State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 55 Autumn 1995


What About the Books?

[The Second Redmond Barry Lecture, 1994]

Etched into the childhood memory of many Melbournians of my generation, along with other city pleasures — its cinemas, arcades, emporia, the plenitude and variety of its buildings and quarters, anonymities and intimacies — is the first visit to this place. It usually occurred during school holidays when you were of an age to make the trip with friends, siblings or cousins, without adult supervision. You came to the Museum to gaze at Phar Lap or the gold nuggets, or take on the protocomputerised intelligence of the noughts and crosses machine. At some point as you exhausted the possibilities of the artefacts and the art, you wondered what lay beyond the closed doors at the top of the central marble staircase. One of you urged the others to venture inside, and there before you was the domed reading room.
What did you see? The radiating spokes of polished wooden tables with piles of books awaiting reshelving at the outer end of each of them. The books on the bays of shelves that stretched around the circumference, punctuated only by ladders and mysterious additional doors, and accommodated more books than you had ever seen, more knowledge than you could imagine. The further galleries above that took the eye up to the dome. The pools of light that caught the faces of adults absorbed in their reading. The mutter, perhaps, of the oddly dressed eccentric who seemed oblivious of his surrounds and was conducting a conversation with himself, a man apparently deranged by books. The minatory presence of the supervisor on duty in the raised central dais of this panoptical arrangement, a guardian of books who seemed to regard you in particular as a suspicious intruder.
For some who made the discovery of this magical hidden place, that forbidding presence repelled the discoverer. Knowledge of the library went no further. Others were drawn to explore its mysteries, as I was. If you stood and watched for a period, you noticed that people moved most often into and out of a door on your left, and if you followed them in there you discovered a catalogue room. There was no-one to explain it, at least that I noticed initially, but if you had some experience of a school or a municipal library, as I did, you were able to pull out a drawer and turn over the cards, which were like other catalogue cards except that they were larger, of irregular dimensions, not secured by a bolt and many of them hand-written antiques. You could perambulate the bays of books and work out the system of arrangement. If you were daring, you could take a book from its shelf, find an empty seat and imitate you elders. Eventually you learned that not all books in the catalogue could be found on the shelves, and you discovered how to fill in a request slip and collect your book. You learned also that the staff and visitors were by no means hostile, that some were prepared to help and encourage.
This rite of passage was performed by some Melbourne children only. In retrospect it is apparent to me that the Melbourne Public Library was a particular kind of public institution, guarding its riches by means of a demanding initiation that marked out those who did not. The daunting atmosphere, the deficiency of introduction or explanation, excluded most of those who were regarded as unsuitable as surely as
Redmond Barry's prescriptive regulations had nearly a century earlier.
Most, though not all of the nonliterary were excluded - for even in my day there was a residue of homeless men who came in from the winter cold to stand before the heaters. If you did not have the advantages of books in the home, if you had not learned to appreciate books as part of your education, if you had not accumulated some rudiments of elementary bibliography in a school or local library, you were unlikely to persevere. In that case the first encounter with the library would remain in your memory as a transient glimpse of something strange and unfathomable, and today you might well be one of those citizens who regard the present state of the State Library of Victoria as an irrelevance.
Others passed through the ordeal and became users of the State Library. In the absence of a proper metropolitan public library, it served the needs of general readers — indeed, it was called a public library — just as its lending library provided for the needs of readers more widely. It was used and still is used by readers seeking both advanced reference material and items as basic a popular periodicals. Since until comparatively recently it possessed the largest collection of publications in Victoria and indeed Australia, it was used by generations of students. As an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne in the 1960s, I was sent here to read various sources prescribed for undergraduate history essays that the Baillieu did not possess. Students at the RIMIT and senior secondary schools students still make extensive use of it. It has been used for purposes of self-educations by a notable a citizen as Alfred Deakin. It has been the resource and the haven of creative writers such as Alan Seymour and Helen Garner, and earlier still it was the resource if not the haven of that singularly creative writer, Marcus Clarke. Its holdings have supported the researches of a host of scholars whose publications have made indirect users of a wider circle of readers.
Let me give just two examples of these radiating circles of influence. Geoffrey Serle both helped establish and gather the holdings of the La Trobe Library on the history of this state, and then employed them to write his two works The Golden Age and The Rush To Be Rich, which enabled us to see how a distinctive colonial civilisation flourished in this corner of the continent. There is nothing in any other Australian state to compare with these works of historical scholarship: in Victoria's present crisis of confidence and imagination, they remain as a record of singular and creative achievement.
