Libraries, learning and growth and structural change – Post 2

 Second in a series, this post explores the promise of libraries, its nature, implications and imperatives in the midst of profound structural change.

Towards the end of my last post I showed this graph – daily visits to the State Library from 1982 to 2005, just before the opening of the current State Library building. I remarked that it showed an organisation feeling the first chill winds of structural change - change profound and far reaching enough to compel an industry to operate fundamentally differently. The structural changes this graph shows arise from the information and technology revolution. How much has changed in such a short time!

Another remarkable thing about this graph is that the Queensland Government kept the faith and invested heavily in a grand new State Library building, just at a time when visitation had been in decline for several years and visions of utopian publishing futures, in which readers directly connect with writers without the help of mediating institutions like libraries, were taking root in the popular imagination. It’s the nature of such faith which I want to explore in this post.

A general community survey conducted in 2009 found that nearly a quarter of respondents who had never visited the State Library nevertheless rated it as 'extremely valuable' to the community and another quarter rated it as 'very valuable'. How can this be? How can you intensely value something without ever having actually experienced it?

In the last few surveys of State Library’s onsite visitors, respondents were asked to indicate the overall nature of their visit experience along a Maslow like scale of human needs, ranging from simple physical comfort at one extreme to ‘self-actualisation’ at the other. Remarkably, a very high proportion of responses were towards the self-actualisation end of the spectrum, but even more remarkably this was quite unrelated to what respondents actually did during their visits. Even backpackers using the library’s computer terminals to check their email reported having self-actualising experiences.

Quite independently of what libraries actually do, people’s experience of them typically resonates with promise. Twenty years ago libraries could secure a favoured place in people’s hearts and minds by doing what they’d more or less always done: acquiring and making accessible an intelligently selected range of print publications. Ever increasingly that’s not enough. That ongoing and far reaching change is the condition of libraries continuing to fulfil the sense of promise they have always inspired is clear, but exactly what change is required is not. Knowing what to do must at least depend on a clear understanding of that promise.

Of course, at this difficult juncture libraries could seek to occupy a new place in people’s hearts other than the place they’ve always occupied, to assert a new reason to be loved. But the terms of love can’t be dictated. Great change may be conceived as a radical break with the past, a paradigm shift, when the world is made anew. Alternatively it may spring from paradoxically conservative impulses, the desire to perpetuate a deeper continuity.

The promise of libraries seems to have something to do with the fact that they’re centrally concerned with learning and growth by all in their midst – “All Queenslanders cultural, social and intellectual development”, in the starched words of Queensland’s Libraries Act 1988. Other types of institution have essentially the same objective and, indeed, the governing statutes of Queensland’s state art gallery, museum and performing arts organisation are identical to the State Library’s in this respect.

Public libraries, art galleries and museums arose in the mid nineteenth century from the same motivations which gave rise to public education systems, one aspect of a much wider expansion of state institutions, impelled by the burgeoning needs of societies turned inside out by the industrial revolution. The state’s foray into mass enlightenment had multiple aims, variously idealistic, instrumental and political:  individual empowerment and fulfillment of potential, both as an end in itself and the condition of a thriving collective;  the capable labour force the machine age demanded; the hearts and minds of a restive dislocated population won over to the new liberal, entrepreneurial order. In some sense the new public institutions were the reincarnation of the original commons, paradoxically enclosed to make way for that order, not many years before.

It is difficult to understand the value of what we inherit without understanding how and why it came to be. History may open our eyes to what we might not otherwise see but, in a different way, it also exposes paths of belonging along which we're all drawn. I’m always struck by how often the subjects of the hit television program, Who Do You Think You Are, break down on learning of the calamitous fate of some typically distant ancestor. It happens every week, like clockwork: the grief moment. A friend of mine reckons it’s all manipulation, but the tears seem real and spontaneous enough to me. Evidently, the calamity is keenly felt, as if it occurred yesterday to an immediate family member. The paths of belonging stretch back through the generations and loss is hard to bear wherever along those paths it is encountered.

