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Libraries Past, Present, Future

This is an edited version of the 2018 Jean Whyte Lecture, delivered by Professor Stuart Kells on 18 September 2018 at the State Library of Victoria.

I’m honoured to help celebrate Professor Whyte’s legacy, and to join the ranks of previous Jean Whyte lecturers, such as Professor Lynette Russell of Monash University’s Indigenous Studies Centre; Dr Alex Byrne, former New South Wales State Librarian; and Giles Mandelbrot, Librarian and Archivist of Lambeth Palace Library.

I had the pleasure of meeting Giles in London last year. He gave me a generous tour of the collection that is to Anglicanism what the Vatican library is to Catholicism. That visit was part of my bibliothecal ‘world tour’, a journey that informed my 2017 book, The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders, in which I wrote about bookworms and microbats and bibliomaniacs; and I probed the storied history of ancient libraries, like the great library of Alexandria, in which doctors and astronomers and mathematicians made great discoveries. Eratosthenes worked out 99 per cent of the circumference of the earth; and Archimedes worked out 99.9 per cent of pi.

I studied an ancient library much closer to home: The oral library of the Arrernte people in central Australia. That library is incredibly rich, and has a fraught recent history. It was a pleasure to acknowledge the Arrernte’s prominent place in the wider tradition of world libraries.

I also studied early-modern collections, and ultra-modern and post-modern ones. I’m grateful to the librarians here and around the world, who embraced the book and its author. Here, I will again adopt a broad definition of libraries, and also of ‘librarians’, a term I use to refer to people who have library skills, but not necessarily a library degree.

In the classical world, libraries and librarians enjoyed a high status, as they did in the medieval Islamic world and the medieval Buddhist world. In Europe, the Dark Ages involved a great forgetting of the value of libraries. The Renaissance was founded in large part on the rediscovery of that value.

There are now more than two million public and school libraries on planet Earth. Many of those are under threat; from war, such as in Syria and Iraq, and from austerity and underfunding, such as in the UK, where hundreds of local libraries have been closed. The much-heralded ‘death of the book’ was another threat on the list. But for the most part, books have bounced back, and so have libraries. Indeed, in many parts of the world, they are as strong today as they’ve been at any time in the last 2000 years.

In Australia, public libraries are particularly well cared for. Victoria’s municipal libraries are going from strength to strength, as is the State Library of Victoria. In NSW, the government recently announced a $60 million investment in the state’s public libraries. In the UK, the library cuts have not been reversed, but they’ve become a national disgrace, a lightning rod for disaffection with the government, and the focus of a spirted defence by authors and scholars and other library users from all walks of life. We can safely conclude that we have not entered another library dark age.

We do, however, need to stay vigilant, in part because libraries as public institutions don’t fit a narrow idea of a ‘business case’ or an ‘investment logic’ or a ‘theory of change’. People have tried to evaluate libraries using techniques such as revealed preference, willingness to pay and hedonic pricing, but these methods can only ever tell part of the story.

Libraries generate an unusually wide set of benefits, some of which are intangible and complex. We don’t have to apologise about investing in libraries in the absence of a clear and narrow set of quantifiable benefits. What we do need to do is stick together and keep telling the stories about the impact of libraries, on people starting businesses; on people learning languages; on young people and middle-aged people and older people; on migrants and upskillers; on scholars and creatives; and on the homeless and the dispossessed. Libraries do indeed change lives. We need to tell the stories of how libraries can open up a literate life, and even a literary one; how they increase social engagement and connection; and how they intertwine with notions of place and the viability of cities and communities.

In the present era, libraries have a powerful constituency. Twitter provides a case in point. Anyone who knows Twitter will know the various Twitter subcultures. There’s the bizarre and troubling world of Trump Twitter. There are the enthralling worlds of gardening Twitter and hot-rod Twitter and dogs feeding rabbits Twitter. And then there’s rare book Twitter, and ‘I’m writing a novel’ Twitter, and library Twitter.

The power of library Twitter was recently demonstrated in spectacular fashion. Two months ago, a Forbes magazine contributor wrote that Amazon bookshops should replace America’s public libraries. The principal rationale was to save money. The argument was peppered with silly errors, including a misunderstanding of how libraries are funded, and a misstatement of the nature of a ‘third space’.

More fundamentally, the article missed the complex value of libraries, and how people appreciate and depend on that value. The response of those people was swift. In the space of two hours, tens of thousands of tweeters pointed out the errors and took issue with the contributor’s thesis. Almost as swiftly, Forbes took the article down and issued a contrite and awkward explanation that the article was outside the contributor’s expertise.

