Librarians are NOT ditching books nor destroying libraries !

Recently there has been an emotional  debate in Australia about changes to the Mitchell Library  which is part of the State Library of NSW  in Sydney.   In the Sydney Morning Herald, 10/2/2014, Susan Wyndham reported that leading authors were ”deeply concerned by what is happening at the State Library of NSW – especially the conversion of the Mitchell Reading Room”  and that a petition was initiated by David Malouf and Evelyn Juers.   The same day Juers elaborated  in a post to the ABC’s website The Drum ( and complained that her “shrine of learning and discovery” where she formerly consulted the Oxford English Dictionary, “our magnificent Mitchell Reading Room is to be opened to the public”! “Books are in crisis. Who needs them these days? “ Juers wrote and went on to  claim that Canadian libraries are dumping books,  and that New Yorkers saved the NY Public Library from “destruction”.

Sadly it seems that some library users , including even eminent authors, feel  threatened by  changes  that libraries can now embrace as a result of modern computer and communications technologies. These changes do not necessarily threaten libraries – they can however make libraries  more widely accessible to more citizens of all ages and help to preserve valuable collections.

The Mitchell Library houses the State Library of NSW’s  important Australiana collection.  It is  disappointing to read comments from eminent authors  and others who seem unaware of the  challenges the State Library is meeting, despite the financial constraints many Australian government agencies face in 2014. Why would a small group of authors without questioning, accept the free services from this grand old institution, but still demand to be consulted  on changes without first checking the facts?

If any of the critics had gone to the State Library website and read the latest Annual Report – freely available as most State Library services are – they would have gained a better understanding of the huge responsibilities the State Library has, and its brilliant strategic priorities which include:

  • To be a major attraction for Sydneysiders, NSW residents and tourists onsite and online.
    • It is a fact in 2012-3 there were 790,266 on site visits and 4,288,234 online visits
  • To aim to have staff who are engaged, high performing and highly regarded and to provide training, opportunity and recognition to staff
  • To maintain and develop client driven and rich collections which document history, culture and society in all formats to be used onsite, online or on tour to regional and other libraries.
    • It is a fact in 2012-3 82.4% of the collection budget was spent on hard copy books, journals, and other materials including photographs or maps.
    • It is a fact in 2013-14 5400 of the extremely important and valuable early Australian books bequeathed to the Mitchell Library in 1907 by David Scott Mitchell will be digitised and accessible to anyone across the state with a computer and preserved indefinitely.
    • It is a fact “Last year the Library added 8,433 books to the Mitchell collections, as well as 290 metres of manuscripts, 196,000 photographic negatives and 24,187 prints and drawings”.
    • It is a fact the State Library has to find an additional 2 kilometres of shelving every year for its collections adding to the 138 kilometres it already has.
  • To be a renowned government institution locally and internationally through relationships and online, to be innovators in learning and research in the education sector and in the community.
    • It is a fact the State Library reaches out to schools across the state- over a third have participated in activities over the past 3 years.
    • It is a fact In 2013 a pioneering mobile application named Curio was launched so school groups and others can explore the Library’s exhibitions and the historic Mitchell building then return to the classroom and review their trip on Curio.
  • To maintain strength through adequate resourcing and philanthropy.
    • It is a fact in 2012-3 the State Library Foundation attracted over $4 million in donations. The more revenue that can be generated, the more the library can spend on purchasing publications and importantly on preserving them and the more staff can be employed.
  • To contribute to strong public libraries through leadership and effective strategies
    • It is a fact the State Library has been “Building strength across the State’s 377 public libraries. WiFi hotspot services” were among many services delivered in 97 regional libraries”.
  • To deliver state of the art discovery through open access and engagement with clients online.
    • It is a fact in 2012-3 the technology systems were available for 99.8% of time.
    • It is fact finally the entire Mitchell collection has been catalogued in detail last year.
  • To be a “green” library with reduced environmental impact .
    • It is a fact the library reduced energy consumption in 2012-3.

Page after page of the annual report documents the use of the State Library both onsite and online and also on tour for a wide range of NSW residents and visitors.

  • the Fellowships and Scholarships the State Library sponsors for NSW researchers and authors are listed
  • the initiatives to attract the next generation of readers – the children of NSW
  • the enormous efforts going into digitising the State’s most precious publications both to preserve them and to make them accessible to all who are interested in them
  • the collaboration with  groups such as  Poetry Australia and the History Council of NSW
  • the work with indigenous communities and
  • much more  is all readily available for anyone interested in getting the facts.

More details are also available at the website in the Open Letter from the NSW State Librarian and the Report of the Review of the Division of the Mitchell Librarian. The Review was commissioned by the State Librarian & Chief Executive  as one of many reviews of the State Library’s activities, and  it was carried out by  Emeritus Professor Lesley Johnson AM FAHA, president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

Writers it seems, like to vent their feelings in writing and encourage others to support their complaint without first considering the facts!   And so the fallacies are broadcast whipping up emotions completely unnecessarily.  Is it because  some are locked in a time warp and fear changes?  Ironically Juers  claimed  “the kind of research that depends on the spontaneity of ideas and flicking between volumes will be curbed”,  unaware  apparently that the Mitchell collection is far too large to put everything on public display in a physical format, so anyone relying only on those on display in the reading room for their research, were relying on  a tiny percentage of the books and other materials available  in this  magnificent library.

Finally one wonders if the authors who promoted this furore consider they are  more important than other  readers –  the millions of people now using the State Library and Mitchell Library online or via the Public Libraries network, and the hundreds of thousands of citizens from all walks of life, from indigenous communities or from business, from educational institutions or homes, and of all ages from across the state, who continue to visit the State Library?

Elizabeth Swan

1 March 2014

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