Perhaps because it coincides with personally becoming entranced by the promise of libraries an image from the Bosnian War (1992 – 1995) has remained vivid to me – the Bosnian National Library burning in the early days of the long siege of Sarajevo, set alight by twenty-five deliberately aimed incendiary shells.  The library burned for three day. Under sniper fire librarians and citizens of Sarajevo tried to save what they could. By some reports over two hundred died, but little was saved, cherished paths of belonging foreclosed.  The skies over Sarajevo were filled with fragments of paper from the burning books, lifted by the fire's updraft before being caught by other winds.

Across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union the collapse of communism had propelled many societies to a crossroad and in some cases into savage conflict. Suddenly old certitudes had gone.

Invariably, the first thing on the minds of bush fire victims – when no one has died or been hurt - is whether or not the family photos were saved. From further back than I can remember my father chronicled family life with a Super 8 camera, my brothers and I growing up in 1960s and 1970s Brisbane. The ability of Kodachrome film stock to render the past more halcyon than it probably was is legendary, commonly thought to have something to do with colour but which filmmakers I’ve talked to attribute to Kodachrome’s unique ability to register shades of black.

Periodically, when each small roll of film had come back from being developed, we would gather after dinner to watch the latest three minute installment of the chronicle, clustering around the projector at one end of the long kitchen table. One of the last of these film nights was a retrospective when for the first time I saw film shot before I was born. I would like to describe what I saw but I can’t remember much. I remember a scene shot one afternoon in the backyard of the first house I lived in. I remember my two brothers, both of them running around in undersized terry toweling shirts, one blue and the other yellow, and my mother, heavily pregnant with me. It must have been September or October, the afternoon spring light breaking into great pools of shadow. I remember seeing my father, which means my mother must have momentarily had the camera. He was watching my brothers and then he turned to the camera and said something, before looking away again.

This is my first memory. I took it with me through the years, from one place to another. In my mid-twenties I asked my father if I could watch the films again.  Bewilderingly, in a spectacular year zero moment he’d thrown them away, some time before.

In a long stint working with the State Library’s film collection I acquired a film, A Song of Air, by a local filmmaker, Merilee Bennett, an elegy to her father based on the home movies he’d shot over the years. It’s a beautiful film. Widely acclaimed on its release in 1988, it continues to be written about and screened in film festival retrospectives all over the world. I’ve watched it many times and it remains a haunting puzzle – the entanglement of memory and its representation; a girl in a father’s family drama surviving to tell the tale; love, anger, remorse, belonging ... the reconciliation the past sometimes demands.  Towards the end of the film the camera tracks behind a woman in a darkened room sitting at an editing machine, gazing intently at the luminous screen, carefully and patiently  finding her way along the sometimes treacherous paths of belonging, back to her own time and the light of day.

The Bosnian War was a war of sieges and many of them ended sorrowfully, but the siege of Sarajevo eventually lifted. The painstaking restoration of the Bosnian National Library building has been ongoing since 1996 and finally, 18 years after the end of the war, is nearing completion. Libraries all over the world helped restore collections and catalogues. Scholars who had used the library before its destruction contributed whatever record they’d made of lost irreplaceable ancient manuscripts.

We don’t get to choose our own time and there’s so little time; not enough for resignation or regret. Emerging into the light of day, the first imperative is to see clearly:

At the heart of the promise of libraries beats the promise of literacy, communication made possible across space and time. The foundations of literacy are established in the holding environment of the original universal institution, the family. Within the child safe and sound enough to be entranced by a bedtime story are growing the fragile complex structures of self, intellect and imagination, by which literacy is constituted, to be endlessly elaborated over a long negotiation with formal education.