My second example concerns a lesser-known historian, Gwendolen Swinburne, the gifted daughter of that notable Victorian patriarch, George Swinburne. In 1917 the Professor of History at the University of Melbourne, Ernest Scott, encouraged her to compile a book of docum3ents to complement his own school textbook on Australian history and allow students to go beyond mere rote-learning in favour of critical historical interpretation. As Gwendolen Swinburne chose and transcribed the documents here in the library, a family friend asked her what she was engaged upon. ‘A Source Book of Australian History’, she replied. ‘Why, I didn't know you were interested in cookery’, was the startled reaction. The library has allowed gifted individuals to escape the limitations of class and gender.
It is the occupational disease of the historian to dwell in the past. In my memories of discovering the library, as well as my examples of the uses to which it has been put, I have looked backwards. Some would argue that this nostalgic tendency is the ruin of the State Library of Victoria, that it is an institution smothered by memories of a lost golden age, paralysed under the weight of

Plate I: The domed reading room of the State Library of Victoria (Reproduced with the permission of the VSL).

tradition. In the recurrent arguments of the 1970s and 1980s over the future of the library, and the museum, there was a view that at all costs the library had to move, whether to the Victoria Market site or to the Queen Victoria Hospital site or elsewhere (for you see in these very names the omnipresence of inherited, obsolete orientations). The reasons for wishing to quit the original site went beyond its decayed fabric and moribund facilities. A new, purpose-built library would not simply make good the years of neglect, it would mark a break with the outmoded practices and grimly tenacious attitudes that held the library in thrall to its traditions.
I don't share that desire to efface the past, and in any case the library will remain here for the foreseeable future in whatever plenitude the gambling proclivities of Victorians may provide, but I am conscious of the need to rethink the State Library of Victoria. It is clear to me, both as a user and a member of the Library Council, that the inherited functions and purposes the Library serves have to be rethought. It can no longer fulfil the roles it used to serve, not least because those uses have changed in ways that demand change within the Library.
Change presents itself in many guises, not all of them benign: a redevelopment, a restructure, a strategic plan, and that most barbarous of all the neologisms, a vision statement. We are told that this is the era of postmodernism in which all that is solid melts into air, there is constant movement but no longer progress, continual change but never resolution. Alternatively we might distinguish the present period as one in which change is all-pervasive and irresistible, but we no longer expect it to bring significant
improvement. For the time being I shall remain agnostic on these propositions while I briefly and no doubt tendentiously review three of the impulses for change in the Library.
They are respectively the new information technologies, the new expectations of public cultural agencies and the new modes of public sector management. Each claims a distinctive novelty, each presents itself as a beneficent imperative. Clearly, you resist such nostrums at your peril. Together they promise to transform the library as we have known it. More than this, they jostle against each other to redefine the very nature and purpose of the library. The new information technologies do not simply offer new ways of storing and organising library materials, they turn the librarian into an information manager, the library itself into an information agency. The new expectations of public cultural agencies do not merely add to the responsibilities of the library, they reconstitute it as an arm of government cultural policy. And the new modes of public sector management do not simply change the tasks of librarians, they transform them into executive functionaries of a generalised set of techniques that are held to apply equally to welfare benefits or customs services as to books and manuscripts and newspapers and visual material that most of us here regard as vital and distinctive to the proper purpose of a major library. The question I posed as the title of this lecture, ‘What about the books?’ therefore presents itself anew as each of the harbingers of change is considered.
I take first the new information technologies that have already begun to transform the ways in which the library stores, organises and makes knowledge available. All of us here, even the most resistant to change, makes use of these devices, if only when we use the catalogue that was in book form in the last century, then on cards, more recently on microfiche and now on computer. Few of us, even the most imaginative, know quite where the rapid changes will lead. They have taken us from the microform to machine readable data files to locally networked information to the global network known as Internet, and now there is talk of a broadband information superhighway. The enlargement of the capacity to transmit data almost instantaneously (or in what the devotees of this cult call ‘real time’) across vast distances is accompanied by the capacity of local information systems to store and search large volumes of data, and of end-users' microcomputers to handle it. These technologies are transforming the traditional conceptions of the librarian as well as the author, publisher and reader. Already the non-commercial international networks provide access to hundreds of library catalogues and millions of information files. Already they allow the information worker to scan large bodies of distant information, to select and take remote delivery of texts, to add, annotate or otherwise modify them and put them back into circulation. Already we hear of the ‘library without walls’ operating on the principle of gathering information ‘just in time’ as opposed to the older formed collection of books collected ‘just in case’. The shortening of space and time, the flexibility and interactivity, the multi-media and the so-called hypertext — all have implications that we are only beginning to consider.
