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Barbarians at the library door

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O'Donovan Collection Library, Parliament of Queensland, 2010 (Image by David Jackmanson / Flickr)

Libraries are being transformed or closed through government and private cost-cutting measures, driven by a contempt for learning and an emphasis on profit, writes Dr Evan Jones.

BRITISH STATESMAN Herbert Samuel wrote that 'A library is thought in cold storage'.

In 2003, an experience at the annual book fair at the University of Sydney led me to pen an article on the dismantling of libraries.

I sent it to the Sydney Morning Herald and received promising noises from the then opinion page editor. Yet, on the day that I expected the piece to be run, there appeared instead, a rave by a hack reactionary whose status had been manufactured courtesy of both the Murdoch and the then Fairfax media. The editor, self-styled fashionably progressive, is still represented in the paper's pages and to whom I attribute a certain charlatanry.

It may be that my dismissive reference to Fred Hilmer, then Fairfax CEO (a disastrous era), rendered it unpublishable. 15 years later, unhappily, the piece retains its relevance. It is reproduced below, after which attention to more recent happenings highlights the ongoing malaise facing the cherished institution of the library.

Better dead than read: The disappearing libraries

Recently I bustled along to the much-loved University of Sydney annual book fair. There was an unprecedented collection of books on insurance weighing down the tables. What’s this then, the death of an academic insurance specialist? I thought.

It turned out to be the death of the AMP library. An irreplaceable collection, traversing the history and complexity of the insurance game, was being spread to the four winds. I suspect that most of the collection was heading for the tip (or possibly to Bob Gould's Newtown depository, never to be found again).

One AMP cast-off now on my shelves is a 1984 volume, The Global Debt Crisis, by an impeccably credentialed author. A card with the names of the last staff borrowers was still in the inside envelope, an archaeological fragment uncovering practices now viewed as arcane.

Also on offer were multiple copies of the seminal 1981 Campbell Reportthat ushered-in the sweeping deregulation of the financial sector.

Current finance sector employees could profitably read a history or two of past financial crises and refresh their memory of the ideological claptrap in the Campbell report that promised a utopian future. But the finance whiz kids have had their heads filled at university with rigorous expositions of the "efficient markets hypothesis". No dusty old history lesson is going to dislodge their attachment to the faith that underpins their hubris and their hefty salaries.

Second-hand bookshop habitués note the lineage of their objects of desire. Institutional libraries are being dismantled at a fearful rate, so the demutualised AMP is merely following best practice procedures.

The AMP’s insurance collection could have been offered as a job lot to the FAI Insurances and HIH Insurance but too late. Reading is now out of favour among those who run our key institutions. There will be no reading on the big picture, by order of management. Better dead than well-read.

The Commonwealth Bank dismantled its library in 1999 — a product of then CEO David Murray’s deep concern for the opportunity cost of the floor space at Martin Place. Business Australia (formerly the NSW Business Chamber), a venerable industry lobby, has “downsized” its library considerably — in the process changing its name to the “Knowledge Centre”. They probably hired a consultant to come up with that harbinger of impending cutbacks. When did a librarian ever perform well on a managerialist’s conception of key performance indicators?

The NSW Department of Family and Community Services has confirmed the trend. For a period, the department offered its staff a service for required journal material from the State Library. That service has now been cut and the department's staff acquires material on its own time or perhaps not at all.

The Bank of New South Wales (the diminished Westpac’s predecessor) had a considerable library. But then the bank also had intellectuals on its staff. The intellectuals have gone to heaven and the library is in myriad private collections of irrelevant eccentrics whose views are of no consequence.

At the turn of the 20th Century, great debates raged globally in which Australians were active participants. Revolution, reaction, conservative and liberal reform fought it out in practice and on the printed page.

These debates were housed in institutional libraries of a great sweep, judging by the gems that have filtered downwards. Such were the Queensland Parliamentary Library and the NSW Department of Public Works. These libraries were consolidated during an era of nation-building; of developmentalism. Governments acquired new responsibilities pragmatically to prevent societies from tearing themselves apart from economic crises and the social divide. The literature reflected the trends.

The literature of this period would be invaluable for those overseeing the radical deconstruction of our own social fabric. The testaments of the age – the aforementioned Campbell Report, the 1993 Hilmer Report on National Competition Policy, the 1996 Commission of Audit for the incoming Howard Government and more – reflect a profound ignorance of the past. University-educated authors to a man, but furthering a rising phenomenon of educated ignorance.

Chicken and the egg. The professional faculties of universities are churning out people who don’t know how to read — don’t want to read. In this dialectic, libraries become ill-used anachronisms. The NSW Parliamentary Library has been secretly flogging off precious antiquities to raise a buck.