Schools aren’t loved much but sometimes teachers are.  The good teacher wins attention to meanings; overcomes indifference to meaning or the misapprehension and, sometimes, terror that words have no real meaning or, worse, have any meaning. It's an invaluable lesson that opens up the promise of literacy; that sets you free. Still, personally I had a terrible time with education until I realised it wasn’t meant to be about me, and then I could stop struggling. It was an epiphany that was a long time coming and when it did I was left feeling desolate. The threshold to freedom is desolate. It’s a gap you have to cross, a sea crossing, where a boat can get lost, or find its way.

Home is where we start from and school is where we must pay attention, but libraries are supposed to be about you. They’re supposed to be places where learning and growth are joined with freedom, that glitter with promise amidst the desolation. They’re supposed to be places where you can go with some need to know or discover or feel and find what best fulfils that need and others that may arise along the way – words, pictures … any form of captured meaning; sometimes other living breathing people to listen and talk to, or simply be with on the journey. Libraries are places for understanding and feeling and sometimes, for the few that are so inclined, for writing, or other old or new ways of capturing meaning and feeling.

Within a relatively short time following the advent of the Worldwide Web many libraries were struggling with the sorts of decline in usage represented by the graph at the beginning of this post. Needs that once would have required a visit to the nearest library came to be more easily addressed through the Worldwide Web. Some concluded that libraries relevance to fulfillment of their own promise had been fundamentally and terminally diminished.

Historically libraries were, in part, a response to scarcity - serving to make abundant what would otherwise be scarce because of cost and the normal depredations of time. The rise of the digital commons encouraged the view that scarcity of information and knowledge is a thing of the past, calling into question the continued relevance of libraries. But in crucial ways 'the commons  never progressed beyond a seductive idea. Because authors have to eat and publishers have to make money much publishing has never migrated to the commons and was never going to. In any case the commons is being increasingly enclosed, formerly free content disappearing behind pay walls.

As much as libraries have always addressed scarcity, ever since the invention of printing, dealing with overabundance – distilling all that’s available down to the best that’s available – has also been their other defining function. The latest wave of overabundance demands that libraries aspire to be more like channels or broadcasters than warehouses, where the logic of the archive and the logic of programming are harmonised.

Perhaps the greatest structural threat to libraries is often overlooked, probably because it’s legal and not technical in nature. It lies in the fact that whereas in the print domain libraries can legally distribute publications potentially endlessly without compensating the copyright owner, in the digital domain they must submit to the copyright owners’ terms. This really amounts to an existential threat, to which there is no clear solution. As libraries venture further into the brave new digital world, copyright is an ever deepening fault line running through everything they do.

Libraries cohere around relationships of various kinds – between people and content, people and library workers, people with each other, libraries and other institutions of mass enlightenment; libraries and communities. Eliding various kinds of separation digital technologies and networks potentially expand all these kinds of relationship, but always subject to the often limiting constraints of copyright. Innovation tends to thrive where constraints are weakest. Thus many libraries, including this one, have become highly innovative e publishers of out of copyright content in long accumulated legal deposit and heritage collections.

… Emerging into the light of day, the present’s hostile glare, I have tried to see clearly. In future posts I will return to the themes I've explored here - continuity and change, belonging and loss, sorrow and courage, learning and growth, literacy, education, freedom … libraries. But for now I hope I have provided a map showing how all these things are interconnected.


We welcome relevant, respectful comments.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.
We also welcome direct feedback via Contact Us.
You may also want to ask our librarians.

Such a great exploration of fundamental public institutions and their personal importance. Libraries are too easily forgotten. Unlike the web which is this mess of information libraries are (or should be) a source of reasoned and thoughtful information and discussion.

Bravo Tim - these pieces were a joy to read .. it’s so rare to encounter this kind of sensitive reflection in the professional library literature. You write elegantly and with great clarity about these matters that confound us, and I love your use of the biographical anecdote. As for your graphs.. they are clearly a reflection of a great creative mind.. I look forward to your next installments.