The Libraries of Melbourne


I’ve previously mentioned that I think Melbourne’s libraries are vastly superior to those I’ve seen in the US, and today I’d like to elaborate on why. I don’t think it’s any secret that I spend a good chunk of my time here in Melbourne in one of its libraries. If I’m not on a tram (or at work) there’s a pretty good chance I’m at the library.

Why? The free internet for one, even if it is comparable to AOL speed (dialup for those of you in Oz). Two is the books. Yes, I still read. I know that’s shocking. Yes, most of it has been manga (more on that in a bit), but I have checked out some actual books as well. Unlike Drexel’s library, there’s no shortage of books in Melbourne’s library system, nor in Port Phillip’s (I technically live in Elwood, part of the City of Port Phillip.) OK, yes, I do have a library card for the Free Library of Philadelphia, but it’s less than convent to get to (yay trams in Melbourne!) The libraries here have a fantastic lineup of books, many of which I’ve picked up as I was walking past the shelf. Given that my daily tram ride to and from work is 30 minutes (without traffic and disruptions), I have had a considerable increase in time to actually read since moving to Melbourne, and I will miss that when I go back to Drexel. The 100 items I’ve taken out from the library are nearly equally split between manga and DVDs. Melbourne has a huge manga lineup compared to the others I’ve seen in libraries, and it’s not the usual Viz crap either (I’m looking at you Bleach). The St. Kilda Library also has an awesome partnership with a library in Obu, Japan, thanks to the Sister Cities partnership, which means a good amount of multilingual manga. Both have insane amounts of DVDs, and the St. Kilda Library lets you keep them for a month, plus two renews, just like books.

See? I really do read "real" books.

See? I really do read “real” books. And lots of manga.

The libraries here carry much more than just books, and I think some of the things they carry are very smart choices. Video games are one of them. Yes, you can actually borrow a video game from a library here. You can play some too. The only library I’ve visited here that doesn’t have an area with video game consoles is the Southbank Library, likely because it’s too small and is very different from your typical library (more on that in the next paragraph). The libraries here in Melbourne seem to get that times have changed. Drexel’s gets that too, mainly in that almost all of the books there are gone to make room for study space instead. Here, the libraries aren’t afraid of technology, they’re embracing it. Melbourne offers a metric shitton of online resources: language courses, ebooks that don’t suck, magazines, and music, to name a few. And the library reminds you that you have access to those resources. Aggressively.

The design of libraries here is also quite different from what I’ve come accustomed to in the US. One example is the Southbank Library. It’s the only library I’ve ever been in (save for Drexel, but for a different reason) that doesn’t use the god-awful Dewey Decimal system (and this is the part where librarians and scholars cringe). Instead, it’s setup like a book store. Content is organized into sections, like DVDs, Graphic Novels, Fiction, Travel, Biographies, etc. Yes, I’m aware those sections exist in that certain other system as well, but there are no call numbers in Southbank (OK, technically there are, for cataloging purposes). The upcoming Docklands library will apparently be similar.

One other thing about the design of the libraries in Melbourne that makes them different, is that they are entirely self-serve. Yes, there are staff, but mainly for information purposes. Checking out a book is done at a self-serve checkout kiosk (we have one at Drexel that is usually off), which speaks a number of languages, pirate included. I kid you not. Have a reservation to pick up? Go get it off the shelf yourself. An email and/or text will let you know its ready.

And then there is the State Library of Victoria. It’s a library, but you can’t borrow anything from it. Well, actually you can, but you can’t take anything you borrow out of the library because it’s not a lending library. It is, however, the largest in Melbourne, although a good chunk of it is closed off to the public and a couple of floors are gallery spaces instead. It’s almost always packed as well.

After the trams, the libraries here in Melbourne may damn well be the thing I miss most when I leave to return to Philly in mid-March. They’re very much alive and well and certainly well used. I suspect Melbourne invests more in its libraries than the ones I’ve seen back in the US (Princeton excepted). Libraries in the US really could learn a lot from the libraries here, but I don’t expect they will, or at least not any time soon unfortunately.