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.
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.