Save Mitchell Library from the barbarians at the gate

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Through savage budget cuts, the NSW Government has put the repository of much of Australia’s history since colonisation ‒ the Mitchell Library ‒ under threat. Historian David Lewis comments.

THE MITCHELL LIBRARY is, as Dr Alex Byrne, State Librarian of New South Wales stated here, much loved by the staff and public of NSW. This is because of its role in the development of NSW and Australian knowledge.

Under a senseless and swingeing policy, the NSW Government has brought in massive cuts across nearly every section of the public service.

Like most professional researchers (I am an historian, political scientist and musicologist by training and profession), I have relied on the Mitchell Library many times.

I am always struck by the dedication, professionalism and knowledge of the staff — always augmented by enthusiasm and passion.

Its users are appreciative and just as committed to the preservation and expansion of the Library.  There are users who are in every day, but also those who’ve only visited once. Those who use the collection marvel at its breadth, at its rare gems, the hope that they’ll find that one piece of information that concludes the research, or find that the treasure trove that opens up whole new vistas of knowledge.

The Library funding has been cut — drastically. Seventeen front line staff from the Access and Information Branch have taken ‘voluntary’ redundancies. 

‘Voluntary’, because the option for many of them was to re-apply for their jobs, and the humiliation of sitting for an interview for their own job, coupled with a lack of formal qualifications (as if 30 years experience, in some cases, was not an appropriate qualification) saw them take the cash, and, if not run, then stagger, grief-ridden and numbed, out to an underfunded early retirement.

I know this, because staff members have told me so. Staff who remain are concerned for their jobs and their future career prospects. But morale is such that the staff doesn’t wish to rock the boat and fear, however irrationally, professional vengeance. It’s worth noting that some of the staff to go were union representatives.

At a staff meeting held just before Christmas, Dr Byrne claimed that the library might open for more events — events he claimed had a “synergy” with the Library. Synergy wasn’t defined, though.

Was it just Australian cultural events? Maybe some more lectures? Maybe some important Australian composers? Or can synergy be achieved through a sizeable ‘donation’ to the Library?

The FAQ at the State Library addresses this. No definite answer is given. Other questions get a bald ‘no’ or ‘yes’ with an explanation: this is to be commended. But will we see an expansion in weddings? Inappropriate concerts (overseas acts, for example)? Twenty-firsts? School reunions?

While we’re on meaningless jargon, these cuts are also meant to “revitalise” the Library? Again, the staff is unhappy, and the fear and dread emanating is not ‘revitalising’ — at least not in the way I and everyone else understands it.

Since 1988, the Mitchell Library has been housed in a magnificent sandstone building on Macquarie Street. Another awful word ‒ ‘consolidation’ ‒ is being used.

Guarantees have been made about the maintenance of the collection — another commendable move. Access to the main room has been cut off, with management preferring to let people use it for free wireless internet (wifi) access.

Library staff tells me the access isn’t being used for enhancing research, but for Candy Crush, Facebook and other such activities. There is, of course, not much wrong with those who can’t afford it using library wifi: but it seems that the dwindling numbers using the library are using it to suck wifi, rather than fill a necessary social need. Free wifi can be found in Westfield, McDonalds, the CBD and on buses, just to name a few places.

On the website, the Mitchell is described as a ‘mall’ for ideas.

I suppose it is an awkward attempt to seem ‘relevant’ to a demographic who will treat with contempt any false approach. A mall is a commercial space — a place to conduct the business of retail. Are they suggesting selling information? Or is it an attempt to make the Mitchell yet another soulless commercial space in the CBD.

The redesign has seen the Mitchell relegated to a “not very nice” (not my words, but I certainly agree) room, which the users aren’t terribly impressed with. They all cram on to the verandah and, if politely asked to move to the ‘study area’, soon migrate back to the verandah.

One of the joys of working in the reading room was the atmosphere — that here, almost alone in Sydney (and Australia and the world, if we’re really honest), is a great repository of knowledge. The old reading room conveyed this, magnificently.

Now, it seems, it’s to be for web surfers.

Opening on Sundays is a potentially great idea — but not if the only staff present is a security guard.

What seems to be the problem is that the people who came up with these ideas seem don’t seem to know what the Mitchell was for.

None of the organisations ‒ such as the Professional Historians Associations; the Royal Australian Historical Society; the History Council of New South Wales; the Society of Australian Genealogists; or any of the scientific, literary and philosophical groups which use the library, whose work and whose members and staff need a working central library ‒ were consulted.

Some have their own library, which complements the Mitchell in a small way. But their own libraries are not enough. So why not ask them? Is this because their answers were already thought to be known and their input was not desired because of a wider political agenda of a butchering 20 per cent cut across the board?

This is the work of a government whose level of sophistry, shortsightedness and pettiness rivals that of their predecessors. Given that the insurers have valued the library collection at $1.4 billion – a vast undervalue, as we all know, but in this litigious  and shallow materialistic age, as fair as will be achieved – the library is really the jewel in the crown of NSW — more valuable than the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.

We’re stripping it out of the crown, and diluting it for what? Interest payments for the Olympics?  Further Privatisation? Mining contracts?

Libraries need modernising and reorganising from time to time – no-one who knows how libraries work doubts this. But changing the fundamental raison d’etre of a library without thorough community consultation is essentially cultural vandalism. Is this the legacy the O’Farrell government wants? It is the one it has.

The barbarians are not at the gate — they are within, and they are destroying our culture. They must be stopped.

The author wishes to publicly thank those people who he approached and who were forthcoming with information and impressions, but whom he can never name for fear of reprisals. He also declares he has worked for and with some of the organisations mentioned throughout the articles.

Sign an online petition to save the Mitchell Library here. You can follow David Lewis on Twitter @dlachlan.

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