Culture shock at the Alexander Turnbull

Almost missed it, in my breeze through the Dom-Post yesterday, but it contained a cautionary tale about curious goings-on at the Alexander Turnbull Library, the nation’s research library within the National Library.

Jim Traue, a former chief librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library, tells us moves are afoot to turn the place into a digital Disneyland, so help us.

It looks suspiciously like building up the entertainment side of the library will be done at the expense of the research side.

Yep. Some staff are grumbling, but

An attitude change expert has been appointed, a “culture survey” compiled and a programme of “people change” is under way to rehabilitate the critics.

It seems reconditioning the staff mindset will be a major job, because the Turnbull Library has been working out its role as the nation’s research library within the National Library for 40 years and

has developed a strong research library culture, a system of ideas, customs and social behaviour which guides the staff’s thinking and their actions.

Radio NZ picked up on the story this morning, reporting that criticism is being levelled at the planned $69 million redevelopment of the National Library in Wellington.

The revamp is designed to open up and expand the library building, make its heritage collections more accessible to the public, and create additional storage and exhibition space.

Radio NZ quotes Traue as saying says too much focus is being put on digitising the library’s resources, which will hurt its reputation as a research institution.

However, chief executive and National Librarian Penny Carnaby says the Alexander Turnbull library will be in a much more prominent place in the new building and facilities will be expanded.

Okay. So what’s big deal about a research library?

Traue explains that its purpose

is to enable researchers to immerse themselves in the documentary evidence and then to make the product of their investment of time, judgment and skill available to the public through a book, article, thesis, film, TV production, website or blog. A research library becomes an active partner with authors and publishers in creating the next generation of public knowledge.

Lending libraries have different roles as front-of-house distributors of public knowledge. Their success is measured by feet through the front door, and the numbers of books borrowed. Research libraries don’t attempt to compete. Their success is measured by the number of additions to public knowledge created by the research community, which then become available
through other libraries.

Ah, but now we have a new breed of National Library bosses with fresh ideas.

And on what side of the library divide have they been trained?

The national librarian, the chief librarian of the Turnbull and the deputy chief executive have spent all of their careers in high-use lending libraries (a technical institute library, a university library, and public libraries) and are struggling to adapt their thinking to a library that doesn’t have a shopfront, has a small number of direct users, doesn’t lend books, and has a low public profile.

And so moves are afoot to change the purpose of the National Library and its culture and operation.

The managers

have come up with a strategy to raise the public profile and make it more like a local public library in order to get more feet through the front door.

The strategy is “Te Papa-isation” with a twist. The library’s resources will no longer be geared to the needs of researchers but treated as a museum collection presented on-site in digital form.

The proposed redevelopment of the building is a logical manifestation of this new strategy. More of the Turnbull collections will be displayed, but it is envisaged that the major drawcard will be the filling of the entire ground floor with computer screens to give access to the Turnbull’s books, periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, photographs, paintings and drawings, maps and ephemera, online within the building. The priority for the Turnbull’s staff will now be to provide popular “content” for these digital displays and the increased exhibition of original materials. That “content” is essential to attract the projected 400,000 visitors a year.

Traue tells us that one Chris Szekely, the Turnbull’s chief librarian, also holds the new position of deputy national librarian, and he is assuring the public that the building makeover, mass digitisation and the restructuring of the Turnbull’s services will improve access and services for researchers.

Traue doubts it.

Yeah, right. Instead of the Turnbull’s staff concentrating on building and organising comprehensive collections to provide total immersion for researchers creating new publications, their time and expertise will be diverted into preparing material for digitisation in order to feed the visitors clamouring for entertainment on the ground floor Disneyland.

The division of costs between the research library and the researchers and publishers is being eroded.

Traditionally, the research library gathered and
preserved the original documents, and the staff organised them for use by researchers, courtesy of the taxpayer.

It was up to the researchers to invest their time to convert the raw materials in the library into finished products, and for the publishers to find the money to publish and distribute them.

Now the National Library is becoming a major publisher, at an increasing cost to the taxpayer, and staff will find themselves more and more involved in the time-consuming work required to get material prepared for digital publication.

Have the new bosses been alerted to the ramifications for research?

Seems so.

The staff have been pointing out these consequences but have been ignored.

That’s where the attitude change expert, the culture survey and the programme of “people change” come into this story.

Senior management, convinced that they could not possibly be mistaken, have determined that such “negative” thinking is a result of the “Turnbull culture” and are determined to cauterise it so that a new “positive” culture can be grown in its place.

Traue – obviously from the old school and resilient to attempts to have his culture tampered with – is clearly anguished. Or Trauematised.

Welcome to the new digital museum experience. Pity about the research library experience. Welcome to the new digital museum culture. Pity about the research library culture. Once the barbarians were knocking on the gates. Now they are inside the walls and in charge. Now they are called managers.

Maybe Alf has a way out. Move the Turnbull Library to Eketahuna, where he will ensure it is put in safe hands. There’s an empty hayshed down the road – a big bugger, too – that could be converted.

Shouldn’t cost anywhere near $69 million.

The only barbarians who come through our town are visitors from the southern Wairarapa who complain about the coffee and the pies.

One Response to Culture shock at the Alexander Turnbull

  1. Greetings from your favourite South Wairarapa barbarian!

    As someone who has used the National and Alexander Turnbull libraries for years, I share some of Jim Traue’s concerns about the redevelopment and attempted culture change. But not all, by any means. I think the proposed mass digitisation is a great idea. Not everyone can visit the library in person, and when they do, wading through material and getting something useful to take away can be a problem unless you pay a fortune for photocopying, printouts and digitisation of items that can’t easily be photocopied.

    Digitisation is one way of getting around the library’s ridiculously restricted opening hours. The place is run by librarians to suit librarians rather than their customers. Only 9am-5pm on weekdays, 9am-1pm on Saturdays. Closed altogether on Sundays. Yet the public – especially out-of-towners and people who have jobs during the week – really needs longer opening hours. It would let them 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, authors and researchers on the Waitangi gravy train. What about the rest of us?

    The National/Turnbull Library should be open seven days a week from 9.30am to 8.30pm. The Wellington Central Library is (though it has shorter opening hours on Sundays). If the notion of providing reasonable service to all their taxpayer owners is too alien to the National Library culture at this stage, a compromise might be possible. Do as many overseas research libraries do: open into the evenings and through the entire weekend, but compensate with a closed day during the working week.

    Anyway, the great majority of New Zealanders can’t get to the library in person. For them, broadband access to more of our national books and documents via broadband will be a fantastic boon. Despite its awkward implementation, the Papers Past digitisation project has been a great success. It works as well for me in Martinborough or you in Eketahuna as it does in Wellington.

    Attracting masses of people through the door will never be easy for the National/Turnbull library. Te Papa does it, because it’s easy to 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 the television generation and we all know that generation doesn’t get off on books. A library demands more effort from its visitors. Old books and cardboard document boxes only excite some of us.

    The important thing to keep an eye on at the National/Turnbull Library is whether they will retain the material that’s been digitised and let in-person visitors actually see and hopefully touch it.

    But the digitised versions will be a helluva lot more use to a helluva lot more people.

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