(Published in the Dominion-Post, 20/4/09)
As a long-time user of the National and Alexander Turnbull libraries with an affection for the place, I share some of former Turnbull chief librarian Jim Traue’s misgivings about the redevelopment. But not many. In particular, the proposed mass digitisation of collections is a great idea which everyone should be applauding. While much of it will only be shown on library screens initially, in time it’s sure to be available to anyone with a broadband Internet connection
Not everyone can visit the library in person, and even if they are able to, wading through material and getting substantial research material to take away can be a problem unless you have all the time in the world or pay a fortune for photocopying or printouts. Some items can’t be easily copied and have to be specially digitised, leading to more cost and delay.
Digitisation is one way of getting around ridiculously restricted opening hours in this institution, which seems to be run by librarians to suit librarians rather than their customers. It’s only open 9am-5pm on weekdays and 9am-1pm on Saturdays. Sundays are out altogether. The users – especially out-of-towners and Wellington people who have jobs during the week – need much longer opening hours if they are to make practical use of this wonderful repository of national treasure.
Visit the library any time during the working week and you’ll see that nearly all of the users are retired Wellingtonians, students, Waitangi researchers and the odd author. What about the rest of us?
I believe the National/Turnbull Library should be open to the public seven days a week, from 9.30am to 8.30pm. Wellington Central Library has those hours (though it has shorter opening hours on Sundays). If the notion of providing reasonable service to all their taxpayer owners is too alien to National Library culture at this stage, a compromise is possible. Do what many overseas research libraries do: open into the evenings and through the entire weekend, but compensate with a closed day during the working week.
But while highly desirable, extended opening hours would still mainly benefit people who live in the Wellington region. The vast majority of New Zealanders simply can’t get to the library in person. For them, broadband access to more of our national books and documents is really something to look forward to. The value of computer access has already been proved by the Papers Past digitisation project which, despite an awkward implementation, has been a great success.
Attracting masses of people through the door will never be easy for the National/Turnbull library. The very nature of its collections speak research rather than populism. Te Papa drags people in because it has a large publicity budget and it’s easy to mindlessly wander through three-dimensional dumbed-down exhibits that tell you what you’re supposed to think. A library asks you to think for yourself. Te Papa is aimed at a television generation that doesn’t read books. A library demands more effort. Old books and cardboard document boxes only excite some of us.
That said, the library should continue to work on making itself more user-friendly and if that attracts more people, well and good.
We do need to keep an eagle eye on the National/Turnbull Library though. Digitising the collections is a huge step forward. But the bean-counters must not be allowed to flog stuff off once it’s been under the camera. The real thing must remain available for visitors to see and sometimes to touch.
But digitised versions will be a helluva lot more use to a helluva lot more people.