An implosion of knowledge

By Humphrey McQueen

Meanjin, March 2009.

A poor box in the foyer of the National Library of Australia invites tourists to donate to the construction of a Treasures Gallery, a project which further devalues three of that institution’s treasures – its staff, its work-a-day collections and its readers.

During 1992, the National Library installed an exhibition space to compete for visitors with the War Memorial and the National Gallery. Over the summer of 2001-2, the Library garnered 168 gems from around the globe, including a scrap of paper on which Einstein had scribbled E=mc². The “showcased” presentation of these items as a cabinet of curiosities treated the public as gawkers. Typifying this disrespect to both the exhibits and the viewers, the E=mc² display did not explain the five components of that equation, as David Bodanis had done in his eponymous book the year before. Moreover, the vaunting of the Einstein formula was hypocritical since the Library had cancelled its order for his Collected Papers after volume two in 1993.

Spotlighting treasures is welcome when it ignites inquiries into a library’s holdings. The layout of the Albury Library-Museum encourages the interflow between wonder and research that Bruce Dawe praised in the poem commissioned for its opening in 2007:

That arts and learning merit our devotion

Just as our rivers feed both land and ocean.

Pandering to a culture of distraction dries up the tributaries to creativity and knowledge as shown by the 2001-02 Treasures. The National had failed to anticipate the flood of tourists, whom it accommodated at an additional expenditure of $1.85m., which it covered by shedding 7 percent of its staff. This self-inflicted wound is not part of the PR to fund the Treasures Gallery, but is reason to ask why the begging bowl is not out for core functions.

Diversions such as the Treasures Gallery are a by-product of the drive by neo-liberal economists, across thirty-five years, to deal with a fiscal crisis of the state. From the 1940s, costs in the governmental sector rose because so many of its activities were services for which productivity is difficult to quantify; the solution became to contain costs by surrendering quality. This causal chain is not peculiar to libraries. Policies in health and education are set by Ministries of Finance relying on technologies to cut costs.

The agents of this enforcement presume that expertise and experience are barriers to effectiveness. The gulf between these managerialists and managers is apparent by comparing the culturally rich writings of Peter Drucker (1909-2005), who quipped that “guru” was short for “charlatan”, with the managerialists’ how-to manuals and MBA syllabi, which churn through as many fads and fashions as are thrown up for diets or child-raising. The managerialists’ preferred mode of presentation, PowerPoint, captures this mind set with its dotpoints devoid of doing words. According to “the da Vinci” of visualising data, Edward R. Tufte, the cognitive style of “PowerPoint corrupts absolutely” as information becomes a sales pitch, befitting its origins at Microsoft. The managerialists impose their eschewal of experience and expertise on libraries by hollowing out the qualities and substance needed to create knowledge.

The undermining of libraries as laboratories for knowledge is underpinned by assumptions within the libraries that service the Commonwealth government. All Departmental librarians in a survey agreed that a public servant’s ability to find “needed information effectively and efficiently” is a standard for information literacy, but only 60 percent included the bureaucrat’s capacity to construct “new concepts or create new understandings”.

This privileging of access to data above its application means that the debate over whether libraries are in the book business or the information business is diverting us from the thought that they should be in the knowledge business, “business” having become apposite once neo-liberals set the agenda. Knowledge is being redefined by the access that computer clusters offer to ever more bits. In the digital domain, “new” is more often about devices than depth of comprehension.

Conceptualising this shift, the editor-in-chief of Wired, Chris Anderson, claims that, in talking about the expansion of data storage from kilobytes, to megabytes and onto terabytes, “we went from the folder analogy to the file-cabinet analogy to the library analogy”; at petabytes, “we ran out of organisational analogies.” Anderson extrapolates this misconstruing of the links between the volume of data and its retrieval to overturn the logic of scientific inquiry. In place of conjecture and refutation, he proposes that sifting through an avalanche of data will reveal patterns of how the world works. If this style is dubious for the natural sciences, reliance on aggregation is debilitating for any area where reflection is at the core, and where the grail is a new way of thinking about a subject, not just the acquisition of details, or the crafting of techniques with which to classify them.

