung out at the library after school, giving tourism advice to French backpackers, and helping elderly couples connect to the Wifi.  This library was a hive of activity and there was a ‘buzz’ in the air.

It got us to thinking – is quiet space the best use of a library? Most libraries have private rooms where they encourage young people or senior citizens to come together, but because libraries are synonymous with ‘quiet’, they are largely unused and therefore wasted.  Winton encouraged conversation and it was fabulous.

Townsville’s Aitkenvale Library had something we’ve never seen before – a ‘Loud Room’ with bench seats, tables and a real cafe-style feel. Located at the back of the library it encouraged conversations amongst visitors and was a place where adults could go if they weren’t reading a book. The equally noisy children’s area was just around the corner.

Resources

We’ve noticed a huge variation in the quality of the resources – some have great book displays, lots of modern books, and really creative children’s areas. Some libraries clearly embrace reading and others…not so much! While good books are easy to find, good DVDs are a rare thing.  Kununurra had a number of popular TV box sets such as Orange Is The New Black and Bear Grylls Wild, but old DVD documentaries are more common.

Kununurra Public Library was adjoined to the local school, and teachers bought primary classes in for reading sessions. Mt Isa Library held adult English speaking lessons in their basement area (and were incredibly supportive of new people settling in their town – they were having a ball), and there was also a toy library cage within the building.

Computers and printers are also an important part of library resources these days, and we notice lots of adults come into the library to watch TENPLAY shows and Youtube videos on the free internet.  At around 3pm you have to be prepared for the onslaught of school kids who arrive to play computer games so we generally vacate the library before they get there!

When we visited, Carnarvon Library had sectioned off part of their building to house a travelling exhibition and had some unique objects on display – including a model of the Batavia, actual artifacts from the Zutydorp shipwreck and a replica of Dirk Hartog’s 1616 Plate.

Refreshments

Most libraries don’t allow food and drink, but Winton was okay with it (in fact the coffee at the bakery next door was really good), hence making it more of a social atmosphere. There does seem to be a trend towards libraries installing automatic coffee dispensing machines, and hot drinks are often provided free or for a small fee. Townsville’s Aitkenvale Library had a drinks and snack food dispensing machine on site.

Wifi

Winton Council provides free unlimited Wifi not only in the library but on the main street, with no passwords and no limit. Most libraries have download limits and some are as low as 100MB per user per day which is not even enough to download updates on an iPhone much of the time. There are ways to get around the wifi limits but if you take in a number of devices these all add up to give you a bigger limit.

Power

Often we camped in locations without 240Vac so coming into town and into a Library with access to power to recharge laptop and ipads to do the kids schoolwork was important. Library policies on access to power whether it be 240Vac or 5Vdc to charge was different.

Cairns Library physically lock their 240Vac power point and we were told by the Librarian that it is unsafe to supply power to the public for charging of laptops and mobile phones however we could go down the road to Woolworths to access their charging station (for mobile phones only).

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All power points are locked at Cairns Library

We are please to say that most Libraries had access to 240Vac power and some like Rockhampton even are so progressive that they have charging stations for mobile phones.

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Borrowing

The libraries we’ve visited have varying borrowing policies.  Innisfail Library kept a $50 deposit which was refunded when all the books were returned. Townsville Library charged a $25 fee for a temporary membership which was not refundable (according to the librarians, no one had actually used this service), and a network of libraries in rural Queensland allowed you to borrow up to 4 items for 4 weeks, returnable at other libraries in the network. At Winton we returned books and DVDs we’d loaned in Cooktown. We were not permitted to borrow anything at Cairns Library unless we were a Queensland resident.

Community feel

It wasn’t until we met librarians Amanda and Linda from Winton Library that we realised that local libraries like this one are the lifeblood of their town. They have worked there so long, they have ‘raised’ some of the local children over the years. At their suggestion we headed over to the Shire Hall one day to watch the Waltzing Matilda Bush Poetry inter-school competition so Azzy and Ollow could see other kids their age reciting kids bush poems, and it was fantastic. They recommended lots of local attractions and followed up to make sure we enjoyed it.

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With another couple of months to go and probably another dozen or so libraries to visit, we feel that the Winton Library will be hard to beat for our title of Best Library in Australia. There are no fancy leather chairs, stained glass windows or chandeliers but we feel that in general, the local libraries of Australia are a valuable resource for families on the road – in our books anyway!