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Hot library smut

By Helen Pringle - posted Friday, 25 September 2009

There has been a lot of controversy around Kevin Rudd’s Building the Education Revolution program. One of the areas of controversy concerns the allocation of funding for the building of school libraries. For example, Riverleigh State School, with four students and under threat of closure, has been granted $250,000 for a new library. Media attention on this issue has focused on the mis-allocation of funds. However, a much more important question concerns the way in which the government is funding a revisioning of the very idea of the library.

Indeed, the Rudd program does not actually fund “libraries”, but rather the construction of “resource centres”. Holland Park State School in Brisbane has a good library, for instance, but has just received $1.5 million to build a “resource centre”. Annangrove Public School in Sydney is in a similar position.

The school library is now an endangered species. In its place is the “resource centre”, no longer a place of quiet study and contemplation, but a “space” for social interaction. Resource centres contain information instead of books, and an “information retrieval technologist” replaces the librarian.


The idea of the library is being transformed throughout our society, stretching right through to university libraries. A librarian at the University of Western Sydney recently praised the transformation of libraries into “spaces”, noting, “The closed collections of tight and dark book stacks, card catalogues and strictly silent environs of the typical university library of the 1970s and early 1980s, protected by the custodianship of the librarians, is seldom seen in Australia today … The custodial role of the librarian is now very much secondary to the more critical role of guiding and assisting students through the plethora of information and misinformation now available at the tap of a keystroke.”

Similarly, Macquarie University’s library has been transformed. At Macquarie’s new library, the “key design concepts for the building comprise light and connection [and] a strong sense of place”, with “flexible, configurable study spaces based on new approaches to learning space design for new generations of students”.  This radically new approach to the library is summed up in a paper that presents a masterpiece of Lego language:

Macquarie University is implementing a number of inter-related long-term strategies to deliver a new-generation library service that is client-centric rather than library-centric. In response to changing client expectations and to our University’s new strategy, we are making significant changes to service delivery, by redefining staff roles and our organisational structure, and by rebuilding our physical and electronic presence … This paper provides a high-level overview of the key design concepts and the design process, including the utilisation of automated storage technologies to maximise the space available for clients.

A merit of these “automated storage technologies” is said to be that “retrieval is so much faster than walking the stacks and clients can request that items be retrieved for their use before they set foot in the library” - or presumably, without setting foot in the library at all.

This same model of “client-centric space” is taking over civic and council libraries. For example, the new “state of the art” Surry Hills library in Sydney is no longer a quiet place where the “muffled laughter from schoolchildren echoes around a solemn library”, but has instead become “a buzzing community and recreational centre with the hum and chatter of many voices”. (Jo Casamento, “Read it and Greet”, Sydney Morning Herald, June 19, 2009.)

The culture and libraries manager of the Surry Hills “space” told the Herald reporter, approvingly, that “The librarian who goes around shushing everyone really is a thing of the past”. The library has become a “space”, one where “you know everybody and you socialise”. Use of the library had risen, according to the manager, because people “were simply attracted by the building, which looks fabulous with all the lights on it looks really sexy”. And of course, she added, “People are coming in, sitting on the sofas or on the tables and just being in the space to socialise so it’s a bit of a community living room as well. Lots of people are coming in to just use the computers and free Wi-Fi service ... so it does perform a social welfare benefit.”


From reading the report on the Surry Hills Library, it is unclear whether there are any books left in the “space”. If there are, no mention is made of them. Perhaps the books have been removed, like the crosses in Hillsong churches, in order not to intimidate the “clients”. And without books having to take up precious space, hopefully there might be room for a play area like Småland, the ball-pit at Ikea, in which parents can drop the children on the way to the computers.

There are so many bad ideas converging in this celebration of the transformation of the library, all of them expressed in impenetrable language. One of the most insidious is the denigration of silence: the library’s vow of silence has been lifted without any appreciation of the purposes it served for nurturing the inner life of its readers, young or old.

In this context, Garrison Keillor remembers the libraries of his childhood, where the librarian “simply presided over an orderly world in which you had the freedom of your own imagination. The silence was not repressive but liberating: to allow your imagination to play, uninhibited by others.” The old libraries where the librarians shushed chatterers (and more recently, mobile phone users) were places where people of any age could turn inwards, free from being pushed and prodded, where they could find the time and the place to develop an inner life, without which a person is a danger to him or her self, as well as to others.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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