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library funding cuts

Library Funding Cuts

Recently the State Government announced that funding will be reduced for the State Library of South Australia in the coming three years. Media reports suggest that the Library has been charged with finding $6 million in savings, which equates to the loss of 20 of its 115 full-time employees. (note that these figures have subsequently been corrected by the Director of the State Library)

Last week, author Stephen Orr wrote an article for InDaily in defence of the Library, arguing that it is a soft target for government cuts, and suggesting that it needs to be allocated more money, not less.

Like Orr, I believe that ‘the library’, as an institution, is a critical component of civil society, and one which is absolutely worthy of ongoing investment. But I don’t necessarily agree that more funding is the answer, particularly if that increased funding were to be used simply to perpetuate the existing operations and to maintain the status quo at the State Library.


Commentators often cite the degradation of cultural institutions by oppressive regimes (for example, book burning by the Nazis) as a cautionary tale against a shift to philistinism. But any claim that suggests that these funding cuts are an act of philistinism by the government fails to consider pressing issues faced by the State Library, and libraries more generally the world over.

Just as the government’s funding cuts have seemingly been imposed with the stroke of a red pen, the counter-argument for ‘more funding’ is similarly expedient, a default position for artists who reflexively bemoan efficiency measures by a draconian ‘State’.

Those who offer this counter-argument lean on the classical conception of what a library is – a repository of books – and fail to help build the conception of what a modern library can and should be in the new digital economy.

State Library versus Public Libraries

Here it is important to make a distinction between the operations of the central State Library and the network of public libraries that operate throughout South Australia. Each is managed by a separate sub-unit and each plays a different role. The State Library is responsible principally for the preservation of South Australian content, in all its forms. The public library network has a service-delivery orientation and is responsible for the provision of localised library services to the community across the state. The funding cuts are, to my knowledge, only directed at the central State Library function, a distinction which is not made in Orr’s article.

The New Library Paradigm

I think it is fairly clear that the State Library needs to change significantly if it is to retain a position of relevance in our society.

What follows is a recreation of a table that appeared in a presentation by Roly Keating, the Chief Executive of the British Library, at the Australian Library and Information Association conference in Melbourne in 2014.

library funding cuts

The State Library of South Australia operates largely under what Keating regards as the ‘old library paradigm’. It holds a vast amount of physical material, much of which is not easily accessible to the public. I have walked the corridors of its huge basement vault.  Quite apart from preserving important South Australiana – the library’s raison d’etre – there is row-upon-row of obscure periodicals, interstate newspaper archives, and other non-South Australian artefacts, many of which will never again see the light of day, are of dubious value to the state, and in many cases, are available electronically on the internet. The resources required to handle, catalogue, store and maintain these largely-extraneous holdings are significant.

From the public perspective, the State Library remains very much an academic institution, focused principally on the needs of hard-core researchers. It is less relevant to the community at large – and with every passing day, it becomes less so, as people source what they need from the internet. The likes of Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, Wikipedia, Apple and Google have irreversibly changed the way that we consume content, whittling away at the library’s traditional role as society’s authoritative content provider.


Whilst the State Library does offer some public activities, exhibitions and events, these pale in comparison to those at the neighbouring Art Gallery and Museum. Neither of my two children has been on a school excursion to the State Library, although both have been to the South Australian Museum, and regularly ask to be taken back there. The State Library’s jewel in the crown, the historic and ornate Mortlock Library, has seemingly been left untouched for years with its ground floor exhibition showing signs of decay.

From the digital perspective, the State Library has considerable work to do. Whilst it does have a digitisation program in operation, only a very small part of its collection can be viewed online. Digitisation is undertaken principally for preservation purposes, not for making content easily available to the public. The Library’s principal online interface, its website, is poorly architected and outdated from a design perspective, delivering a suboptimal user experience. Meanwhile, the likes of Google continue their unbending quest to digitise the entire world’s content  and to make it easily accessible online, further eroding the library’s relevance to society.

More Funding, or Smarter Use of Funding?

All of these matters could, of course, be regarded as evidence for increased funding. But they could also be an argument for redirecting existing funding to the most appropriate places, rather than perpetuating age-old structures, policies, and procedures.

The unions and the media invariably highlight the immediate human impact when budget cuts are announced, and this typically results in scorn towards the government from a sympathetic public. It’s all too easy to denounce funding cuts when people’s livelihoods are affected. But this clouds the real issues at hand.

Any job losses are regrettable, but what if it is the case that the twenty staff mooted to lose their jobs currently perform roles in the library that are largely redundant, and will become even more redundant as the new digital economy rolls on?

There needs to be a discussion around the efficacy and relevance of the State Library as an institution operating in the digital age – not just an emotive discussion around job losses and efficiency dividends. The quantum of funding is a distraction; it’s what’s being done with that funding that is important.