Beyond the technological capabilities of these new forms, there are the uses to which they are put. Just as the printing press was initially used to produce books that imitated manuscript in arrangement and form, so we still tend to think of computerised knowledge as an extension of print. The new technologies will break that restriction. The intellectual property rights of producers and consumers will change, as will our understanding of literacy, education and knowledge. They are already changing. The library and the university have long been
institutions that affirmed continuity with the past: their mode of operation was cumulative; they preserved, refined, advanced, transmitted and above all stabilised knowledge. Now they are increasingly drawn into an information industry whose most dynamic sectors are privately owned and controlled, and operate for commercial profit. As the boundaries between the public and the private sectors buckle, older notions of knowledge as a public good can no longer be assumed.
Where do these trends leave the State Library of Victoria? It is clear to me that the Library will become increasingly reliant on the new information technologies. It already uses them for managing and organising its own collections. It already draws on national and international networked services to meet an increasing proportion of readers' requests from outside its collections. Will these trends strengthen or weaken the Library and its collections? If the Library is becoming less reliant on its own holdings to meet users' needs, can it expect that users will continue to need the Library? Will not other Victorian libraries and even individual users at their own workstations bypass the Library and make direct use of the technology? And will the new forms of information provision weaken the Library's case for adequate funding of acquisitions? What will be the cost of buying the information and who will pay it? And once again, what about the books?
There are people here better able to suggest answers to these questions than I am. I know that in its present planning process, designated L21, the Library envisages itself as a major player in networked information services, and rightly so, for if there is any certainty in the uncertain future it is that providers of information will be in the driving seat, mere recipients at their mercy. You might regard the State Library's ambition as quixotic. How can a neglected, underfunded public-sector institution compete with the cashed-up, aggressively entrepreneurial national and international information conglomerates?
Booklovers take heart! The State Library has two inestimable competitive advantages. First it has the largest formed collection of Victoriana; and second, it is the copyright deposit library for all Victorian publications. Neither competitive advantage is unqualified. The existing collections of the La Trobe Library have to be consolidated, developed, interpreted and disseminated for their full potential to be realised. The capacity of the State Library to capture, store and make available publications in a range of media has to be greatly enhanced for its copyright role to be fully utilised. Even so, I am able to take comfort from the apparent paradox that the new technologies, rightly understood, augment rather than diminish the significance of the core collections of the State Library.
If the implications of the library as information agency are less threatening than alarmists might fear for the collections that so many of us hold dear, then the implications of the library as cultural agency seem deceptively congenial. Both in its older Arnoldian sense of the best that has been thought and said, as well as in its present-day usage as the currency of social being, culture presents itself as an antidote to the instrumental values of the information industry. (Not that culture lacks market significance — culture and its close analogues, cultural display and cultural tourism fit readily into the framework of the the economic rationalist, for these forms of cultural consumption vie with the information industries as key growth sectors of the postindustrial economy.) It is hardly surprising, therefore, that librarians who shrink from the designation of information worker should embrace culture and find attractive the notion that they are custodians of cultural heritage.
What is heritage? We see the term attached in a variety of settings to artefacts that have some special significance because of their associations with the past; these fragments seem all the more compelling as our links with the past weaken. Heritage is therefore conserved (a word that is deceptively simple) in folk memory and language, buildings and streetscapes, while heritage objects are collected and displayed in museums, galleries, libraries and other repositories. As used by its custodians, heritage is a value inherent in the object because of the way it embodies or signifies a way of life.
This is a particular kind of value, distinct from other values. Thus a manuscript in the La Trobe collection has an information value, and that value can be realised by transcription, publication, facsimile or even electronic reproduction. But the heritage value of the manuscript is unique to the object itself — there is only one copy of the mournful note that Robert O'Hara Burke left at Cooper's Creek after he and his companions discovered their support party companions had abandoned that northern base, and it can only be inspected in the La Trobe Library. A painting in the picture collection has an aesthetic value, and that value (or perhaps lack of value) can be realised by display, photographic or digital reproduction. But the heritage value of the painting is unique to the object itself — there is only one painting by William Strutt of the burial of Burke, painted fifty years after he had sketched the scene, and while the high imperial patina of this massive canvas arguably detracts from its artistic success, the same qualities enhance its importance as a heritage item.