The age of managerialism and dogmatic microeconomic reform is a barbaric age. We mourn the loss of the Library of Alexandria. Well, we might mourn the carnage presently being inflicted on our own intellectual heritage.

These days, the rot continues apace

The 2007 global financial crisis (GFC) and following events exerted a significant indirect effect. Many U.S. municipalities had previously been seduced into putting precious funds into toxic securities. Come the GFC, the municipalities found themselves with substantial losses and in debt. Local public libraries across the country found themselves as expendable items in the straitened budget.

In the UK, Tory governments, enhancing central control over municipal budgets, have similarly seen public libraries as expendable.

Many people have risen to the defence of libraries in each country, perennially with limited success.

In the U.S. in 2011, poet Charles Simic notes that library cutbacks and closures are a pan-American phenomenon, putting at risk the rich cultural significance of the library.

Frederick Wiseman has recently produced a long-winded celebration – of the Ex Libris: The New York Public Library – shown at the 2018 Sydney Film Festival but, regrettably, its two sessions immediately sold out, so some missed the opportunity. But beyond the glitz at the top of the chain, things in New York are as bad as elsewhere.

A 2013 article by library-frequenting researcher Nathan Tankus, highlights that it’s not merely about budget cutting but about vested interests (real estate). By 2015, closure of New York libraries and sell-off of properties for real estate development was becoming a regular practice. In context, Wiseman’s much-publicised documentary camouflages the carnage in the vicinity and beyond.

In Britain, on 12 March 2012, a huge entourage of library users converged on Westminster to press the then Cameron-Clegg Coalition Government to alter course on library cutbacks.

An accompanying letter from multiple signatories in that day’s Guardian claimed:

‘At a time when 23 per cent of households do not have an internet connection and one child in three does not own a book, this open and accessible public service at the heart of our communities is a more valuable and relevant resource than ever, yet many of our libraries are under threat. A toxic cocktail of closures and cuts to staffing, opening hours and book funds has left our library service in crisis and, despite the government's responsibility to oversee the library service, its only response to the cuts has been a deafening silence.'

Playwright and author Alan Bennett penned a love letter in the London Review of Books, to the libraries that played such an important role in his intellectual, literary and social development. The long-winded article might appeal only to library aficionados, but impatient readers could skip to the end where Bennett highlights that the Tories have had it in for public libraries for yonks. Providing the ideological cover are the heavies from the British libertarian Adam Smith Institute (the historical Adam Smith would be turning in his grave) who opine that privatisation is the way to go.

Libraries figure regularly in Bennett’s creations, including the charming 2007 novella An Uncommon Reader. In the book, Her Maj, normally preoccupied with horses and corgis and opening flower shows, is compelled to engage with a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace. She strikes up an ongoing relationship with the young lad who is from the other side of the tracks. Her subsequent addiction to reading and learning displaces her Queenly responsibilities as rather irksome. A good read for all the family!

The recent Australian scene

Residents of small-town Victoria are representative — this one from late 2012. Cuts to the Alexandra Library were met by protests, bringing together the appreciative users who were otherwise seemingly invisible and who some claimed were non-existent.

One spokesperson, in a familiar defence that arises wherever and whenever libraries are threatened, said:

‘This is about a community hub that is a source of wellbeing, it is about culture, it is about social capital, it is about so much more than a building with books on in it.'

In July 2012, Sydney Morning Herald columnist, Elizabeth Farrelly, exposed the then Coalition Government’s closure of the Sydney reading room of the NSW State Archives. Not a library but a close relation; a repository of the past. Archives are even more significant because their materials are unique and irreplaceable. The attacks on archives and libraries are driven by the same ignorant barbarians — it would be too simple to call them bean-counters as a more malevolent motivation is in place.

The now hackneyed line of the library’s enemies is that the age of digitalisation has rendered the conventional library structure and resources as old hat as the horse and buggy. Libraries have readily adjusted, to varying degrees, in the provision of digital resources. But publicly-funded library access to digital resources confronts the monopolising and price-gouging tendencies of digital-age giants — a racket that traditional book publishers could only dream of.

Along comes 2015 and the NSW library system is in crisis. It turns out that NSW State governments on a bipartisan basis have been starving the system for at least 20 years. Then available figures highlighted that the State contribution to public libraries was the lowest of any state or territory. The NSW Public Libraries Association was kicking up a fuss, but the then Baird Government (surprise!) was not listening, breaking a pre-election promise of higher funding.

Also in 2015 also, NSW municipal libraries were facing the unknown associated with Premier Mike Baird’s brutally enforced council amalgamations — with the intent of facilitating developer imperatives.

Notes the Sydney Morning Herald journalist Anne Davies:

‘It is a common theme among the anti-amalgamation councils: Libraries are not just repositories of books; they are community hubs that have evolved to meet the particular needs of their residents.

