This morning I was putting the finishing touches on my anatomy illustration essay — adding high quality digital images from the Wellcome Collection and the National Library of Medicine to demonstrate many of the points I’d made in writing. During my research I’d used these online galleries to scope out primary sources before tackling the originals, and I was grateful that they were available for research and that the images could be downloaded to add visual impact to my completed text.
Adding images to a Word document can be a bit tedious, though, so when I finished I took a quick break to scan the news online, including Stuff, the web portal of New Zealand’s Dominion Post. Between 2006 and 2007 I lived in Wellington on a working holiday visa, and I was dismayed to see the headline ‘From Library to Digital Disneyland‘ alongside a picture of the National Library. The beauty and mystery of the internet: in just a few seconds I had moved from the productive, academic use of a digital library to an op-ed piece attacking a digital initiative.
The article is by Jim Traue, a former chief librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library, a specialized collection within the National Library. The piece is in reaction to planned changes to the library, particularly a new emphasis on digitization and access to digital materials for visitors on the ground floor. But rather than a thoughtful critique of the plan’s details, or suggestions for changes and improvements, Traue has written a reactionary spiel. He seems to be trapped in an antiquated mindset that sees digital technology as a threat and national librarians as the guardians of cold, inaccessible buildings housing materials for the use of specialists.
One of Traue’s arguments is that it is too costly for libraries to work directly with digital technologies:
The division of costs between the research library and the researchers and publishers is being eroded. Traditionally, the research library gathered and preserved the original documents, and the staff organised them for use by researchers, courtesy of the taxpayer.
It was up to the researchers to invest their time to convert the raw materials in the library into finished products, and for the publishers to find the money to publish and distribute them.
Now the National Library is becoming a major publisher, at an increasing cost to the taxpayer, and staff will find themselves more and more involved in the time-consuming work required to get material prepared for digital publication.
Traue seems to think that that digital imaging should be a side agenda for national libraries, rather than a driving mandate. He needs to catch up with modernity.
Major libraries around the world are embracing digital technology. And these libraries are joining together for mutual support and the expansion of access, as we have seen with recent programs such as Europeana and the World Digital Library. There are important challenges associated with digitization (such as cost, access to technology and talent, and managing digital preservation) but there are also many reasons to embrace this movement. Digital materials dramatically increase the number of people who have access to documents without the damage that accrues through handling. They offer sophisticated new methods for approaching material, such as software assisted text and image analysis and advanced search capabilities. Accurate digital copies can be made and circulated amongst scholars in the blink of an eye, and connections may be discerned between isolated documents that an individual researcher would never have seen side-by-side in the past. From a preservation standpoint, high quality images can be compared to judge an item’s rate of decay and to determine if it needs conservation work, and what type. Digital copies of rare material mean that, should the unthinkable happen, there will still be a valuable record of lost, damaged, or destroyed items. Today, digital librarianship is not the ‘cherry on top’ that an institution can choose to explore if it has some extra cash. It is part of the main course alongside traditional library and archival methods. It is to the credit of the leaders at the National Library that they are not letting New Zealand fall behind the rest of the world. (As to the ridiculous notion that it should be for-profit publishers managing the dissemination of cultural materials, I would refer you to the on-going Google Book Search controversy.)
Traue’s dismissive and uninformed attitude toward digital librarianship is annoying, but not unexpected at a time of rapid technological change. The truly troubling part of the piece comes with his blatant derision of the public. You can practically see the sneer on his face when he states:
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.
Traue seems to have forgotten that a national library is the repository for a shared public heritage. Even though it is not a lending library it still has a mandate to provide, even encourage, public access, and not just for intellectuals. In the past this was understandably difficult because the main goal is always preservation, which conflicts with access. But technology has dramatically expanded our ability to share cultural objects. This has worked with resounding success at the British Library, which has a public lobby and galleries complete with touch-screen monitors for the Turning the Pages initiative, allowing anyone to interact with digital facsimiles of important and beautiful books. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked through the lobby of the British Library and seen someone blissfully examining the Diamond Sutra or the Lindisfarne Gospels. Other libraries, including the US Library of Congress, have similar programs. It sounds like this is the model for the changes in New Zealand, and I find it difficult to comprehend how this would be ‘Disneyfying’ the library. Surely anyone visiting a library in the first place would be seeking education and enlightenment, rather than mindless entertainment as Traue seems to imply.
Instead of insulting the general public, it might be useful to consider what these visitors could do for the library, and the important connections that could be forged between the public and the institution. A visitor who is able to interact with the materials in the library, who has a pleasant and educational experience, makes a real connection, and comes away with an understanding of the institution’s purpose is much more likely to support library initiatives and government funding. That is not to say that the public face should be put ahead of other missions such as collection, preservation, and research just for an increase in visitors and funding. But Traue has offered no hard evidence that the plan will negatively affect other library goals.
I’m not privy to what’s happening at the National Library of New Zealand. There could be legitimate concerns about the way that change is being introduced or how money is being spent. But you wouldn’t know that from this piece, which has little to say of substance. Reactionary diatribes, like futurist theories of digital utopias, should not be given the spotlight. National institutions, government, and the media need to engage in thoughtful dialogues about how technology is incorporated into the missions of libraries. And rather than avoiding change, libraries must approach the future positively and explore new ways of interacting with the people they serve, whether they have PhDs or not.