Seen in this way, the relevance of heritage is largely restricted to libraries of deposit and libraries such as this one with significant collections of original material. Yet cultural heritage has a larger meaning. It applies to municipal libraries, and even the humble commercial lending libraries that have largely disappeared, but assembled collections of books that constituted culture in the larger anthropological sense of the term as the thoughts, habits and ways of life of a people in a given place and time. In this sense the State Library of Victoria has an augmented significance as the largest and grandest expression of the book culture in this country. From Redmond Barry's initial design, which assembled the works used by Gibbon, Hume and Buckle, and the ambitious endeavours of Tulk, Bride and Armstrong, through to the faltering energies of their successors and the protracted decline of public support, this Library has proclaimed and informed the literary judgements of Victorians. It can be seen as a giant archaeological site, with overlaid strata of artefacts that cumulatively record the history of public literacy. Seen in this way, those forlorn broken series of obscure periodicals tell of the shrinkage of the imperial reach and the mutation from elevation and improvement to amusement and instruction. The breaks and continuities all have a lasting cultural significance.
So far so promising, but the appeal to cultural heritage is not without its pitfalls. First of all, while heritage is an effective card for the State Library to play, it is not a trump card. While some objects have cultural values, all objects have market values and unique objects have high ones. The very appeal of rare heritage items can price them out of the reach of public collectors. In my period as a member of the Council of the State Library of Victoria I draw some comfort from the acquisition of rarities that have come onto the market, yet we have had to make such acquisitions selectively from very limited funds.
Furthermore, the increasing outlays of governments on an increasing range of cultural activities have already brought a response from the economic rationalists. In 1989 the Commonwealth Department of
Finance released a discussion paper entitled What Price Heritage? which attempted to establish a framework for the measurement of performance by calculating resource utilisation and heritage outputs, and constructing indices such as the cost per visitor and cost per metre of exhibition space. The federal and state arts ministers continue to assemble the data for such measures. This is a calculus that disadvantages libraries, as indeed they are already disadvantaged in the competition for attention and sponsorship by the more glamorous cultural agencies such as galleries and museums. We can do much more in the area of display, interpretation and publication of our collection, but there is a danger that the fetishisation of the book as heritage object will give spectacle a false priority at the expense of scholarship.
Present-day cultural policy is constructed around the assumption that libraries, along with other cultural institutions, should serve given economic, social and even political purposes; that is, that they should contribute to a vigorous cultural industry, that they should encourage participation, and that they should recognise ethnic, sexual and other kinds of diversity. Each of these expectations, desirable in itself, emphasises the multiple and constructed meaning of culture. Cultural heritage is curiously presentist. It links the cultural consumer to an authorised past, and processes that past by assembling artefacts that authorise the identities they construct. The library is a large, cumulative institution that does not easily answer to such expectations. In the library as cultural agency some books will fare better than others.
So much, then, for the library as information and cultural agency. Of my third force for change, the management imperative, I want to say little. There is much that could be said of the pressures that have operated across the public sector of the advanced capitalist economies over the past twenty years: the end of the post-war era of growth and fiscal plenitude; the loss of confidence in Keynesian management; the decline of old industries, the impediments to international trade and the growing trade imbalances, the greater international mobility of capital and the deregulatory demands it has imposed on national economies, the renewed emphasis on market solutions and the consequent pressure on governments to do more with less. If to these general conditions we add the particular travails of the Australian and Victorian economy and the growing fiscal imbalance between the federal and state governments, then the impoverishment of the once-munificent State Library seems all the more inexorable.
In this context the management of the Library have had to try to satisfy a daunting range of expectations. The government wants greater efficiency and yet constrains the Library within the framework of public service regulations. The public auditor wants greater accountability and yet imposes accountancy principles that are ludicrously inappropriate. The Council is expected to act as a board of directors and yet lacks the capacity to do so. The public service unions want to maintain the employment conditions of their members and yet change is essential. The users seek improved services, for the threshold of service standards is rising, while the available resources are deficient.
These expectations give rise in turn to the shift from public administration to public sector management and managerialism, with its emphases on corporate structures, programme budgeting, performance measures, incentives, evaluation. There is a real danger here that the new managerialism loses touch with the activities to which it is applied, that the custodians of the collections that are essential to the State Library of Victoria find themselves subordinated to the priorities of structure and process. The very vocabulary
of managerialism turns library staff into human resources, readers into clients. It is easy to become cynical about total quality management that does not read.
Yet it is surely clear that the libraries that have prospered in the past decade are the libraries that are well managed. The expectations of public agencies are too great, the challenges facing the public library too perilous, to ignore the need for the highest skills of leadership. In my opinion the recurrent debate in the library profession between the trained librarian and the all-purpose manager is a false dichotomy: if librarians are to occupy positions of leadership in the National and state libraries as well as the large university libraries, then they need to possess appropriate management skills. Without any disservice to her predecessor, let me say that I am delighted that the new Director of the State Library combines the qualities of librarianship and management.
