You invited us. We – Geordie Williamson, David Malouf and I, representing over 3000 signatories of the Petition to save the Mitchell Library Reading Room (MLRR) and calling for a public meeting to discuss your plans for change, not to mention all those who have not signed but who support the petition, including many of your staff and the staff of other libraries – We arrived 10 minutes early for our meeting with you. Geordie had travelled for more than two hours from the Blue Mountains to be there. David came by bus, I came by train, it was raining heavily. You kept us waiting in the lobby for 15 minutes. To dry off? What rudeness, and what a waste of time. Not a good start.
The Mitchell Librarian Richard Neville and a member of the Library Council, John Vallance, also attended the meeting.
We handed you copies of our statement of purpose. You glanced at it, and without further reference to our concerns, you proceeded to suck the oxygen out of the room by launching into a powerpoint presentation about the SLNSW’s responsibilities. You spoke very softly, almost a whisper, as if sharing a precious secret, about this being a ‘world leading library’, about working closely with colleagues at the NLA to digitise various collections, you then rattled on (quietly) about what’s in the Mitchell – WWI diaries and letters, etc etc – it was mind-numbing, because these were things we knew or assumed. We were not there to question what was in the library, its stature, how you acquired material or preserved it or kept up with the times technologically. That’s your job, I trust you do it well.
In that relentless manner you built a wall around yourself and the decisions which we (3000+ ... not just us Three Stooges) are challenging.
You had invited us to come to the meeting, but you asked us no questions, showed no curiosity. You spoke to us as if we were children who did not understand the lesson you were teaching. You were annoyed with us.
I now wish I had interrupted your powerpoint earlier, instead of listening politely for too long. Once we broke through your automated bumph, these issues were raised: finances and the funding budget for digitalisation, the establishment of a segregated ‘Scholars Room’ to replace the MLRR, future plans for improving the State Reference Library, inadequate communication about changes at the Mitchell, staff cuts and losses and low morale, the role of the Mitchell Librarian, etc etc. Needless to say there was a lot of technocratic and managerial language bandied about: ‘patterns of use’ made several appearances. It was pointed out to us (for the umpteenth time) that there are not enough people using the MLRR as scholars. I explained that a library is not a railway station, not a museum or art gallery, that the reading rooms of great libraries are valued for their generosity of space, not regimented sardine-tin accommodation. Scholars (or whatever you want to call people who read and write and research) are not numerous. I wish they were. Geordie supported and expanded on this idea. But you did not seem to ‘get it’? Perhaps it’s not part of the economic or ‘future of libraries’ jargon? No need now to go into further details of our discussions ... there were six witnesses to the meeting ... different versions will emerge.
At least three times we presented our main requests:
– that the MLLR be returned to its pre-December function immediately ... books and specialist librarians and card catalogues and readers ... all back in place (and I would also add: no ‘wallpaper’ compromises ... no ‘yes we’ll do that but not the other’... I understand from people who know, that moving back in is still possible)
- that the Library offer its public an open forum to discuss all the issues raised by the petition, (and I would add: a commitment to participation and transparency in the future)
You dismissed these requests. Then you told us at 5pm the room had been booked for another meeting and that our session was over. Class dismissed.
We do understand that there’s a monstrous new order of marketing and media kicking at the doors of public institutions like the Mitchell Library, frightening them into acting ‘strategically’, to increase their funding base and visitor numbers. Your job – why not? – would be to defend the Mitchell against that kind of misinterpretation and attack, not to cower before it. Let’s consider the alternatives to what has been proposed by you and your team. Let’s put our thinking caps on!
The Mitchell deserves to have its Reading Room returned AS A REAL LIBRARY with dignity and optimism. Mitchell readers deserve to have a public forum to express their ideas and feelings for that important place, which some are calling ‘the People’s Library’, and ‘sacrosanct’, and the ‘heart’ of our city. They’re not talking bricks and mortar and happy historical renovations, they’re talking LIBRARY! And please, these signatories are dignitaries, not fools or extremists (as was suggested at yesterday’s meeting), they’re the smartest set you’ll get, from every branch of society.
At the meeting, before we were shuffled off, Geordie and David both made the final point: that you now risk losing the support of the very people you need for the Mitchell’s healthy future.
Then we walked past those ridiculous WalmartBookBin-like structures – large cages filled with orphan books – and we got the lift to the ground floor. Who designed those cages? Is it supposed to be art, or fun, or what? Storage? And why is the café now bigger than the bookshop, which was once excellent and is now a dinky little stub offering its wares mostly on bargain tables? Who shrunk the bookshop? What is going on there? It’s not world-leading-library stuff, for sure.
The best part of the afternoon was one heroic member of your staff who somehow got a message to us: ‘we want to thank you for what you’re doing.’
Dr Evelyn Juers
Box 752 Artarmon NSW 1570 Australia