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Revolutionary times

The Library celebrates traditional collections while embracing the digital age of changing technology. 

This is not the first time someone has noticed that libraries are going through the greatest period of change since Caxton, Gutenberg and the development of commercial printing. People talk of the digital revolution — and revolution is not too strong a word. 

John Vallance photo

Dr John Vallance, in framed pictures store, photo by Joy Lai 

Only a few weeks back, someone speaking at the Library claimed that if you are not digital in the twenty-first century, you don’t exist. Like most slogans, this is not altogether true. It is certainly not true in the context of the State Library of NSW where the vast bulk of our unique collection exists solely in physical form. 

But it is not altogether untrue, either. 

In the peaceful corners of the prosperous West, ‘revolution’ is commonly held to be a good thing. A recent arrival, a refugee from the Middle East, told me that no one who has lived through a real revolution would ever say that. Without wishing to draw an insensitive analogy between human suffering on a grand scale and the organisation of libraries, our digital revolution brings with it both good and bad. 

Digital technology really has revolutionised the ways in which libraries can collect, preserve and present their material to readers. As a PhD student I had to make a special trip to Paris to inspect a manuscript of Lucretius. Today I can look at a high resolution scan of it online at my desk in rural New South Wales. (Hugely convenient, of course, but to be honest I enjoyed the trip to Paris more than the week deciphering the manuscript.)

On the other hand, overzealous library administrators have arguably done a great deal of damage through their enthusiasm for new technology. More than 10 years ago, James Raven put it like this:

Books and libraries have always been on the move, and quite aside from disasters and the looting of aggressors, library ‘weeding’ can be conducted on the grand scale. During the past twenty years, for example, and quite in addition to the ever present sale of great private (and sometimes institutional) collections, the reorganisation of public library systems, ill-conceived campaigns to increase literacy by rethinking the nature of the library and over-hasty attempts to replace book stacks with digital storage units have led to the destruction of public libraries across Western and now Eastern Europe. Particularly catastrophic has been the widespread decommissioning and destruction of old card indexes and other library catalogues as a consequence of computerised library catalogues and digitised texts.

If relations between books and bytes are not as straightforward as you might think, relations between libraries and those who use them are equally complicated. The choice for libraries is not a binary one — it is not a matter of choosing between a digital or physical path. Libraries must do both. This library has a huge task ahead of it in seeing its current digitisation program through to the point where readers can find, display and (where appropriate) download material with a minimum of difficulty, while at the same time having ready access to physical items in the collection. 

We are focusing on improving services for all — from small children coming in to Macquarie Street during school holidays, through to scholars working on original research and everyone in between — whether they visit us in person, through their local library, or online. We no longer refer to ‘clients’, but to ‘readers’ and ‘visitors’. 

Work is now underway to improve the online catalogues, and to enhance curatorial expertise in traditional areas and develop new specialist capacity in areas such as the collection and presentation of born-digital and Indigenous material. More and more digitised material is being made available through our website, which is itself the subject of a review intended to find ways of making it more accessible.

We have been collecting and connecting since 1826, and with this comes an obligation to protect and preserve our treasures without limiting access to them. Improvements to both physical and digital storage are a priority. Plans are in hand for the building of new collection care laboratories, thanks to the generosity of yet another of the Library’s great benefactors. (More about that in a future issue.) 

The new Michael Crouch Galleries in the Mitchell building will allow us, for the first time in our history, to put major parts of the collection on permanent public display. One of the most exciting aspects of this development centres on a plan to exhibit a large part of the Library’s unique holdings of landscape paintings, portraits and maps. We have one of the finest collections in the country and, by this time next year, I hope you will be able to judge for yourselves. 

Yes, we are in the middle of a revolution, but we need to ensure that all users of the Library come out on top. 

Dr John Vallance | NSW State Librarian

This article first appeared in SL magazine summer 2017–18.