Update: in response

Libraries under threat

Written in response to:

Libraries under threat

What a pity Michael Wilding’s excellent piece Libraries under threat did not pick up on the demise of the National Drug Sector Information Service (NDSIS), a subsidiary of the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia, which the Abbott Government defunded in November 2013. ADCA had served as the peak body for the Alcohol and Other Drugs sector (AOD) for over 46 years and the organisation’s plight in part contributed to the resignation of the assistant Minister for Health, Senator Fiona Nash’s chief of staff due to conflict of interest with his prior business dealings. Senator Nash has been unable to explain, without constantly changing her story, the reason for the decision to cut funding. Several freedom of information requests have been stonewalled by the Health Department, so the issue remains clouded.

The NDSIS managed what is regarded as one of the world’s finest AOD references, with nearly 100 000 items on the shelves at the now closed ADCA office in Canberra. The NDSIS was also the source of many other online resources, keenly sought after by academics, students, practitioners, police and paralegals – not to mention sections of Senator Nash’s own department.

It appears that this valuable resource, owned by the Department of Health, may now end up in landfill, despite pleas from around Australia and overseas to preserve it. Many signatories to a petition to save ADCA highlighted the importance of the library and its associated databases and websites to their work, to their efforts to treat family members with drug and alcohol problems, and for the purpose of study. Many doctorates in the field were achieved through access to NDSIS holdings.

The international body, Substance Abuse Librarians & Information Specialists (SALIS) warned against the loss of such libraries worldwide in a 2012 editorial in the journal Addiction. The importance of the evidence base contained in the NDSIS holdings, combined with ADCA’s decades of experience and advocacy, is inestimable. To allow it to be trashed on the basis of some warped ideology borders on the criminal.

Rob Gill
Former Communications and Policy Officer
The Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia

I went to the Fisher and SciTech libraries at the University of Sydney with my camera last month because of the threat to the Mitchell Library. I had been told nightmare stories three years ago by a scientist friend who was then employed at the University – about the sudden devastation at Fisher and the desperate skip-diving that he and colleagues had done in an effort to rescue books; how another colleague, teaching at a university in Bangladesh, had implored the University of Sydney to let him have the discarded books for that university’s meagre collection, rather than destroy them, promising to meet all the costs of packing and posting to Bangladesh, and how this plea was rejected; how rare and important journals, considered out of date, were being carelessly scanned or just thrown away; how 90 per cent of the books and periodicals in the SciTech library had been removed from the shelves. And so on.

I had picked up a copy of Alex Byrne’s flyer, ‘Revitalising the Mitchell Library’, from the librarians’ desk at the Mitchell. When I read that ‘The Mitchell Library Reading Room will continue to function as a public reading room … The Mitchell building renewal will open up more of the building for public use’, I recalled how a big fashion parade by the innovative label ‘Romance Was Born’ had been held in the Mitchell Reading Room (http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/bejewelled-fantasy-born-of-fashion-as-a-neverending-story-20110501-1e397.html) a couple of years ago. When I learnt that ‘There will be more tables and chairs in the Mitchell Reading Room, as well as free Wi-Fi. You can keep your bags and bottled water with you’, I thought I had better illustrate the outcome of this kind of ‘philosophy’ at the University of Sydney.

The SciTech library was opened in 2008, following an international design competition and perhaps too much consultation with staff and student library users. It is reminiscent of a junior children’s playground: the shelving units are set well apart from each other in various bright colours; there is a board at the back of the room for drawing on, and green fabric sofas to curl up on, while a long, smooth, blue-green waist-high installation is mysteriously suggestive of a waterslide. There is a built-in water bubbler inside near the main entrance, where another installation, pale green and at floor level, brings to mind a skateboard ramp. In cosy cubicles, padded bench seats face each other across a work-table; at exam time, these cubicles take on an air of occupied cubby-houses or gypsy camps. Chairs and small round tables hint at a cafe atmosphere, but most students choose to keep their snacks and drinks handy on the desktop, right beside their books.

Many bookshelves, and most of the books that were housed within them, have been removed to make way for all these comforts. Many researchers have had their hearts broken by the loss of rare key publications, whose fold-out maps, graphs, diagrams, tables of figures and so on, are irretrievably omitted by the scanner during digitisation.

Such is the regular use of the SciTech library that some of its design features are showing signs of wear and tear. Foam-rubber is bursting out of the soft furnishings, which have also attracted food stains, while bits are missing from the multi-patterned melamine desk-top surfaces. Fisher Library’s refurbishment, however, is very recent. It is universally acknowledged that the palatial new toilets are a great success. Another surprising feature is the long airport-lounge-style room where students may sit at rows of computers, choose to watch something on a large plasma screen, or simply stretch out and sleep – as many often do at the end of a long day, or a long morning – on the sofa seats in the semi-private cubicles. They may put their fully-shod feet up on Fisher’s durable vinyl seat coverings with impunity. Those who want to converse may occupy any number of large brown squarish padded seats set out in rows, which, again, bring to mind an airport in, say, a small sub-tropical island periodically popular as a low-key tourist destination.

As in the SciTech library, there are no restrictions on the bringing of food and drink into Fisher. Chocolate biscuits, fruit salads and juices, flavoured milk, jam tarts, sandwiches, packets of sliced cheese, takeaway coffee, flasks of tea and, of course, bottled water, were all to be seen on the desks of library users. Hot food should be eaten in Fisher’s kitchen area, but dismembering at one’s desk a cold roast chicken would probably be quite acceptable. Alcohol, however, would have to be consumed discreetly (in a vacuum flask, say). In fact, it seems that really there are no particular limits or rules, and it would probably be quite easy to set up a small picnic in either library. ‘Yes, it’s very flexible,’ said a librarian behind the Service Desk.

It is rumoured that there is a plan to open Fisher library 24/7: your personal swipe card will let you in. As both a crash-pad and an Information Hub, this may well prove to be the ‘Way of the Future for Libraries’, a phrase often heard on the lips of librarians, many of whom are, from my own casual observations, suffering from politely-concealed resignation, even despair.

So, if the word ‘library’ suggests to you a place presided over by people dedicated to their profession, with multitudes of books, some of which you never knew existed (preferably housed in shelves reaching to the ceiling), which you can take hold of and explore in peace at a desk, then perhaps we need a different word for all these other joints.

It is very curious to read a paper on the importance of libraries written by Alex Byrne for a conference at UTS in 2002. It is called ‘Necromancy or Life Support – Libraries, Democracy, and the Concerned Intellectual’ . Reading it, you would think that he was the perfect fellow to look after the State Library of NSW. He seems to have done a complete about-face. Why?

Sally McInerney

I loved Michael Wilding’s overview of the parlous state of our libraries. It is certainly true in my experience. Even our local library is victim to the unseen burning of books that has been going on for a decade or so. Books that I have borrowed before vanish. Whole sections of the expensive new reference book sets disappear. This, of course, makes plenty of space to enable the addition of lounge chairs and wide spaces – in short, to turn the library into an Internet cafe to drop into and hang out! How cool. How dumb. So much for the clever country.

Dr Antony Howe

Gordon, NSW

Published March 14, 2014