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To Bangkok Conference programme

65th IFLA Council and General

Bangkok, Thailand,
August 20 - August 28, 1999

Code Number: 059-139-E
Division Number: III
Professional Group: Public Libraries
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 139
Simultaneous Interpretation:   Yes

Public library services to rural and remote communities: Malysian and Australian models

Robert Pestell
Public Library Division
State Library of Queensland, West End, Australia


Abu Norma Seman

Faculty of Information Studies
MARA Institute of Technology


This paper gives an outline of the public library services that are provided to communities in rural and remote areas in the Stae of Queensland, Australia, and the strategies that are adopted to diminish the problems of distance.



In this paper I shall outline the public library services that are provided to communities in rural and remote areas in the State of Queensland, Australia, and the strategies that are adopted to diminish the problems of distance.

Australia is comprised of six States and two Territories. It has a population of some 18 million, the majority of whom live within 50 kms. of the coastal fringe. While governed overall by the Federal Government, it has little role in public libraries. It is the State Governments, and the local governments within those States, which provide the 5,500 public library service points, with local governments providing the bulk of funding.

Each State has a different means of providing library services to their populations. In the State of Tasmania the State Library funds and manages the 40 public libraries within the State, with minimal assistance from local government. In the State of New South Wales, all public libraries are managed and funded by local government, with some financial and consultancy support from the State Library. In Victoria all public libraries must undertake a Compulsory Competitive Tendering process, whereby the library staff have had to tender a bid to their local Council to operate their library service. Regional library systems predominate in both these States, and Victoria having the highest density of mobile libraries to serve its rural population. In South Australia the State Library operates a centralised acquisitions system for all libraries, and in the rural areas there is a high level of joint-use libraries, mainly with schools, which does not occur in other States. Queensland is different again.


Queensland has 123 library systems, with a total of 320 public libraries. 40 of the larger local governments operate their own library systems, with the State Library providing 90% of the funding for their book budgets and also various support services, such as specialist advisory and consultancy services, training programmes, community language resources, computer and Internet support, information services and inter-library loans. The other 80 local governments are members of the State Library's Country Lending Service. The Country Lending Service network serves the rural and remote areas of the State, and it is this service, serving Outback communities, on which I wish to concentrate.

Problems of distance

The major problem to overcome in providing library services to remote and rural areas is that of distance. Queensland is some 2,200 kms. (1,300 miles) north to south, and 1,600 kms. (1,000 miles) east to west. It is the dispersion of towns over Outback Queensland and their small populations that create logistical problems in providing library services. The population of Queensland is only 3 million people, of which 2 million live in the south-east corner, and around another half million live in the larger towns that follow the eastern seaboard. The remainder of the population is very dispersed, based in small rural townships scattered throughout the State. Many of the towns are service centres for the rural properties or farms, some of which are 1 million acres or more, while others are railway sidings and mining towns, and over 40 are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. While regional library systems once covered most areas of the State, the relatively high costs associated with maintaining a headquarters, the low rate base in many rural areas, and the logistics of serving dispersed population, all contributed to their demise. The Country Lending Service provides library services to the rural and remote communities, serving a total population of around 300,000 people, 75% of who live in towns that have populations below 5,000 persons, and the remainder below 15,000 population.

In these rural areas, long distances and a limited range of services are an accepted part of life, although more out of necessity rather than choice. With many competing demands for funding, especially for water supply, roads and sewerage, and declining rural populations, the development of libraries requires a constant process of persuasion and advocacy, targeted at the local Council. However, the number of new libraries in rural areas does continue to grow at about 5 a year, as does the use of these libraries, and there is a constant demand for increased resources.

Country Lending Service

The Country Lending Service was established 25 years ago to provide library services to these rural and remote townships. There are now 150 public libraries serving these small communities, located in areas from the tropical islands of the Torres Strait in the north, to bordering on the Simpson Desert in the west, and in the dry wine country of the south.

Static library services are the norm, as the long distances, and the fact that many roads are unsealed, mean that mobile libraries are rarely a viable option. Parcels of books are delivered by mail services to the more isolated homesteads, but our objective is to encourage the establishment of purpose-built libraries. Financial assistance and advice is provided by the State Library to ensure library buildings and facilities meet Public Library Standards. Once a building is provided, and the local government has entered into an agreement to provide a certain level of service, then a wide range of services are available from the State Library.

