By Lyndon Megarrity

 

In the midst of commemorating 90 years of broadcasting this year, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation announced that it was abolishing 58 specialist librarian and archivist roles, with journalists expected to play an increasing role in sourcing, collecting and cataloguing material.[1] It’s just the latest example of myopic managerialism that has become all too common since the 1990s. [2] In the last three decades, libraries, archives and their staff have been the target of severe budgetary measures. Numerous government agencies have shut down their libraries with the assumption that everything they need is online; major organisations such as the National Library of Australia have ironically become less efficient in serving the public due to Commonwealth efficiency dividends, better known as funding cuts; and when governments feel kindly towards cultural institutions, their focus is often on cash for building programs rather than for the collections themselves.

Such trends are particularly disheartening for historians, because much of our best work depends on libraries and archives, whose trained staff collect, preserve and painstakingly describe the metadata of cultural records in a standardised way so that they can be accessed, appreciated and used by everyone. The staff at these cultural institutions often have strong knowledge of their collections and databases, and are generally keen to assist visitors in any way they can. They have a firmly democratic ethos, with many institutions developing resources and links with local communities, including Indigenous people and family history groups.[3]

But while librarians, archivists and historians are generally singing from the same songbook, inevitably we are not always on the same page. Forced to justify their existence in an Internet world, libraries over the last twenty years or so have increasingly emphasised digital information and the concept of the library as a community and social hub. To make way for more lounge chairs and collaborative spaces, university libraries have frequently either placed books in storage or simply culled them.[4] Microfilm readers, once cutting edge technology, have often been removed or made inconvenient to use, even though much of what remains on microfilm is not replicated in other sources. And in archives and libraries alike, reductions in opening hours and delivery times for ordered material in some major institutions have made research visits by interstate historians less productive. For historians, declining access to physical collections diminishes their capacity to write the urgent histories of tomorrow, as unknown gaps in knowledge and hidden truths may be unable to be uncovered and will be lost forever.

On the other hand, the emphasis on digitisation in our cultural institutions has also been a boon to the research work of historians, most notably the National Library of Australia’s TROVE newspaper search engine, which has opened up a wealth of new material for researchers. Such digital sources were a lifesaver during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing research to continue.

In order to gain a more nuanced and balanced appreciation of the research world in which the modern Australian historian now lives, I emailed about 50 acquaintances to request participation in a brief qualitative survey on their experiences in Australian cultural institutions. Participants agreed to be part of the study on the condition of anonymity. I received responses from regional and metropolitan-based historians in all states and territories except Tasmania. While Established and Mid-Career historians dominated responses, several Early Career Researchers and PhD students also took part. I would like to thank the 31 historians who took the time to fill out the survey and a couple of others who sent in thoughtful general comments. The vast majority of historians I surveyed mainly worked in tertiary institutions, and most reflected on university libraries, as well as the major national and state repositories.[5]

I began the survey by asking “What are the positive aspects of current-day libraries, museums, archives and other cultural institutions for historians?”

Historians had a great appreciation for the knowledge and service of staff, who often had a deep knowledge of their institution’s holdings and were often able to recommend other records to explore. Others valued the experience of immersing themselves for lengthy periods in archives, while also having a positive acceptance of digitisation programs and search engines to enhance their research. As one mid-career historian reflected, “Increasing digitisation is a wonderful feature of modern libraries and archives, especially for historians at regional universities. When I do visit cultural institutions, I am always pleasantly surprised by how helpful the staff are and the lengths they will go to help you uncover hidden gems”.

Image: Sabina Sturzu, via Unsplash

Next, I asked: “Is the experience of visiting a library or archive, browsing through book shelves and/or handling archival documents something you value? Is it important for your work? 

Most historians regard the use of library and archival material as vital and essential for their work. The ability to browse through book shelves and seemingly endless boxes of documents allows for unexpected and valuable discoveries, preventing too narrow and orthodox an approach to an historical project. As one historian put it, “I have found … information in obscure archival boxes that I would never have expected and which, in some cases, have changed the direction of my research.” Another respondent recalled that manually scrolling through “hundreds of pages of microfilm newspapers while looking for reports of specific events” uncovered useful information “that would have been missed” if the researcher had “just used a keyword search to go straight to a specific article.” Beyond pragmatic considerations, it’s also clear that historians believe that visits to archives help motivate and inspire them to emotionally connect with and reflect upon the past. “Digitisation has enabled more access”, one mid-career historian conceded, “but there is nothing quite like the sensory experience of reading an original document: squinting at old handwriting, smelling the old tobacco that has seeped into the files, listening to the crackle of tissue-thin pages as you gently turn them over, touching the same documents that people touched hundreds of years ago.”

