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Open letter to Alex Byrne (NSW State Librarian & Chief Executive)

ABR Arts 20 February 2014

Open letter to Alex Byrne (NSW State Librarian & Chief Executive)

ABR Arts 20 February 2014

Dear Alex,

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 pdfstatement 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
Giramondo Publishing
Box 752 Artarmon NSW 1570 Australia

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Comments (2)

  • It is useful to download a copy of Professor Johnson's Review of the Mitchell Librarian and read it (it can be found on the SLNSW website by clicking through on a couple of links). It's an interesting task endeavouring to find what statements can be interpreted as leading to changing the nature and role of the current space used as the Mitchell Library Reading Room. I question how a single person's review (a person whose expertise is in cultural studies, gender studies and university education but not public libraries) could be a legitimate basis for interpretation by the State Librarian to implement drastic physical changes without very broad public consultation. If the 1910 Reading Room is to be restored: Where is it? Is it intended to be the tiny room used in 1910? (Google and ye shall find) Why has the current Reading Room's function been changed now?
    Finally it is clear from the Open Letter that Evelyn Juers is furious and felt that the State Librarian was patronising, rude and intransigeant however I'm not sure that letting the emotions out in a letter is ever terribly constructive, particularly once the heat of the battle has subsided. Sometimes it is more effective to take the emotion out of the sentence and let the facts speak for themselves. It seems a fact that there was no broad consultation with the general community on a pre-emptive move to change the nature of the Mitchell Reading Room. It is clear that there is considerable opposition to the move within the literary and artistic community. It appears also that the consultation may have been with universities and schools. It is a fact that universities have their own well-funded libraries and one would hope that the SLNSW is endeavouring to give equal priority to members of the community who don't have access to university libraries. It seems universities and school students are being prioritised with digitalised information being the emphasis. A Reading Room is a reading room, there is only one beautiful Reading Room in this city. Wifi havens for bored people to surf the net abound. The State Library is already fast becoming such a haven in all its areas.
    Posted by Arthur Manus Giles
    21 February 2014
  • I am not a scholar but I care about spaces for those who are, and I care about our institutions, and I am dismayed and ashamed at what's happening at the Mitchell Library. I will attend any public meetings and be part of any discussions about its future.
    Posted by Linda Newton
    21 February 2014

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