Holroyd (adjacent to Parramatta) was particularly highlighted, with more than 43 per cent of its population born overseas and the then council providing special services for this clientele.

Here is a case of smaller-scale, locally-focused as opposed to large-scale, centralised, top-down structures. Holroyd was broken up and absorbed in neighbouring agglomerations in 2016. It is not known what has happened to the Holroyd library system’s special services or other library services affected by council amalgamation.

In 2018, the NSW State Library, under its current director John Vallance, appears to be moving in a progressive direction. Vallance organised the means by which its huge collection of artefacts, conventionally hidden in the vaults, can be more accessible to the public. This development was in contrast with the prospect, four years previously, that the magnificent edifice and the nature of its usage were to be refashioned to go with the new age flow, exemplified by the precedent of the University of Sydney's large-scale cleanout of Fisher Library books in 2011. Large-scale dissent from the literati headed that move off at the pass.

But developments at the State Library are an exception. Elsewhere the attacks, the cuts and the absurd defences continue.

The atmosphere is captured in a letter to The Saturday Paper, 10 February 2018:

Over two decades, right across the Commonwealth and state public services, senior executives in the mindless grip of the digital delusion have abolished the positions of records managers and librarians, and disposed of their incumbents as surplus to requirements. … Ironic, too, that the ABC is currently culling its libraries and sound archives and disposing of its librarians.

Yet further cutbacks in public library funding have been delivered by the barbarian Berejiklian Government, noted in July 2018, with the NSW library system at crisis point, the malaise ongoing since it was highlighted in 2015. Sydney Morning Herald readers expressed their disgust in the letters pages on 2 August.

Out of the blue, the Berejiklian Government has announced a $60 million-spend for NSW libraries. The backflip from long-term indifference – announced in Wagga before a by-election – is transparently cynically driven. However, the decision is a testimony to the pressure exerted by library lovers.

The keepers of the books in the early days had to weather the ravages of heathen and opportunist plunderers, as outlined in the early chapters of Stuart Kells’ 2017 book The Library: a Catalogue of Wonders. Thus by the keepers’ fortitude, we have been privy to the genius of the classical era and the devotions and speculations of the medieval era. The printing press had rendered access more democratic but the current marauders want to do worse than turn back the clock. They want the masses force-fed, by denying alternatives, on the trivia mandated by commercial media.

Library dismantling

It is salutary that the company behind the library-dismantling decision that triggered my 2003 polemic – AMP – should be now in the limelight. The AMP demutualised in 1998 and the dismantling of its library was entirely commensurate with the imperatives of its new commercialised mentality. Knowledge, hindsight and the closely associated foresight were to be jettisoned for glitz, chutzpah, bloated executive remuneration and, ultimately, straight out fraud against clients.

Another library closure of note was that of my branch library at Sydney University (I can’t remember the year). The Wolstenholme Library in the Merewether Building was summarily dismantled by the "bizoids" in control of the then faculty of economics and commerce. The economics faculty had given birth to a child called "commerce" which ultimately consumed its obliging parent.

Many academics of scholarly persuasion were housed in the commerce wing, but the faction that then ran the show was of the opinion that Wolstenholme was entirely dispensable and was taking up valuable space. Behind the move was the reality that business students don’t read. The reading kits enclosed the requisite exposure of correct ideas and no independent inquiry was deemed necessary.

Those in authority didn’t bother to ask if any fledgeling university campuses were interested in the Wolstenholme collection as a job lot. By default, interested faculty academics syphoned off what they could and the rest disappeared into the ether.

My own considerable book collection houses a great many leftovers from libraries institutional and private, not least, many from Wolstenholme days — most long out of print and irreplaceable.

It also includes books with an ABC library imprint, highlighting that the current purge at the ABC has not been the first. The rash of fake news infesting ABC news bulletins and other programs may be partly a product of this contempt for the wisdom of past experts and analysts.

Thus libraries have suffered from multiple antagonists. There are the cost-cutters in both governments and the private sector, driven by perverse priorities and by a contempt for learning and the means to personal development. There are the profit-makers (the digital giants and the would-be contractors seeking to manage public and community services) who want to take over or transform the library space and its character on terms dictated by private profit.

In the process, the librarian profession is diminished, de-skilled and marginalised. Library users are told what is best for them, which may involve no library at all. Just get online and at your own expense. And shut up.

Those seeking a diversion from this heathen age might spend a profitable 20 minutes watching French filmmaker Alain Resnais’ 1957 Toute la Mémoire du Monde — a documentary on the French Bibliothèque Nationale. It is a testament to the public spirit that generated such a magnificent edifice and a minor creative masterpiece in its own right.

Ah, the irony: this celebration of past verities is readily delivered to a broad audience by a digital age corporate giant. But the moral is that such technology must complement inherited structures and not replace and destroy them.

Dr Evan Jones is a retired political economist.

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