Skip to Main Content

Shelter from the storm


Learning how to make lace at a Libraries After Dark craft circle at Preston Library, photo: Paul Jeffers

by Arnold Zable

This is a tale I have heard told many times. There are countless variations, but the central scenario remains the same. It could be family tension. Arguments. Sadness. A family tragedy. A physical disability. A newly arrived immigrant feeling isolated. An international student battling loneliness. A single person, at home, after dark, with nowhere comforting to go, no community.

So, you leave home. You walk or drive to the neighbourhood shopping centre. And you are thinking: ‘Is there a place where there are people, human contact, a place of warmth and human activity?’

Then you see it – the blazing lights, the neon signs: a pokies venue. You are drawn in like a moth to the flame. You are welcomed. Given a cup of tea. Called ‘sir’, ‘madam’. Made to feel special. Treated with respect.

Another set of lights beckons. Before you know it, you are seated in front of a machine. The sound is music to your ears. The images are alluring. The machine is swallowing your coins, but it is also swallowing your loneliness. Time passes fast. The minutes become hours. Deep down, you know it is a set-up. You may win some, but ultimately you will lose. You are drawn back again, night after night. You become addicted.

You are welcomed. Given a cup of tea. Called ‘sir’, ‘madam’.

From the gambling lounge to the community lounge

Libraries After Dark, a project launched in November 2017, provides a very different option.

‘The aim is to encourage a shift from the gambling lounge to the community lounge,’ says Judy Spokes, from Moreland City Council. ‘It is an intervention designed to reduce gambling harm.’

Funded by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation and participating councils, and spearheaded by Moreland City Council, the project, says Judy, ‘is a regional consortium involving four councils in areas of socio-economic disadvantage, dotted with high-loss pokies venues. Areas where there are few accessible evening recreational options.’

Each council has nominated a library as the site of the project. In Moreland, it is Glenroy Library. Joining it are Preston Library in the City of Darebin, Broadmeadows Library in the City of Hume and Mill Park Library in the City of Whittlesea. Each library is open until 10 pm every Thursday.

‘The library is one of a diminishing number of free public spaces that can bring people together,’ says Judy. ‘It is a safe place, but also part of something larger, a place of learning and knowledge.’

‘The library is one of a diminishing number of free public spaces that can bring people together.’ - Judy Spokes

Since the project began, barely six months ago, more than 6000 people have attended the evenings, attracted by a variety of programs: English conversation classes, film screenings, community theatre, live music and workshops on mindfulness, volunteering, photography, art and computer programming. Plus craft circles, games nights and guest speakers. Above all, free tea and coffee, and a welcoming smile.

‘We need to offer an alternative to the pokies venues,’ says Judy. ‘And to create a change in the way people connect. Especially for people who are particularly at risk.’

An evening after dark in Preston

On Thursday 26 April, I attended an ‘after dark’ evening at Preston Library. Outside the library is a Libraries After Dark banner. The glass entrance doors display the library motto: ‘Inspiration. Knowledge. Adventure.’

It is a cool evening. As soon as I step inside, I feel the warmth. The library is lit up, spacious. Carpeted. The staff, welcoming. There are people studying, reading, seated at tables and computers, but the action is taking place in an ample space at the far end of the library.

Tonight’s activity is a film screening. Most of the audience are seated on comfortable sofas. Beside each seat there is a bag of popcorn. On a side table, refreshments and biscuits. The audience ranges in age from men and women in their 20s to elderly pensioners.

The film, Ka-Ching!, is a documentary about gambling.

‘This is actually the first gambling-focused event we have had since the project began,’ says Melanie McCarten, from Darebin City Council.

‘Our approach has been subtle, with emphasis on a range of activities. Our aim is to get people through the door, to discover how awesome the place is, and how safe. Then, through our activities, to help them make different kinds of choices.'

After the screening, there are impromptu discussions. Audience members who have never met break into small groups, or sit chatting with the person beside them. There is a sense of ease and community.

‘We need to offer an alternative to the pokies venues, and to create a change in the way people connect.’ - Judy Spokes

‘The Libraries After Dark project is just one of a broader suite of harm reduction measures the councils are undertaking,’ says Judy. ‘Too many of our residents have experienced harm from pokies gambling. We believe that, ultimately, reforms are required to better protect consumers, but this is part of the solution. It can save lives.’

There is a line from a Bob Dylan song, which replays in my mind throughout my evening at Preston Library. It sums up the ‘after dark’ project at its best. Especially as it is about to enter its first winter: ‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you, shelter from the storm.’

Libraries After Dark is one of 14 projects the Foundation is funding as part of our Prevention Partnership Program 2017–2019, to help prevent and reduce gambling harm in communities across Victoria.