Equity of Library Service

All library services must be provided to the public free of charge, just as the State Library provides all services free of charge to the local libraries.

The main strength of the Country Lending Service is that the same level of service is provided to residents whether the library be located 100 miles or 1,000 miles from Brisbane, the capital city in which we are based. A service level agreement is entered into by the local Council and the State Library Board of Queensland, which sets out the obligations of each party. Isolation and distance do not affect the level of service provided.

The State Library provides professional support, shelf-ready bookstock, training, and financial subsidies to all libraries. Only 6 of the 150 libraries employ a qualified staff member, although a number employ library technicians, or para-professional staff. Regular training courses are held on all aspects of library management and promotion, both in Brisbane and in regional areas. Every library is visited three times a year, enabling follow-up on training, and the opportunity to solve local problems and liaise with Council members and staff.

Each library is provided with a collection of books, in all genres, according to the size of the population served and the level of use, varying from 2,000 to 25,000 items. The basis of the service is the constant circulation of stock around the libraries. Smaller libraries have their total stock renewed every year, with the largest libraries having a four-year turnover. On any one day, some 5,000 books and other items are circulating around the Country Lending Service libraries, by barge, plane, road transport and rail. Every library is provided with a microfiche catalogue of the million books available in the Country Lending Service stock, and are actively encouraged to submit requests or inter-library loans, which currently run at 120,000 a year. Each library has a small reference collection, which is in the process of being replaced by a collection of titles on Cdrom. Videos, talking books, paperbacks, large print books, music tapes and CDs, games and toys, and now computer software, are provided in each location. Community language books in 60 different languages are also available on request.

Diminishing distance through Technology

Several years ago the State Library developed a stand-alone circulation system that operates on a personal computer, specifically designed for the small Country Lending Service libraries. The software, training and assistance are provided at no cost, and over 100 libraries now use the system. It can also connect via modem and the Internet to the State Library catalogue, with the ability to place on-line requests for books and information. 80% of inter-library loan requests are now received on-line at the Public Libraries Division.

The Internet, of course, is having a significant impact on diminishing the problems of distance. In 1998 over A$2 million was received from the State Government to place a personal computer and peripherals in every main library in the State, in order to facilitate access to the Internet. The number of libraries now with the potential to access the Internet has risen from 40 to 190. Accompanied by this roll-out of hardware was a comprehensive Internet training programme, covering a range of issues, from the basics of choosing an ISP to advanced searching in specialised areas, such as in family history, health and law. Over 500 library staff received training last year. The problem of distance, however, has slowed the uptake of the Internet in the more isolated areas, as only STD access is available, and charges of A$10 an hour are common. The cost of the Internet has led to about half the libraries making a charge for its use. In urban areas, take-up has been rapid, helped by the fact that local telephone calls are not charged by usage time, as in many countries, but by a single connection fee. Satellite communication may be the answer to the isolated libraries' Internet access, and this is being investigated in some States.

Services to Indigenous Peoples

Last year the Public Libraries Division opened an Indigenous Libraries Unit in Far North Queensland. This was initially to provide Internet and multimedia access and training to Indigenous peoples in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Some 40,000 Indigenous peoples live in Queensland, mainly in the Far North, and there are over 40 Indigenous communities. The unqualified success of this project has created a greater awareness of what library services can offer, and has resulted in many of the communities seeking to join the Country Lending Service. The focus of the Indigenous Libraries Unit is now being broadened to encompass this role, and the establishment of these library services is a priority.

The Future

Over the next two years a number of developments will take place which will greatly enhance public library services in rural and remote areas:

  • The computerised country libraries are currently being transferred to a new system which will enable a fully integrated network, with Z39.50 capability, to be developed over the next 12 months.

  • A Statewide deal is being negotiated that will halve the cost of Internet connections to all rural libraries.

  • The range of networked CD and Internet databases available though the State Library will be expanded.

  • Plans to establish Internet connections in all libraries in the State will be progressed.

  • Bookstocks in all rural libraries will be increased, with reference CDs available for both use in the library and for loan.

  • Web design software has been supplied to all libraries, and a comprehensive training programme is underway to teach all library staff the elements of web design.


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