Oblivious to epistemic complexity, the immediate Past President of the Academy of the Humanities, Professor Graeme Turner, rhapsodised over how digitalisation will “modernise our research practices”:

Once a researcher seeking to know what was said about, say, Percy Grainger at the time of his performances in a particular newspaper, would have had to wade through many, many reams (sic) of microfilms. It is now possible to simply enter his name into a search tool for a particular newspaper and wait for the list of articles mentioning his name to appear.

Testing Turner’s claims in August 2008, I found that only slender runs of six relevant Australian newspapers had been digitalised, a limitation which will shrink with time, although the paucity is masked by the mantra, “You should have been here tomorrow.”

Because most digitalised newspapers are bitmapped from microfilm, researchers are in for a terrible time. The initial copying was carried out by untrained operatives who skipped, scrunched and inverted pages; when the papers were not ripped from their binding to make the microfilms on the cheap, their reproduction was blurred at the inner margins. Here again is quality sacrificed to cost, as in their digitalising. To compensate for illegibility, the wording of each item is retyped alongside the item but this help turns into a hindrance when a 1924 letter to the Courier-Mail appears as “Mr Pei ey Giainger’s mus credo.” Twenty-first century technologies are returning scholarship to the transcription errors of twelfth-century scribes. This garbage-out cannot be avoided because of the garbage-in from shoddy microfilms.

Beyond the scruffiness of the digital there arise three concerns about its impact on content and context. First, is giving priority to the materials most in demand channeling research towards issues already explored? Although trade journals are invaluable for angles beyond those concealed by the daily press, none is high on the digitalisers’ wish list.

Secondly, the spread of colour throughout Australia became invisible with microfilming, and will not return when the reels are digitalised. Colour pages are sources for investigating not just the print medium itself, notably cartoons, but also for the marketing of paints and fabrics, and hence for studies of architecture and fashion.

Thirdly, working from the hardcopy, or microfilm, obliges us to glance across the rest of the page, including the advertisements. Will the popping-up of digital snippets blind researchers to contexts for their chosen subject? For instance, the British-Australasian maps Grainger’s activities and contacts, while allowing a researcher to survey the culture and society through which he made his way. Of graver moment is whether the pop-ups are likely to prevent the recognition of new fields for discovery. I became alert to colour while pursuing the political economy of the mass media, before their colour segments led me on to investigating plastics, glamour and then standardisation.

Digitalised newspapers and books offer fair-average-quality (f.a.q.) indexes and concordances, though these lack the see-also references and generic subject headings of the printed ones, so that, unless a phrase or name appears in the text, we still will not locate all relevant items.

No single or simple solution exists for finding most of what we need. Search engines that operate as popularity contests can not replace expert guidance, whether from library staff or a web of contacts. My on-line search for a passage from Mark Twain, which I had in a corrupted version, was unsuccessful until directed to a low-priority site by a Twain expert whom I contacted through a friend teaching American literature. Neither of my advantages in this quest is about to go global. Even less probable will be the marketing of a device which draws us beyond frequently asked questions towards those that we are yet to frame.

The constrictions that digitalising places on imaginative leaps show up in multiple ways. As libraries receive fewer hardcopy journals, browsing the latest periodicals is being lost as a springboard for fresh connections within and across disciplines.

Digital is a challenge not only to libraries but to print itself. Yet, how many digitalisers have read through even one book on screen? Because we adapt to our technological environments, our concentration span for such a knack might reach 5,000 words, a level which will not have taken us beyond a chapter of Kathy Lette’s To Love, Honour and Betray. Sales of e-books in the US were under $US14m. in late 2008. On-screen resolution remains poor despite the expense of the readers.

