PHILOSOPHY - AN IMPLOSION OF KNOWLEDGE
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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”.
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.
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.”
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”:
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.”
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.
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
the spread of colour throughout
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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”.
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
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
challenge the arrangement of library spaces as well as their spatial
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.
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
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.
of the morbidity of libraries are appearing at both ends of the network
in the pressure on research facilities and on local services.
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
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
, 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.
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
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.
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.
William J. Baumol, Performing arts, the economic dilemma: a study of problems common to
theater, opera, music and dance, Twentieth Century Fund, New
York, 1966; William J. Baumol, Economics
of academic libraries, American Council on Education,
Washington, DC, 1973.
Harvie Ramsey, “Managing Sceptically: a Critique of Organisational
Fashion”, Stewart R. Clegg and Gill Palmer (eds), The Politics of Management Knowledge, Sage,
Edward Tufte, The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint, Pitching out corrupts within,
Graphics Press, 2003; Wired,
September 2003, 11 (9), pp. 118-9.
Jennifer Kirton, Lyn Barham and Sean Brady, “Understanding and
practice in information literacy in Australian government
Library Journal, 57 (3), August 2008, pp. 237-256.
Gertrude Himmelfarb, “Revolution in the Library”, The
American Scholar, 66 (2), Spring 1977.
Hubert I. Dreyfus, On the internet, Routledge,
Chris Anderson, “The end of theory”, Wired,
16 (7), July 2008, pp. 108-9.
Graeme Turner, “Humanities Infrastructure Needs Recognised”, Symposium,
39, June-July 2008, pp. 14-15.
Nicholson Baker, Double Fold, Libraries and the
assault on paper, Random House, New York, 2001.
Thomas Mann, “The Importance of Books, Free Access, and Libraries
as Places – and the Dangerous Inadequacy of the Information
Science Paradigm”, Journal
of Academic Librarianship, 27 (4), 2001, pp. 268-81.
Peter Biskup and Doreen Goodman, Libraries
in Australia, Centre for Information Studies, Wagga Wagga, 1994;
volume I, Angus & Robertson, 1927, Sydney, pp. 737-40; Australian
Grollier Society of Australia, Sydney, 1963, volume 5, pp. 297-308.