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The petition to save Sydney’s Mitchell Reading Room raises broader questions. loop_oh

State libraries need our support and participation to survive

Over the past few weeks, a petition called “Save Mitchell Library” has been circulating among writers and scholars. The petition calls for New South Wales State Librarian Alex Byrne to host a public meeting to address a list of questions relating to the proposed conversion of the grand Mitchell Reading Room into what the Library calls a “public space with free WiFi and increased seating for informal study”. This proposal is part of a A$25 million plan to “revitalise the iconic Mitchell Library building”.

The petition begins:

We’re deeply concerned by what is happening at the State Library of NSW – especially the conversion of the Mitchell Reading Room – and shocked that it has all gone ahead so quickly, without more public consultation.

At last count, the petition has been signed by more than 3,000 people, including what the Sydney Morning Herald’s Susan Wyndham calls “a roll call of prominent Australian authors”, including Phillip Adams, Murray Bail, Helen Garner, Kate Grenville, James Bradley, Ivor Indyk, Linda Jaivin, David Malouf, David Marr, Drusilla Modjeska and Don Watson.

The Mitchell reading room, The State Library of NSW. >littleyiye<

For an overview of the issues, see Evelyn Juers’ article and Susan Wyndham’s column, which cover the main concerns in more detail than the petition; and read Alex Byrne’s open letter, published on February 11, addressing “some misinformation circulating about the revitalisation of the Mitchell”.

The issue has inflamed passions among those who have signed the petition: in the comments section the words “shame”, “disgrace” and “outrage” appear frequently. Lost somewhere in this storm is an appreciation of where modern libraries are heading in a digital age. It’s possible to have sympathies with both the petitioners and library management when you consider the broader challenges facing these institutions. This current issue warrants a discussion about some of the tough questions that libraries must address to remain relevant now and in the future.

What is the role of a library at a time when so much information can be accessed in digital form? Is it to be a research site, an archive, or something more? Is a library even a library if it has no books?

Libraries as cultural hubs

Around Australia, city libraries offer free activities to draw the public in, from basic computer classes to parents’ groups and drug and alcohol counselling. In Perth, visitors can take mah-jong and Egyptian craft classes; Brisbane libraries run gardening workshops; Sydney libraries host knitting and erotic fan fiction reading nights; Melbourne libraries host comedy, jazz and other performances.

Lock of hair, pressed between pages of a book in Miles Franklin’s personal archive. Shown to me by a helpful librarian. Author's photograph

In the US, Chicago’s Harold Washington library has a pop-up “maker lab” providing public access to a 3D printer and laser cutter. Public libraries increasingly serve the community in broader ways than book lending.

Yet there is a distinction between public libraries (city libraries) and research libraries (such as state libraries). Where public libraries lend books, research libraries do not; the function of a research library is to hold a comprehensive collection of cultural and historical material, for patrons to access on site.

Aside from books, libraries include manuscripts, letters, diaries, and “realia” – objects, mementos and artefacts acquired by curators with an eye for cultural storytelling. SLNSW has more paintings than the Art Gallery of NSW. It holds 1.1 million photographs, 11.2 km of manuscripts, 114,000 architectural plans and tens of thousands of prints, drawings and maps, and one of the country’s largest collections of human hair.

The Library is currently digitising vast amounts of this collection through its Digital Excellence program. As this material becomes increasingly available online, the issue arises: should the spaces formerly dedicated to studying this material be re-purposed, and how?

Mitchell Library, opening ceremony, March 8, 1910, by unknown photographer. Flickr

Already, for many visitors the State Library of New South Wales (SLNSW) has little to do with books. I observe tutors discussing Shakespeare, mathematics, and other complex material with students. Travellers check email and Facebook. Generations of a Latin American family reunite in the foyer, before retiring to the cafe for a rowdy lunch. Meetings are conducted over legal notepads.

In the Macquarie Street Wing, people queue for seats at light-filled workstations, occupied by busy pen-and-pad writers, laptop tappers and newspaper readers. Visitors trickle through the gallery spaces that join the Mitchell and Macquarie Street wings. Every time I visit the Library, it’s an active public space.

State Reference Library open seating area. Bruce York

One complaint is that by converting the stately Reading Room from an archival research space into a more social/digital arena, social and commercial activity is privileged over traditional scholarship. There are already social spaces, digital kiosks and rooms rented for conferences and events. Although a new space will service those who formally used the Reading Room for archival research, it will be smaller (to be fair, anything would be smaller than the grand central room).

The trained librarians who formerly staffed the Reading Room will be replaced by security guards. This shift, toward a more contemporary public library model, seems to be the core complaint.

This shift also reflects the way research culture is evolving in response to digital technology. Increasingly we expect to access material through digital interfaces (searching digital catalogues) rather than asking librarians, and to have material appear on our screens rather than delivered to our desks. Like many of those leaving comments in the petition, this saddens me. But it’s happening. Here, and everywhere.

The book problem

Which leads us to the book problem. Storage is a growing issue for libraries. The SLNSW adds around 2 kilometers of storage a year to accommodate new acquisitions. For research libraries entrusted with archiving culturally valuable material, this problem only escalates over time.

Is a library still a library if it has no books? Rosapolis

Stories of desperate libraries dumping books regularly appear in newspapers both in Australia and abroad. There’s a growing trend for school and university libraries to go “bookless”, often re-branding themselves “learning centres”.

For educational institutes where content needs to be as current as possible, and books suffer at the hands of their many readers, increasing digital content makes sense.

San Antonio, Texas boasts an entirely bookless public library. Opened in late 2013, patrons of the BiblioTech public library can only check out books by downloading them onto devices or borrowing electronic readers. It’s worth noting that earlier bookless library experiments in California’s Newport Beach and Arizona’s Tuscon-Pima were aborted when residents demanded physical books.

To continue collecting, preserving and finding storage for material of cultural and historical value, state and other research libraries need to adapt and change. It is a difficult time for libraries everywhere, and some of what is most cherished about these spaces may be lost.

Last year in the Mitchell Library Reading Room, I experienced Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells’ The Quiet Volume as part of Sydney Festival. Of course, the digital translation cannot replicate the actual experience, but I encourage you to find a quiet space to watch and reflect on the importance of libraries as cultural institutions that need our support, and participation, to survive:

The Quiet Volume by Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells.

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