Were libraries to keep up with the hottest devices, all their budgets would go on systems of unproven worth. Lesson one from twenty-five years of diminishing costs and an explosion of functions is to delay purchase until the newest offering has got cheaper and its glitches ironed out. By embracing technologies as the answer to cost pressures, the managerialists bumbled into the runaway costs from digital supply, compounded by volatile exchange rates. William Burroughs warned: “They don’t want your money. They want all your money.” For instance, recurrent access fees to periodicals limit outlays on journals, and other materials. In failing to stand up to the publishers, managerialists have made us all victims of their chatter about the “demand” for digital.

Technological challenges to physical libraries also threaten the accessing of their resources without a fee. Copyrighted books, site-licensed data-bases and expensive web-searches could be supplied by marrying on-line delivery to fee-charging, as with porn sites and i-tunes.
User-pays, however, is overdue for the tertiary institutions, such as RMIT, that pass the provision of information services to State Libraries. The danger in transferring a fraction of student fees to library budgets is that the neo-liberals will take that income as an excuse to cut tax-based funding.

On top of delays and cost over-runs is the failure rate among the latest systems, notably, in the write-off of $6m. from the World 1 scheme at the NLA in 1996-97. The people presiding over such stuff-ups still have the cheek to promote their next extravagance by abusing their critics as “Luddities”.

The virtualisers should go on line to learn that a majority of those rebels broke only the machines that smashed their livelihood. Luddites are slandered as opponents of technology in order to obliterate their class consciousness. Like them, we need to discriminate. On one hand are the blessings of linked catalogues and ordering on-line before we reach the library, thereby compensating for reduced retrieval hours and off-site storage. On the other, the benefits are diminished when the Library of Congress trims the $US250 cost of cataloguing a book by including only two subject-headings.

One paradox is that the people plumping for on-line nostrums are from the generations that they themselves disparage as “digital immigrants”. Hence, many managerialists exhibit an anxiety not to be labeled fuddy-duddies. Politicians also fear being left behind in the bidding race to help “our children’s children”. The 1998 promise by Victoria’s Education Minister’s to abolish school libraries concealed a Kennett cost-cut behind blather about being cutting-edge with on-line delivery, a pitch exposed by k. Rudd’s promise of computers in classrooms without the supports to keep them running. The lauding of children as digital “natives” over digital “immigrants” denies the advantage from a multicultural Australia in which newcomers contribute by raising questions because they feel alien. The assumption that whiz-bangery will attract the digital natives is confounded by AustLit, an advanced search engine, with a richness of content, while enrollments in Australian Literature courses shrink.

Technologies challenge the arrangement of library spaces as well as their spatial survival. Melbourne’s Dome and Sydney’s Mitchell Wing are as handsome as they are handicapped for coping with conflicting uses, whereas Queensland reopened late in 2006 with a floor plan adapted to the prospective technologies. Its ground level allows for
emailing mum in Oslo and other amusements. To access the collections, the user must leave that floor and re-enter on the next levels, an arrangement which permits a delineation of behaviours. By contrast, managerialists at the State Library of Victoria are compounding its spatial disadvantages by encouraging noise from Fashion Weeks and by re-badging “readers” as “visitors” to appease Treasury.

Because real-estate prices impede the addition of stacks adjacent to inner-city libraries, ever more holdings are being moved off-site, causing waits of 24-hours, a delay which impels further reliance on data from the web, and plagarism. Even where governments own the land, the pressure from neo-liberals is to sell that asset to boost budget surpluses and thus to reduce pressure on interest rates for the corporate sector. When the University of Melbourne’s Baillieu boasts about consigning its collection off-site in order to be refitted as an airport lounge for First-Class passengers, distraction culture is promising not so much a cybrary as an amusement arcade. At Harvard College, the Widener
is yet to catch up with its antipodean rival by rusticating the rest of its stock.

