Posted by: bluesyemre | September 27, 2022

Pop-Up Libraries Are Helping Melbourne Move on From Lockdowns

A pop-up library in Melbourne.Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Australia’s cultural capital is trying different ways to lure workers and visitors back downtown following one of the world’s toughest lockdowns. 

Melbourne, one of the world’s most locked-down cities during the pandemic, is rejuvenating its center and healing its jaded residents — one page at a time. 

Small pop-up libraries have taken over abandoned shops in areas that were aching for some love following the crippling impact of six lockdowns over 19 months. Where a mens’ retailer once stood in the boutique clothing and cafe mecca of Little Collins Street, changing rooms have been transformed into cozy mirrored reading booths.

“I used to work in the building next door and this was a normal clothes shop. So to walk past and see a pop-up library is wonderful,” said 63-year-old Lynda Fife, on her first visit to the venue. “If you want your downtown city center to have a beating heart, certainly it’s really useful to have things like this,” said Fife, who’s currently reading the novel “Animal” by Lisa Taddeo.

The lure of literature is one of the city council’s more creative solutions in bringing residents and visitors back into its center, which has lagged east-coast rivals Sydney and Brisbane in the return of daytime workers even as its nightlife and weekend crowds roar back to life. Melbourne’s work-from-home recommendation was only lifted on Sept. 1, compared with the repeal of Sydney’s in February, while the city’s relatively cooler winter has also deterred people from commuting. 

The legacy of the lockdowns now lingers among Melbourne’s eclectic laneways and tram-lined avenues, with scattered “for lease” signs a reminder that many businesses just didn’t make it back. For the Lord Mayor of Melbourne — a title bestowed on elected mayors of some Commonwealth cities — and self-described “mad book person” Sally Capp, the special dynamics of inner-city libraries were an obvious cure for the social wounds inflicted by Covid. 

“To encourage people to come together to create that sense of community and to connect again, is something that’s absolutely central to our libraries,” said Capp. Her current read is “Don’t Look Away: A Memoir of Identity and Acceptance” by former Australian rules footballer Danielle Laidley. 

Sally CappPhotographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

While the success of the library project — about 40,000 people have visited them since the program’s launch at the end of last year — isn’t solely enough to revive the center, the council is betting that it’s a sign of a comeback. With the weather warming up and work-from-home advice lifted, Capp expects only an upward trend in daytime foot traffic in the central business district, home to much of the country’s A$3.3 trillion ($2.2 trillion) pensions industry.

To the north of the city center, the covered veranda of an old dumpling restaurant is now a daytime sanctuary for bookworms, laptop users and chess players. Inside the converted eatery, there’s a book display designed to enchant food lovers from nearby Queen Victoria Market, who are welcome to bring along their food. They can even sign up for a Saturday cooking class following a guided tour of the market to collect ingredients.

“It’s a good idea from a user point of view but probably quite an expensive set-up,” said Peter Michael, 64, who was visiting the Elizabeth Street venue for the second time. “Whether it’s a prudent use of ratepayers’ funds, who knows?” he said, while reading a copy of “The Mind-Gut Connection” by Emeran Mayer.

The budget for the pop-up library program is A$2 million, according to a spokesperson for the council, part of a A$200 million revitalization fund for the city that’s also showered discounts on restaurant diners, funded alfresco set-ups and paid for floating art installations on the Yarra river. 

Among six pop-up venues is a children’s library at Federation Square, a major arts and culture venue, which offers story time for pre-schoolers. There’s also a co-working space called Micro-Labs, located in a former Covid-testing center in the Bourke Street shopping precinct, offering services such as free digital literacy workshops for women over 50 and a late-night study space for students. The council has even included a mobile library that tours the city in a colorful van.

“It’s really about an inclusive economy,” said Jamal Hakim, the City of Melbourne councillor who helps oversee the program. “We’ve seen cities that have just lost that, and people have had to go out to the fringes. And I think we’ve got a chance in Melbourne to create a better Melbourne.” Hakim is currently reading “How To Lose Friends and Influence White People” by Australian journalist Antoinette Lattouf.

Capp, who has held senior roles at both KPMG LLP and Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd., is also cognizant that the workplace has changed, perhaps forever. She is aware that the discussions around work are more nuanced than ever before, and that it’s going to take more than books to bring everyone back.

“The CBD of Melbourne remains the biggest talent pool, the biggest attraction of investment and the biggest place for opportunities,” said Capp. “From our perspective, we still have those credentials — but it’s now about growing those credentials into that new rhythm and getting there as quickly as possible.”

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