The Twitter conversation continued, and the judgment was rightly harsh. It revealed an unexpected harmony between analogue and digital. And it demonstrated a new library evaluation methodology, one that might be termed ‘crowd love’. I mean this in the sense of crowd funding and crowd wisdom, not some sort of seventies group love-in. Crowd love is a mass articulation of affection, in this case for libraries.

The message from the Forbes affair is simple: don’t mess with our libraries, and don’t mess with our librarians.

In 2018, we’ve reached a point at which, without hubris or complacency, we can dare to imagine an ambitious future for libraries. Our libraries and librarians are empowered; what should we do with this new power?

There are several potential spheres of ambition, including the nature of public libraries’ institutional roles, their relationship with the education system, and their importance as social organisations. I’ve already mentioned the so-called ‘death of the book’. Over the past decade, librarians and their friends grappled with the fear that books and libraries were ready to be superseded. Though understandable, those fears were, for the most part, misplaced. But at the same time, other types of intuitions and organisations have confronted actual obsolescence. Those entities, in fields such as higher education, journalism, business services and public integrity, have been technologically disrupted in ways that libraries have not.

Libraries can help fill the gaps left by these obsolete institutions, and they can teach others about how to survive and thrive in an era of disruption. Libraries can also collaborate with other public agencies and institutions, including with public integrity bodies and citizen auditors, and in the fields of vocational and higher education, where libraries can anchor and enrich the learning journey.

Let’s pause for a quick thought experiment. Imagine a merger between a major library and a major university. In picturing a merger like that, our minds naturally turn to the idea of the library becoming the university library, and an augmentation of the university as a whole. But what about a different kind of merger, in which the library was on top. The result would not be a university library, but a library university.

That sounds unnatural to our ears, but it is not too far away from the libraries of the classical world, such as the one that Eratosthenes and Archimedes used.
Collaborating with social organisations is another important frontier for libraries. Earlier this year, the Next Library Conference in Berlin heard David Lankes deliver a ‘Manifesto for Global Librarianship’. He argued that librarians must play a crucial local role, ‘not as neutral providers of access, but as advocates for the towns, universities, and communities [they] serve’. This picture sees libraries playing a bigger role in social outreach, and in addressing localised disadvantage. It sees the library as an instrument of social change. In another important sense, too, libraries can play a more active social role.

During my world tour, I noticed the incursion of pulp novels and a pulp sensibility into libraries, and especially into rare book collections. I’ve written about that incursion in the context of breaking down traditional ideas of what constitutes a meritorious book, and the traditional oppositions of high and low literature. Crime pulps and sci-fi paperbacks are now prized by such distinguished institutions as the Smithsonian, the Houghton, the British Library, and the State Library of Victoria. This incursion is changing libraries and librarianship.

Another recent trend is even more radical. In the Trump era, libraries in the US and around the world are foregrounding the material evidence of activism and protest. Library exhibitions and publications have embraced the writings and artefacts of social reformers and counter-culture movements, celebrating the fights for women’s rights and civil rights and LGBTIQ rights.

In this regard, libraries are playing an essential social and political role. Amidst today’s conspiracy theories and fake news, libraries and archives are a priceless way to tell the truth about the present and past, and to teach people how to distinguish truth from lies.

The need to tell the truth is urgent in ways we might never have foreseen even a few years ago. Today, we need books and manuscripts and artefacts to speak with sober authority. And we may soon need networks of libraries to act like analogue blockchains of truth, making it much more difficult to purge people and ideas and crimes from the historical record.

Activism within libraries is typically grouped with the political left, but there is something inherently conservative about conservation. Some right-wing politicians get cross when libraries and archives play an activist role. My response to them is simple: if those politicians stop doing mean-spirited and ill-conceived things like Brexit and Trump, and if they stop lying about the past, and the climate, then libraries’ truth-telling role will be less confronting.
That role is crucial in helping us to come to terms with our history, and to open the way to the future. In Japan, the country’s foundational documents speak with stunning honesty about the crimes and disasters of the past. In Australia, libraries and archives can play an equally powerful role in Indigenous reconciliation and acknowledgement, and in reaching a more just compact with the first Australians.

The future of libraries is bright, but not without risks. All of us should be wary of creeping austerity and of creeping volunteerism. The trend of library philanthropy also brings dangers. Philanthropy can be a boon, but only if libraries have adequate base funding, and only if the philanthropists are closely aligned with the library’s mission.

I want to conclude by sketching a vision of the future of libraries. A vision in which no one would think of replacing professional librarians with volunteers; a vision in which libraries have the upper hand with universities, not the other way around; a vision in which the value of rare books is not vastly below the price of contemporary art; and one in which we don’t need to keep making the argument about the value of libraries; and in which libraries are central to our efforts to build a fair and just society on a frank reckoning with our past; and a future in which our crowd-love of libraries is unnecessary to express, but is expressed anyway, and often.