By GABRIEL CURTIN and ACE GODDARD
What can the Alice Springs Public Library do to better meet the community’s needs and what facilities need to be expanded?
These were the two main focus questions for people attending the Town Council’s community feedback session, held last Wednesday, March 17.
Some 25 people turned up to the event, including ourselves, both of us past employees of the library.
The meeting heard first from Adelaide based architect Peter Moecke, who previously worked on the Mount Gambier library redevelopment.
Serving a similar-sized population, that project, he suggested, had a lot in common with the Alice Springs one. The redevelopment in Mount Gambier had increased library patronage fourfold.
Mr Moecke was joined by council’s Community Development Manager Jeanette Shepherd, Infrastructure Manager Stephen Baloban, and Project Administration Officer Kaitlyn Weekes.
Questions were quickly raised by members of the public about which groups are being consulted about the library redevelopment.
The response was vague, with Ms Shepherd and Mr Moecke citing “library staff, a general group, elected members, and a public forum” for the March 17 consultation and “heritage and arts, youth, Indigenous, and a trauma informed meeting” for a consultation on March 18.
There was also mention of a newly developed Library Committee, made up of elected members, none of whom were named at the public forum. On further research the Library Committee appears to be Mayor Damien Ryan, Deputy Mayor Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, and Councillors Jamie De Brenni and Eli Melky.
Sylvia Neale, a senior Arrernte woman and former library employee, as well as being its first Indigenous Services Officer, asked which Indigenous people had been invited to the consultation meeting.
Neither Mr Moecke nor anyone representing council were able to provide any names of individuals or organisations that had been contacted for the consultation. Ms Neale also asked why she hadn’t been informed of the proposed expansion or been invited to participate in the consultation, given her relationship to the library.
Other attendees at the meeting suggested council’s research practices were “unethical”, pointing out that prior surveys about the future of the library expansion had fewer than 500 respondents, were conducted in English, did not allow the participant more than 50 words of written feedback and were mostly limited to internet forms.
There have been multiple kinds of community feedback and consultative processes implemented by the Town Council over the past three years. These include the recent survey from December 2020, a Library Customer Service survey in August 2019, a Ranger security survey, Roger Henshaw’s “Library Service Review and Strategic Development Report” from December 2019, Braydon Kanjira’s “Cultural Sensitivity Assessment: Alice Springs Collection, Image Collection, general library space and services” from September 2018, in addition to the Library Strategic Plan 2020-2024.
Given the number of previous surveys and consultations that have had no tangible outcome, as well as the allegations that the council implemented discriminatory policy and mistreated staff in 2020, concerns were raised about the council’s intention to expand the library before they had adequately attended to those issues.
In 2020, 11 of the 17 staff that signed a letter voicing their opposition to what they believed to be a discriminatory policy were forced out of employment at the organisation.
The library manager, the programs manager, the youth engagement officer, and a library officer were all removed on the same day with no prior warning, and, to our knowledge, no complaints of misconduct and no performance management reviews.
Remaining staff were instructed not to discuss the suspension of their colleagues and were not officially informed of the suspensions until over a week after the removals.
Participants in the public forum were asked to look at a graph showing which additional facilities were most popular with the survey respondents in 2020. These included facilities such as self-contained study pods, a combined library and cultural centre, a book vending machine and a café.
One community member suggested a café is at odds with current library policy which excludes people from entering with food or drink.
As alternative forms of social infrastructure in Alice Springs are sorely lacking, members of the community frequently seek shelter from extreme weather in the library. Removing people from a library who are seeking a comfortable and engaging space to eat food, study and commune, while also proposing a café which services only patrons with expendable income, betrays which members of the community council is prioritising in its vision for the library’s future.
Amidst the criticisms, participants were keen to acknowledge the good work the library and its staff continually do. One participant requested a third question be added to Mr Moecke’s list: what works well?
But, overwhelmingly, the conversation centred around whether an infrastructural expansion, however desperately needed, is enough to solve the current failings of Alice Springs Town Council’s management of the library.
The Alice Springs News is inviting the Town Council to respond.