The next question asked: In your experience, are university libraries and other cultural institutions aware of and responsive to the research needs of historians?  Generally speaking, respondents argued that staff were aware of historical research needs, but that chronic underfunding of the libraries and archives, consequent decreases in staff, as well as limited understanding of historical research needs at management level, were constraining the ability of such institutions to provide services to historians. This was especially seen to be the case at University libraries. One historian noted that when a university executive “was overheard saying he looked forward to the day when there were no books left in the library, I basically checked-out.” The same academic suggested that “libraries have been colluding in their own downfall to a certain extent: moving away from archival and collections knowledge and expertise towards a data-driven IT profession.”

Which leads neatly to my following question: Has access to physical collections, microfilm readers and other non-digital sources declined at cultural institutions? If so, how has this affected your work?   

Roughly a third of correspondents said that their work as historians had not been affected, with some emphasising the extent to which some materials had been digitised. Digitisation was especially appreciated in some regional areas where access to major institutions is geographically and financially problematic.

However, around two thirds of participants indicated that their access to physical collections had declined. The number of Microfilm readers in university libraries appears to have sharply decreased, and, by implication, wider student and staff awareness of unique historical content in this format. Many books have been placed in storage, leading to delays in access, which can be frustrating for an historian when a project needs to be completed in a limited timeframe.

With regard to some of the major state and national institutions, access has been affected by cost-cutting decisions such as reduced opening hours and fewer retrieval services. If an archive is open only for three days a week from 9.30AM to 4.30PM, for example, it means that a huge chunk of an interstate historian’s research trip is potentially wasted. Furthermore, as one historian pointed out, some archives are “in remote locations, often with poor public transport and in industrial areas that are hostile to pedestrians and lack for lunch options or nearby accommodation”, and this “seriously impedes travelling historians and those with disabilities from using the collections.”

In response to my next question, “In your experience, have library resources been culled?”, the majority indicated that yes, there have been major culls at University Libraries in particular.

Respondents have suggested that limited or cursory consultation has taken place preceding items being sold, put in storage, given away or simply placed in rubbish skips for disposal so that library space can be used for other purposes such as computers, study spaces and aesthetic renovations. Sometimes apparently this is a directive from administrators rather than librarians themselves. The devaluing of the book on the university campus was lamented by many participants, including one early career researcher who queried the bald notion that “access means knowledge”, arguing that “the university seems to be wanting to take hard work out of the learning experience – students miss out on a lot when they don’t go browsing through the shelves … they miss out on the important works that may be located to the left or to the right of the item they should borrow.”

The culling of staff was also mentioned. “The remaining librarians and archivists are still helpful,” wrote one historian, “but they are becoming thinner on the ground. This has impacted not just on my work but also, no doubt, on the collection and processing of material being deposited.”

I then asked: “How could services to historians be improved?”

Image: Rainier Ridao, via Unsplash

Historians wanted recognition from cultural institutions that digital and print material are both highly important for researchers and need to be easily accessible. Furthermore, they wanted increased consultation between historians and cultural institutions. Crucially, many wanted better training for library staff in historical research. All these things cost money, and in the relative absence of a healthy culture of philanthropy, much depends on the value which state and federal governments place on funding library archives, collections and their staff. In an age where millions can be spent by state governments on securing one-off sporting events as a sign that politicians understand what the people want, politicians can be somewhat indifferent to the institutions that collect Australian heritage and provide popular access to it. Similarly, some respondents to my survey suggest that university administrations seem unaware of the treasures in their own libraries. One historian wrote: “The Special Collection at my university has seen its hours and staffing diminished. This is a real pity because it contains archives and collections of national significance – but this is not ‘marketable’ like a gutted library filled with computer screens and colourful tables and chairs”. How to shift the values of Australian public life so that both cultural institutions and historians can flourish is a wicked problem, and it is something I would like to come back to before the end of my piece.

I ended my survey by asking: “If you could talk candidly to a chief librarian, archivist or administrator, what would you like them to understand about historical research and researchers?”

