Saturday, June 12, 2010

Lucia Libraries in a changing world

The other week the Dominion Post published a piece by Marie Russell, a "keen user" of Wellington's public libraries, on the future of public libraries in Wellington. Marie was alarmed to discover that "free libraries" appeared to be under threat from council funding cuts, but noticed there was plenty of money for what she called "Rugby World Cup-type circuses".

Here are some things the council may not want citizens to know: last year, the long-term plan decided on an increase in net expenditure on libraries to $20.99 million in 2010-11 - a 3.26 per cent increase on the previous year.

But the annual plan unilaterally supersedes that, with a massive decline in net expenditure on libraries in the coming year of 8.49 per cent to $19.2m.

[...]Tourism promotion spending is up by 10.26 per cent and events attraction and support gets a 6.8 per cent boost in the draft annual plan. Together, these amount to nearly $9m that will chiefly benefit hospitality businesses.
Marie asked where the cuts to library services would be made to meet the funding shortfall.

Enter Wellington Mayor, Kerry Prendergast, who comes out swinging with a counter-piece in Monday's Dominion Post.

I challenge Marie Russell's view that libraries, out of all Wellington City Council services, should be cocooned in cotton wool and protected from efficiency drives and budget cuts.

Ms Russell has raised concerns that the council is about to start closing branch libraries, start a programme of "service cuts", and make users pay for the remaining library services. She is wrong. We have no such plans.

Her opinion piece (Future of free libraries hangs in the balance, May 27) also seems to suggest that the council aims to sacrifice books and education in favour of events such as next year's Rugby World Cup. Again, she is wrong. We have no such plans.

How the council plans to cut back the costs to Wellington's libraries appears to be shrouded in the following paragraphs:
The world is an ever-changing place and library website usage has increased 120 per cent in two years, becoming our busiest "branch". It's not hard to see why, with most people no longer relying on libraries as their only source of knowledge.

Young people, especially, will go straight to the internet at home, and then perhaps to a library, to do research for a school assignment. In such a changing world, we would be remiss to claim our library services will never change.

Contemporary libraries are already vastly different from what they were even just 20 years ago. And the relentless advance of technology means they will continue to change even faster.

Our libraries manager, Jane Hill, is already working on our response to the expected mass take-up of e-books in the next few years. We're also looking at the future of our vast music and visual collections now that the community is starting to move away from "old" technology such as CDs and DVDs.

So, what Kerry is saying is that the internet is making libraries, and their huge collections of paper books semi-redundant. If we want to know something, we look for it on the internet, not in the library. The library is only there for backup if we need more information than the internet will tell us.

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The cool thing about a book made of paper, is that you don't need more than the book itself and an ability to read in order to read it. Technological advances don't render it obsolete. I've lost track of how much information I've lost over the years because it only exists on data media that can no longer be read, except by very old computer machinery that no longer works, or works, but can't communicate with the more modern machines. So, I have more than an affection for the old-fashioned book. I see it as impervious to time and insurance against technological breakdown.

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I am one of those people who look things up on the internet. I don't tend to go to the library much for myself any more. But, I still value the old paper and hardback. I use the internet to find the books I would like and then order them online from Amazon. If I could rely on my local library having access to the books I really want to read, I might not buy so many books, but so far, the library down the road has a very limited collection. Therefore, I grow my own collection of books instead.

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When I was growing up, one of my favourite places was the old, wooden library just down the road from my home. Thinking back, I realise now that I was extremely fortunate having the library so near, so that any time I wanted to get books out, I'd just ask my Mum if I could go, and off I went, by myself, only needing a library card.

It was a warm, inviting place that is easily imagined by thinking of how private libraries in some wealthy person's mansion are depicted in the movies. Except that most of all the interior space, rather than being left open to be inhabited by leather armchairs was instead filled with wooden isles of bookshelves. The only exception was the children's reading area which was left open for a large woollen rug to sit on. There were no toys, no computers, no music collections, or DVDs.

If a book was overdue, you'd hardly get fined unless it was really overdue, and generally if you were an adult. Even then, you could easily get the fine waved when you returned the book. The fine was really more a way of ensuring books were returned, rather than a means of revenue gathering or punishment.

I would have read thousands of books in that library over the years that I grew up to be an adult.

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Kerry Prendergast accuses Marie Russell of not wanting libraries to change.
Ms Russell has passionate views on the role of libraries and we agree with most of them. However, we don't agree with her apparent view that libraries are not allowed to change.
In fact, the way Kerry puts it, Marie is wanting to prevent libraries from doing something that is intrinsic to their nature. She's standing in the way of a libraries sense of self-determination. She's stopping the library from fully expressing itself. She's in a sense, persecuting the library!

Ok, maybe I am getting a little carried away. But that whole way of framing her opposition's argument that Kerry has I find intriguing and disturbing. It's emotive and designed to make the reader think that yes, a library should be allowed to change. Those people that are holding it back are just plain repressive.

I admit to being one of "those people" who find libraries altering their core mission of collecting books to .. I don't know, being an access portal to textual data? ... to be very unsettling. Libraries have traditionally been the repository of valuable information that has allowed civilisation to continue. Even when the Roman empire was wiped out, libraries of books from the past allowed the ancients to access valuable information from those who had gone before them. Having everything made electronic would not allow for the same type of retrieval were civilisation to fall again.

I also think that people such as Kerry Prendergast don't really value what a library is. To them, it's just another cost structure the people expect and it's a pain to have to keep it going along the same old lines, when new and exciting changes are just around the corner.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Kerry reads four novels a week from her local library and values books as much as Marie Russell does. But somehow I don't think so. For Kerry's counter to Marie's opinion piece seemed to be a massive deflection the main points. Which is, just how is the council going to save the nearly 2 million dollars that has been shaved off the budget for the libraries?

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I don't borrow from the Wellington Libraries any more, but I do believe in libraries in general, so I found myself going through both pieces, Marie's and Kerry's to understand the arguments. And if it wasn't for Kerry Prendergast's use of the word "rubbish" in her article, I probably wouldn't have written this post. Now I'm interested as to what will happen next. Because a mayor that comes out swinging and doesn't answer the main criticism does tend to attract attention.

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