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The Greek cultural hives in Melbourne's public libraries

Q & A with Jo Vrachnas, the librarian responsible for Coburg Library's extensive Greek collection

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Jo Vrachnas, Coburg library manager. Photo: Supplied

25 January 2018

In the now seemingly distant 70s, before modern technology as we know it entered our lives, the role of public libraries – which provided Greek language books, newspapers, magazines and audiovisual material to their Greek migrant clientele – was undoubtedly invaluable, for obvious reasons. It is understandable that I have more than one reason to want to pay tribute to these humble but precious little 'cultural hives', which have contributed greatly to the lives of so many Greeks in Melbourne and Victoria.

I would like, firstly, to express my gratitude that all these significant public free services have been offered so generously to us in our mother tongue, and indeed on the other side of the world, so far from the homeland.

Secondly, I would like to thank publicly and wholeheartedly all the municipalities in Victoria that, through their respective libraries, have enriched the lives of thousands of Greek migrants and continue to do so through knowledge (books), information (newspapers and magazines), entertainment (films, documentaries, music, video games, English language lessons and more) – especially the lives of the aged, people with disabilities, etc.

Thirdly, I would like to inform the Greek Community about the above services. Because, as odd as it may sound, a large number of Greek-speaking people are hardly aware that all these services exist and are available to them for free!

Fourthly, I really would like to make the Greek Community aware of the present and future of these vital 'cultural hives', especially with the dramatic demographic changes that have taken place in the last years in the Greek Community with its ageing population. The latter will, undoubtedly, decide the survival or disappearance of these 'cultural hives', unless necessary measures are taken.

Just before Christmas, I visited the Coburg Library where I had a very interesting and constructive conversation with an old acquaintance of mine, Jo Vrachnas, the librarian who has been responsible for the library's Greek collection for the last few decades.

I revealed my intention to her that for a long time I wanted to write something on the municipal libraries of Melbourne that housed Greek books. She was delighted and stressed the need to proceed without any delay. The reason being, as she explained, that "the municipal libraries that hosted Greek books could only survive in the future, if interest was shown by the Greek Community".

Here she reflects on her concern and encourages us to visit our local libraries and seek out Greek publications.

Which public libraries in Melbourne and Victoria hold Greek language books?
There are 23 library services that do, and they are: Bayside Library Service (551) Boroondara Library Service (2,106), Brimbank Libraries (1,500), Darebin Libraries (4,647), Frankston City Libraries (24), Geelong Regional Libraries (32), Glen Eira Library Service (497), Goulburn Valley Libraries (25), Greater Dandenong Libraries (846), Hobsons Bay Libraries (1,471), Hume Libraries (638), Kingston Libraries (1,528), Maribyrnong Library Service (1,749), Monash Public Library Service (5,320), Moonee Valley Library Service (1,717), Moreland City Libraries (6,544), Port Philip Library Service (710), Stonnington Library and Information Service (1,657), Vision Australia Information Library Service (4), Whitehorse Manningham Libraries (1,754), Wimmera Regional Library Corporation (5), Yarra Libraries (1,069), and Yarra Plenty Regional Library (4,762).

Which languages are the most popular in our libraries?
Italian has the highest loan statistics followed by Greek, but both are ageing populations.

How long have the City of Moreland libraries held Greek books?
Moreland have held Greek items for around 30 years.

What is the response of Greek readers – today and in the past?
There are a good number of regular readers but there are a lot of people who are still unaware of what the library offers i.e. books, DVDs, CDs, magazines for adult and children and the fact that it is FREE. We also offer a monthly Greek Storytime, and we have a conversation club where people can practise their English.

Do people borrow more Greek books or DVDs?
All categories are popular.

Which genres do Greek readers prefer?
Romance, historical fiction, crime novels and history, biographies, cookery and health are all popular. Gossip magazines are very popular too.

Who decides what and how many Greek titles to buy for the library each year?
I have been the main person responsible for the purchase of Greek items. A profile is sent to the bookseller in Greece with genres, titles, authors, and suggestions and requests from the public. I may find new titles online to add to the profile. Also, a seller comes annually from Sydney and I can select from what is available. The majority of items are recently published.

Have you experienced a funding cut in the purchase of Greek books recently or in the past?
The budget for the Greek collection is generous and has not been cut in recent years.

Is the budget the same for all languages?
The budget varies from language to language, based on a number of factors, including demographic data and borrowing statistics.

What is the age group of Greek readers borrowing Greek books?
Greek borrowers are definitely in the older age group. We would definitely like to encourage younger Greek readers or schools teaching Greek to use our resources. We have a very good collection of children's books, including primary level readers.

Regarding the borrowing frequency of Greek books, how satisfied are you?
In regards to borrowing frequency, turnover figures and statistics, we are always looking to improve. Promotion is very important but we don't always have the time for this aspect. I think we could greatly improve the loans if we had a higher profile and the community was better informed about what is available and how easy it is to borrow.

What do you think can be done to increase the interest of Greeks in reading and borrowing Greek books?
We need to inform the community, through a variety of means, of the wide variety of items available for borrowing and the fact that it is a free service.

What have you done and continue to do to promote Greek books in the Moreland City Libraries, and how successful has it been?
Because of time constraints we have not done a great deal to promote the collections outside the library. Because of the ageing Greek population, I think that promotion is going to be even more important in the future – perhaps through schools, radio, and community groups.

How do you see the future in having Greek books in your library and other public libraries?
As the majority of our borrowers are over 60, I do worry about what will happen in the future if we don't attract younger patrons. We have started to buy films which have been shown in recent Greek film festivals, and we purchase current recording artists every year to add to our music collection. We also deliver to borrowers in Moreland who are housebound or in aged care and don't have anyone to pick books up for them.

What would you like to say, ask or recommend to the Greek readers of Melbourne and Australia in general?
There are very few Greek bookshops now in Australia, which means that public library collections are a particularly important resource, but will only be retained in the long term if they are used. Even if your local library does not have a collection in Greek and you are unable to travel, they can still get Greek books for you from another library or region. This means that you can still pick up and return the items to your local library.

Greek Storytime is a free library activity for preschool children held at 10.30 am on the last Wednesday of each month at Coburg Library (Cnr Victoria and Louisa Sts, Coburg, VIC.) Find out more about the City of Moreland libraries at moreland.vic.gov.au/libraries

* Dr John Vasilakakos is a Melbourne-based Greek Australian academic and acclaimed writer. His latest book is titled 'Unchartered Waters: Critical Studies in Modern Greek Literature' (Herodotos Publishing, Athens 2018).

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Comments

Great Work Jo, I regularly take my daughter to the Greek Story Time that is held at the Doncaster library. The only thing is I wish it was held more frequently, but understandably it is a volunteer that run the workshop. I definitely agree with Jo that the council or library's need access to at least a budget to advertise new books/dvds etc coming in to the library and the fact that it is free.If that is done i believe I'm sure it will increase the borrowing of alot of these resources,

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