Lit culture for the people

Rhonda Dredge

Where do readers like to congregate – in libraries, cafes, back lanes, the centre of the city or on the margins down near Spencer St where there aren’t many council facilities?

The City Library in Flinders Lane is at the heart of one vibrant literary community that many consider to be peak Melbourne.

Here, pensioners, people with disabilities, hipsters and all manner of readers mingle in a literary culture for the people. 

The City Library had 812,000 visitors last year but many fans of the literary vibe just like to be close to the library and hang out in Journal to discuss the latest issues. 

That culture could be under threat. The lease for the library building is up for renewal in two years and the council is looking to relocate the library to a new more central position on Bourke St.

“We’ve always rented that space,” says Greens councillor Rohan Leppert of the Flinders Lane building. “We’ve never had a city library out of a council-owned space.” 

The council has started discussions with users and, as arts portfolio chair, Cr Leppert spoke with CBD News about options. 

“I would expect council to decide this calendar year,” he said, with the likely new home to be in the historic Commonwealth Bank redevelopment in Bourke St, which the council owns.

Cr Leppert is quite open about his preferences for the library. “I think it’s better at Bourke St. It’s better for city residents. I don’t think we need another library next to the city loop.” 

He also likes the fact that the Bourke St option is at the centre of the Hoddle Grid and equidistant for residents.

An alternative site has been mooted which would keep the library closer to its current position. 

“We’ve had a foot in the door to see if it’s favourable to have the library at CBD South … (what are we calling it this week?) … Town Hall station.”

A major argument for the move is that the City Library needs more space but readers are used to squeezing into tight spaces.

Many congregate in Journal, the café in front of the library, and in the small nearby lanes such as Central Lane. Sometimes a violinist plays gypsy songs as an accompaniment. 

Some readers come in by train, many of them pensioners, and they were accustomed to meet for lunch in Port Phillip Arcade before it was demolished for the Metro Tunnel project.

Cr Leppert, who gets his coffee across the road from the Town Hall at the Switchboard Café in the Manchester Unity building, believes there are enough social spaces in Flinders Lane to maintain the culture. 

“Libraries are changing so quickly,” he said. “There are so many additional functions. There are a number of computers, 3D printers, CD writing developments, film spaces, recording studios, alongside a lending library.”

One possible alternative is 602 Little Bourke St, in the west of the city. “I’m worried about the future of 602 Little Bourke St. It holds our heritage collection. It’s used as storage. It’s big enough for a library.”

At the western end of the Hoddle Grid there are very few community spaces and the population is more transient. “There’s a faster turnover in the west but this won’t always be the case.” 

How should the council respond? Should it centralise the library function or deliver to the margins? Some library staff are believed to favour the Town Hall Station option but does the library really need to move? 

The current location at street level creates a buzz. You can be seen here, dropping in to read the up-to-date collection of lit mags or catching up on the latest novels on display. The computers on the first floor are accessible and the gallery inspiring, shaped like a ship on the high seas. 

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