If the State Library intends to remain just a physical repository of obscure, dusty tomes, then its relevance to society will diminish over time to the point of extinction. However, if its intention is to reinvent itself along the lines of Keating’s ‘new library paradigm’, then short-term funding cuts – and some job losses – are appropriate in order to refocus the State Library on the more pressing challenges ahead.

7 thoughts on “The Conversation Around Library Funding Cuts Needs to Focus on ‘Effectiveness’, not ‘Efficiency’”

  1. Hi Clayton

    The State Library does indeed need to scrutinise itself very closely – I totally agree. It needs to digitise and create greatly enhanced access possibilities – you and Roly Keating of the BL are absolutely right, I believe. The Library should be at the heart of the South Australian community, along with the Museum and the Art Gallery, and be welcomign to children, parents, grandparents, and people from a range of backgrounds and communities.

    And again, people’s livelihoods are indeed at stake here – 20 people, largely single income, base grade librarians, library technicians and archivists, I understand. Single parents amongst them. Ordinary people with mortgages. It is difficult to see justification for the ongoiung creation of extra senior management positions at the Library while the workers are facing the chop – how does this equate with “a brave new library”?

    One problem is: several staff in fact have already lost positions from the Library’s retrieval team – week-end retrieval has been axed already (never mind fulltime workers having equal access to resources) so now there is less access to the “dusty tomes” (not actually dusty at all when I have seen them, by the way). Another problem is that the targetted staff cuts are across the curatorial staff of the Library – those expert, full-packed minds who can tell you where the information lies, which of those dusty tomes should be digitised and which should be ditched, which are already available electronically.

    The Library actually does need funds for digitising – it costs money to digitise the original, then to store it, then to make it available – and that is aside from copyright issues. Are you aware that no Murdoch press newspaper is available free digitally, not even the really old ones? There is a reason for that.

    So, you have a very good point, libraries across the world need to change and to confront the digital age and a changing user community. But sadly they cannot do it with no money, or without staff to do the confronting, the sifting, helping you and others to create new things digitally.


    1. Thanks for the comments Anthony.

      It’s sad when people lose their jobs and I really feel for them. I don’t think any leader enjoys having to make difficult decisions about letting staff go. But leaders are charged with making decisions that ensure the longevity and continued prosperity of the wider entity, which often results in some stakeholders losing out at the expense of the (perceived) greater good. That doesn’t make it any easier for those that have been affected, I know.

      The Copyright issues are such an impediment for libraries – those provisions really do need to be brought into the 21st century. Hopefully that reform is not too far off.

      Thanks again for the comments. Clayton

  2. And do you know what else?

    All creation of new online matter (social media, online publishing etc) has been on hold since early this year pending a consultancy – in fact I think this would have been the Library’s 9th consultancy in a two year period. It is difficult to see how, at the end of two years of this, that is, all the consultancies and reports, why there has not subsequently been a clear road forward charted by those responsible for sifting that (expensive) data. Does this situation seem “effective” to you?


    1. Consultancies are expensive and they’re not a solution in themselves. Whilst consultants are good at delivering recommendations, the onus remains on the organisation and its leadership to operationalise those recommendations. It is clearly the role of the leadership to map out the future pathway of the library, and to align the organisation, its resources and its workforce with that vision. It sounds like there is some significant internal work to do there with that alignment. I feel for you and the other staff and I hope that the ‘transition’ (whatever that is) is as pain-free as it can be.

  3. Our joint frustration at being unable to “deliver digitally” in every possible meaning of these words is acute. Generally members of the public have no concept of what is actually involved in making this happen. Leadership is crucial, as is the funding to enable programmes to operate. It is incredibly difficult.

  4. I agree with Anthony’s comments. This is a massive ship we are trying to turn around. Knowledge and funding are crucial to this future. Dispensing with current knowledge is akin to destroying the material. Digitisation is a real-time activity. Sometimes sacrificial copies are required. Software to manage digital objects is expensive. At times we have manually upgraded to new platforms. Also, libraries have lobbied the Federal AGD for as long as I can remember over copyright issues which affect digital delivery, especially pertaining to orphan works and nothing has changed. These are massive issues which take time, money and leadership to solve and progress. And ‘letting staff go’ isn’t as simplistic as it sounds. The ramifications are huge. They might be the only person in their household working. They can no longer help others, give to charity, save for the future of their family, or God forbid shop, therefore less GST is collected and the Government will squeeze even more. Job loss affects relationships, mental health outcomes and social participation. Unemployment affects the whole community, not just other people you don’t know. These are people on lower incomes already when more higher paying jobs are being created within the proposed new structure.

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