Although off-site is preferable to dumping, the relocation means that researchers cannot browse the stacks and must rely on the accuracy of the computerisation of card catalogues, which were scanned on the cheap in the Philippines. More than ever, therefore, users need research librarians and stack attendants who know their holdings, not clerical assistants hired as temporary casuals. Not every primary source lends itself to cataloguing as if it were a monograph; only familiarity with a collection reveals its treasures, as the National Library had to acknowledge with its re-establishment of the post of music librarian.

Free public libraries are recent inventions, which may prove one of the oddities of the last century. Long after the 1935 Munn-Pitt Report had documented the appalling state of libraries here, major collections of printed materials remained exceptional. By 1955, government and university collections held one book for every two Australians. Among the worst-off was Brisbane where my high-school had no library, my sources of non-fiction were family friends and four shelves in a commercial lending library, while the State Library remained an embarrassment and the University’s stacks were not keeping up with enrollments. Around the continent, little improved until the Commonwealth funded universities after 1957 and high-school libraries from 1969. Similar lags applied to the profession which relied on in-house training until universities offered diplomas in the 1960s.

Signs of the morbidity of libraries are appearing at both ends of the network in the pressure on research facilities and on local services.

Time was when State Librarians built up regional materials in the hands of staff cognisant with that field. This specialisation is vital if Australian History in schools is to excite teachers and students since its content will need replenishing by research into experiences connected with each district. Those resources
remain under siege because they refute the managerialist presumptions against expertise. The good news is that a campaign to protect the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland from its cybrarians resolved cost problems by arranging for the Fryer’s space and staff also to service post-graduates from several disciplines, thereby allowing it to open for more hours than any other research collection. Protests also preserved the Noel Butlin Archives Centre of trade union and business records at the Australian National University in the face of the devaluing of corporate memory by neo-liberal executives frothing after mergers and acquisitions.

The Mortlock in Adelaide, however, has been degraded into a display case at the expense of a living collection. Fashioning the most beautiful room in Australia is nonetheless vandalism. When, in 2006, I asked at the general information desk for guidance on locally-published trade journals, the staff admitted that they could not help because they had been multi-skilled, a change from which we have all suffered. By contrast, two years earlier, the staff at the Battye in Perth had been delighted to guide me through the shelf lists. They had not had the benefits of a “change agent”.

To avoid the outcry from shutting down a specialist facility, neo-liberals impose death by a thousand cuts. The Petherick Room in the National Library provides researchers with conditions which are splendid by comparison to those elsewhere, but are less so when contrasted with those I appreciated on taking up residence in 1970. Stack service stops at 5pm, when the newspaper reading room shuts, and there is no access to manuscripts on Sundays. These contractions increase pressure on resources when they are available. Should the shrinking of services discourage demand, that decline is used to justify further reductions.

Free public libraries are in the front-line because, no matter how much they cut costs, their existence affronts the neo-liberals for whom individuals have an inalienable right to spend their incomes on themselves. Most of us find in free public libraries a convincing argument for the obverse view since they offer access to a range of materials that few rate-payers could afford – an exemplar of taxes buying civilisation.

One ambition behind the municipal initiatives was to offer access to the Great Tradition by maintaining, for example, a set of the Everyman Classics. Library websites now boast about “offering more than books”. It is one thing to use visual and aural materials as attractions towards reading, and another to compete with the DVD store. Such a diversion of resources is misguided when local libraries are starved for funds while striving to add materials in languages other than English, balancing original works in Chinese with a Czech translation of War and Peace. Despite these pressures, six local libraries
have kept the faith alive by
purchasing the 2005 translation of Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers.

Closure of the Griffith Branch of the ACT Library late in 2007 provoked a protest rally by 1,000 readers, in vain, but then the dispossessed set up a community library with donations and volunteers from retired librarians. Their commitment confirms Dorothy Green’s hope that the roots remain sound long after cultural die-back has started at the top.

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