Turnbull Library

Last week there was an interesting article in the Dom Post from Jim Traue, the former chief librarian of the . Traue is worried about planned changes:

For the past 40 years the Turnbull Library has been working out its role as the nation’s research library within the National Library.

It has developed a strong research library culture, a  system of ideas, customs and social behaviour which guides the staff’s thinking  and their actions.

A key idea is that the purpose of a research library is to enable researchers to immerse themselves in the documentary evidence and then to make the product of their investment of time, judgment and skill available to the public through a book, article, thesis, film, TV production. website or blog. A research library becomes an active partner with authors and publishers in creating the next generation of public knowledge.

I’m with him on this.

Lending libraries have different roles as front-of-house distributors of public knowledge. Their success is measured by feet through the front door, and the numbers of books borrowed. Research libraries don’t attempt to compete. Their success is measured by the number of additions to public knowledge created by the research community, which then become available through other libraries.

Okay it is about adding to public knowledge, not numbers through the door.

The managers at the National Library want to change the purpose of the National Library and its culture and operation. They have come up with a strategy to raise the public profile and make it more like a local public library in order to get more feet through the front door.

The strategy is “Te Papa-isation” with a twist. The library’s resources will no longer be geared to the needs of researchers but treated as a museum collection presented on-site in digital form.

The proposed redevelopment of the building is a logical manifestation of this new strategy. More of the Turnbull collections will be displayed, but it is envisaged that the major drawcard will be the filling of the entire ground floor with computer screens to give access to the Turnbull’s books, periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, photographs, paintings and drawings, maps and ephemera, online within the building. The priority for the Turnbull’s staff will now be to provide popular “content” for these digital displays and the increased exhibition of original materials. That “content” is essential to attract the projected 400,000 visitors a year.

I am not sure that you want 400,000 visitors a year to the Library, but I do think digitising as much of the content as possible would be a great thing.  I would love to be able to pop in and scan through digital archives of early newspapers, documents etc.

Chris Szekely, the Turnbull’s chief librarian (who also holds the new position of deputy national librarian), is assuring the public that the building makeover, mass digitisation and the restructuring of the Turnbull’s services will improve access and services for researchers.

Yeah, right. Instead of the Turnbull’s staff concentrating on building and organising comprehensive collections to provide total immersion for researchers creating new publications, their time and expertise will be diverted into preparing material for digitisation in order to feed the visitors clamouring for entertainment on the ground floor Disneyland. …

The staff have been pointing out these consequences but have been ignored. Senior management, convinced that they could not possibly be mistaken, have determined that such “negative” thinking is a result of the “Turnbull culture” and are determined to cauterise it so that a new “positive” culture can be grown in its place. An attitude change expert has been appointed, a “culture survey” compiled and a programme of “people change” is under way to rehabilitate the critics.

Welcome to the new digital museum experience. Pity about the research library experience. Welcome to the new digital museum culture. Pity about the research library culture. Once the barbarians were knocking on the gates. Now they are inside the walls and in charge. Now they are called managers.

Sounds like there are some unhappy staff there. I can relate to what Traue is saying about the need not to lose focus on supporting researchers. But having said that I think it is also a worthy goal making more content available digitially to a wider group of people. Hopefully they can manage both.

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