For better or for worse, then, these three forces, information, culture and management, are changing the Library. I have tried to suggest that it is both unnecessary and unhelpful to resist them. The future of the State Library of Victoria will depend on its ability to negotiate these imperatives. More than this, I have argued that they can be used to renew the Library as a place of books. But it will be a different Library from the one that has struggled to maintain its old vestigial roles. Let me therefore draw together my lay observations and try briefly to draw out what sort of Library I think we might expect to emerge from the present redefinition and redevelopment.
First of all, the notion of the State Library as a superior public library and the hub of a state public library system is confounded by far-reaching changes. The State Library is no longer the co-ordinating agency for the state's public libraries; that is the responsibility of the Libraries Board. It no longer operates as the principal state lender; the lending department is gone and there is a networked national system of inter-library loan and document delivery services in which this Library is only a medium player. There remains an important vestigial responsibility as a library of last resort for the public user, but this responsibility is itself constrained by the limitations on resources — the acquisitions votes of some large regional libraries are already as large as that of the State Library. Those more expert in these matters than I — I think here especially of Mary Ronnie — have argued that the State Library has suffered in the past by attempting to combine the two roles at the expense of each of them, but that heroic endeavour cannot continue.
Second, the State Library's capacity to serve student users has altered. I mentioned before that when I was an undergraduate, I was sent to the State Library for material that the University Library did not possess. Today the acquisitions vote of the University of Melbourne's Library is some five times as great as that of the State Library. The institutions of higher education are the cuckoos of the Australian library system, large, demanding, seemingly voracious; and like the cuckoo they show signs of pushing the other chicks out of their publicly-funded nests as they introduce charges for non-university users. University researchers, students and staff, will continue to have legitimate recourse to the State Library for its specialist collections, but they cannot expect the State Library to make good their own deficiencies in space and prescribed course materials.
Equally, the recent deluge of VCE students subjected the State Library to inappropriate demands. The introduction of project-based assessment into the senior school curriculum sent thousands of CAT-oppressed teenagers out into just about every public and private agency that seemed to possess information relevant to the ill-defined subject
called Australian Studies. The lack of proper guidance or preparation given to these library transportees placed the State Library staff under severe pressures, not to mention the impact on other users — witness that legendary fight for possession of a reading place one Sunday afternoon. Since then the Library and the Education Department have developed appropriate protocols for VCE users, and I agree with the Library's view that student users should not be regarded simply as unwanted intruders, for from their ranks can be recruited future Library users and supporters. Even so, the same principles as apply to university users ought to apply to school users: the Library will properly offer access to its collections and services when their use is appropriate; and as a corollary, the Library cannot be expected to make good the deficiencies of the school and the teacher.
The Library, in short, will prosper if it is seen for what it is, a State Library, a library of reference and record that is defined by its public role as the repository of a unique formed collection of material that records the interests and endeavours of the Victorian people, as the library of deposit for Victorian publications and accordingly as a key player in a national system of information services.
What about the books? The books, the manuscripts, the newspapers, the picture collection, the music and performing arts collections are crucial to this Library. Both as information sources and cultural artefacts, they are what makes it unique. Far from being relics of obsolete technologies or declining cultural forms, they are the seed from which the Library will sow its field of the information network, the templates for cultural innovation. The challenge before us is to restore them in their fullness in order to realise their potential.
The comparison is often made between the State Library of Victoria and the State Library of New South Wales, the one in Swanston Street down at heel, starved of support and appreciation, the other in Macquarie Street well appointed, popular, successful. Like other comparisons made across the Murray, we need to be careful about taking such claims at face value. Yet sixty years ago, when the historian Stephen Roberts took up the chair of history at the University of Sydney, he contrasted the munificence of Melbourne's library with the indigence of Sydney's.
In the comparatively recent revival of the State Library of New South Wales a key role was played by the Minister for Public Works and Deputy Premier during the 1970s and early 1980s, Jack Ferguson. Jack was a building worker and union activist who educated himself in the local mechanics institute and then during the war from the boxes of books that were taken up to the troops in New Guinea. He loved books. They opened up to him a range of knowledge and imaginative possibilities that transformed his own life, and he was determined that all citizens of New South Wales should have the same opportunity to read and learn and grow. When the new building of the State Library was completed, the building workers were honoured guests at its opening.
We have no Jack Ferguson in office here in Victoria, but among our elected representatives there are some who can recall, as I do, the first experience of entering this Library and sensing its meaning. Someone among them has the opportunity to establish a lasting place in the civic record as the person who restored the State Library of Victoria to its proper station, to make it once again a place that Victorians will appreciate as a place of books.
Stuart Macintyre