For everyone Off the beaten track

Mobile library and art vans have been travelling to rural and regional primary schools for decades now, bringing cultural experiences to Victorian communities that would otherwise struggle to access them.

Jocelyn Russell spent the school holidays sticking Australian flags to the spines of books. “I like to feature Australian authors.” 

Jocelyn, who holds a Bachelor of Librarianship and is president of the MARC/MACC AEU sub-branch, has been a Mobile Area Resource Centre (MARC) teacher for almost 14 years. In her van, she travels to eight schools a week. At many of the smaller schools (some with fewer than 20 students) she will take the entire school for a lesson together; at larger schools, she will run lessons one grade at a time. 

Jocelyn has one main aim: “We’re there to instil a love of books.” MARC teachers also provide support to school staff. “Teachers will ask me: ‘What author do you think I should do this term?’” And, as a bonus, MARC/MACC teachers provide some welcome pupil-free time for teachers at the schools they visit, some of which only have a handful of staff members. 

Jocelyn posesses the librarian’s gift – the ability to choose the perfect book for the reader. She loves children’s literature so much she says she no longer reads adult books. “I read books that I get for the van and as I read it I will go, ‘Ah, I need to recommend it to this kid, this kid, this kid and this kid’,” Jocelyn says. “It’s about knowing books and getting kids to love reading.” 

Briley Stokes, AEU vice president for the primary sector, spent her childhood with a mobile library parked out the front of the family home. It had the quintessential 80s slogan ‘Reading Be in It’ painted on the side. Briley’s mother was a mobile librarian who travelled to small primary schools in rural and remote parts of Victoria. 

Briley laughs recalling how back in the day, when it was rumoured that the education department was threatening to defund the program, the librarians plotted to drive a convoy of book-mobiles to Parliament House to protest. 

These days, Briley advocates on behalf of mobile librarians and art teachers. Her childhood connection has gifted her an intimate understanding of the challenges faced by the educators working in the program. 

According to the recent census, there are 17 towns in Victoria with a population fewer than 200. Victoria’s smallest primary school, Yaapeet Primary, has just six students. School children and educators in rural and remote areas face unique challenges. Resources are limited – small schools often do not have a library or an art room, and public libraries and galleries aren’t easily accessible. 

Clockwise: Jo Briscomb’s mobile art class; MARC/MACC teacher Anthony Latham celebrates Book Day with students; A 1980s/early-90s MARC van. (Image: Peter Hinchcliffe, librarian for the Great Western district from 1991 to 2012.) Nicholas Wright’s MARC/MACC van, which services schools in alpine districts such as Falls Creek.

In 1974, the MARC/MACC program was introduced to provide small and regional schools with access to books and educational resources. Mobile Area Resource Centre (MARC) vans provide literacy-based programs, and Mobile Art and Craft Centre (MACC) vans provide art teaching and supplies. There are around 40 MARC/MACC teachers currently employed in Victoria.

The MARC/MACC program is targeted at schools with fewer than 100 primary-level students. ‘Base schools’ receive funding from the Victorian Department of Education through the Student Resource Package (SRP) and employ a MARC/MACC teacher. Base school principals are responsible for MARC/MACC teachers. ‘Serviced schools’ are those to which the teacher travels. 2017’s MARC/MACC Operating Guidelines (which Briley Stokes helped to formulate in conjunction with the education department) recommended that serviced schools are located within 100km of a base school.

In the 90s, Jo Briscomb taught drawing and painting at the Victorian College of the Arts and children’s art classes at the National Gallery of Victoria. After moving to the country, she worked in galleries but was drawn to the MACC program and the practice of “bringing art to kids who otherwise wouldn’t get any”.

Jo describes her job as making art “accessible to kids who don’t have a gallery down the road that they can just have a look at”. She has been a MACC teacher since 2007 and visits ten schools every fortnight. “I think it’s very important that children have visual learning and learn how to express themselves,” she says. “Education tends to get very focused on literacy and numeracy and not the whole child. Visual arts education is absolutely vital to students.”

MACC teachers work with a wide range of art forms and techniques, including textiles, printmaking, drawing, painting, photography, sculpting and pottery. “Country kids love ceramics,” Jo says.

Jo shows her students that art is a part of their lives. “I spend a term focusing on one particular artist every year. We’ve covered Van Gogh. Leonardo Da Vinci. This year is Frida Kahlo. All the kids learn about that artist. Then they have this knowledge; the kids have a familiarity with what’s inside the gallery, even though they can’t get to one.”

COVID has proved challenging – the vans were grounded early on amid concerns that they risked spreading the virus, but MARC/MACC teachers are an adaptable breed. Jo says, “I spent ten days putting together 300 visual diaries. I made a visual diary for every student in my run.” COVID also improved the cross-fertilisation of ideas among the MARC/MACC teachers via a Webex group.

A few years ago, the MARC/MACC program was approached by the CFA and Ambulance Victoria and each van received fire and first aid education kits. “We can help teach kids about fire safety and what to do in an emergency,” Jocelyn says. One of the schools she visits is in Chewton, a town living under threat of bushfire in Northwest Victoria. Her mobile library relocates to the nearby town of Castlemaine on extreme fire days.

MARC/MACC teachers are prepared for the unexpected. Bushfires. Galahs flying into windscreens. Extreme weather events. Jess Parker, a MACC teacher, nearly ran out of fuel in a remote area. Luckily, a local dairy farmer took pity on her and provided diesel. The mobile libraries and art vans foster culture and community spirit in the schools and communities which they serve. “We really try to strongly link to community. I just love the connection with the kids. Everyone’s so keen to participate,” Jess says.

The arrival of the vans every fortnight is an eagerly awaited event for the school children, any one of whom – who knows – may be Australia’s next Bruce Pascoe or Stella Bowen.

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