National Library redevelopment has much to recommend it

(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.

Redevelopment for the National Library, Wellington. The redevelopment is much more than bricks and mortar, however. (World Architecture News.com)

Redevelopment for the National Library, Wellington. The redevelopment is much more than bricks and mortar, however. (World Architecture News.com) Update: at the end of April the Government announced the $82 million planned for the upgrade had been slashed to $52 million and a redesign would be required. Head librarian Penny Carnaby said there would also be an increased focus on digitising the collections, allowing all New Zealanders access through the internet.

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.

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3 Responses to National Library redevelopment has much to recommend it

  1. Alan Vallis says:

    “seems to be run by librarians to suit librarians”

    Most librarys and librarians fit this bill. Here in Whanganui they’re trying to spend millions to build a new bigger library, but can’t spend money on updating a huge stock of obsolete non-fiction.

    It’s all about empire building.

    Someone here with a big say in the libary budget is a fan of fantasy and bodice-rippers, so the dreamers of the district are well served. Quality fiction is very sparse.

    Couldn’t agree more about Te Papa. It isn’t a museum, it’s a very expensive indoor fun park. All that money could have allowed the vast hoard of dusty treasures in the dungeons of the National Museum and the Auckland Museum to see the light of day.

    It’s a disgrace.

  2. Alan Vallis says:

    Synchronicity!

    Half an hour after posting the above comment this link appeared in Google News:
    http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/2373589/Library-revamp-cut-by-30m

    The budget’s been cut. they’ll need to revisit the needless frippery.

    Former Alexander Turnbull chief librarian Jim Traue said the initial redevelopment should never have been approved.

    “It was a crazy proposal and this looks like a victory for common sense.”

    But he was concerned the money could still be wasted by creating a digital Disneyland.

    Ain’t that the truth!

  3. The good thing about that story is this comment by the head librarian: “Ms Carnaby said there would also be an increased focus on digitising the collections, allowing all New Zealanders access through the internet.”

    The key thing there is that she’s accepting the need for the digitised material to be made available through the internet and not just on screens inside the library itself.

    There was some suggestion in the original redevelopment plans that this might not be the case, and that was one of the reasons why I did my piece for the Dominion-Post. It would be crazy not to take advantage of broadband to make the NatLib collections available to all the people outside Wellington who contribute taxes to keep the place going.

    Not to mention the Wellington people who actually have to work during the week!

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