This question received a mixed response. There was a general appreciation of the work which libraries do, including digitisation programs, although one historian asserted that “serious researchers still want to use books, and they still want materials in print, preferably in research stacks in the library.” Some stressed the need for libraries and archives to recognise that good research takes time. Therefore, opening hours need to reflect this reality. While history as packaged in the media and political speeches is settled and fixed, primary and secondary sources for history are in fact a glorious mess, and it takes time to bring order out of the chaos. As one historian suggested, collecting institutions need to be aware that historians “often only have a vague idea of what we are looking for. This means access to the shelves in a special collection greatly increases the chances of finding important material. Understandably, such access cannot always be provided. Therefore, detailed descriptions of material in catalogues are essential.”

However, while historians appreciate the value of time, it can sometimes be too much of a good thing. The National Archives of Australia continues to be slow in providing access to materials that are theoretically in the open access period but not yet examined by officials, probably through lack of available staff to examine documents but also because files are sometimes sent to originating agencies for consultation. Such delays have forced some scholars to abandon projects. These failures suggested to one historian that some cultural institutions needed to be more aware that history “is a profession, a calling and a job, not a hobby – as some of them seem to imagine – and their institutions are our laboratories.”

Other historians suggest that cultural institutions have a fairly good idea of what historians need, but are working within severe budget constraints. Wider communication and community awareness was key, according to one historian, who suggested “We should be joining with their staff, users and others to mount community campaigns in defence of libraries, to insist on the need for adequate resourcing and staffing, with independent councils and boards, to reinforce the significance of libraries not only for researchers, but for the community at large.”

REFLECTIONS   

In reflecting upon this survey, what comes out clearly is the great importance of libraries to the historical profession. This is mirrored on a national scale when a broad range of stakeholders —  not just historians — come together to defend libraries and archives during times of crisis, such as the recent successful campaign spearheaded by Graeme Davison and Gideon Haigh to force the government to commit to digitising at-risk records at the National Archives of Australia.[6] However, if friends of cultural institutions only mobilise when news of the latest outrage against historical collections filters out in the public domain, they may fail to influence decision-making in the longer term. To avoid this fate, three things need to be done to improve public and government understanding of our profession and the role of cultural institutions in the practice of history.

Firstly, both cultural institutions and historians need to clearly articulate their values and priorities. For example, the historian’s continued attachment to the tactile experience of the book and the archives needs to be explained in persuasive terms to the doubters, and there are many, who will dismiss it as an exercise in nostalgia. We need to invite the public into history writing’s secret, hiding in plain sight. That is, as Tom Griffiths argues, we need “to be astonished as well as to understand.”[7] Without access to generously funded cultural institutions, the process by which we can discover new and exciting aspects of the national story will be obstructed. It will be hard to convince even historically-minded politicians of this, because they are often content with rehashing settled historical narratives of the Menzies, Chifley and Hawke-Keating eras and so on. Nevertheless, discussions of these narratives may be a way to convince movers and shakers of the power and purpose of contested historical research.

Inevitably, the values of libraries and archives may be different to those of historians, but this brings me to the second major way that historians and cultural institutions might overcome the short-termism and economic rationalism of our society. It’s an obvious point, but still an important one: historians and cultural institutions need to have clear lines of communication. For example, it may prove necessary for a university library to cull books, but historians need to be brought into the conversation at an early point. Low circulation levels may obscure the fact that a book is used within the library. The reductions in historical staff in Australian universities may also mean that potentially important books may be lost, because expertise in particular historical fields has declined.[8]

Image: CM, via Unsplash

A final means of creating greater awareness of history and the role of cultural institutions is to create alliances. Historians need to work with cultural institutions for common goals. Such alliances must encompass not only the major libraries and archives, but also school and municipal libraries as well. Who will discover and write the urgent histories of tomorrow if local libraries confine themselves to maintaining books no more than 5 or 10 years old[9] and teacher librarians, who might have guided young people towards history subjects, are sacked?[10] As one mid-career researcher told me, “Investing in people and resources – not swanky new buildings and software – is the way to run a truly successful and world-standard archive [or] library … [They are] about humanity, not technology and what is often lost in the eternal quest for efficiency is the essential human element”. Despite our differences, Historians, librarians and archivists are natural allies, because people are at the heart of what we do. There is no better time than the present to collectively fashion the cultural institutions of the future, while at the same time preserving and actively understanding the past as key features of the libraries and archives of tomorrow.

      

[1] Australian Library and Information Association, Media Release, Canberra : ALIA’s Response to Cuts in Librarian and Archivist Roles at the ABC, Canberra, 9 June 2022, https://www.alia.org.au/Web/News/Articles/2022/June-2022/Media%20release_ALIAs_response_to_cuts_to_librarian_and_archivist_roles_at_the_ABC.aspx accessed 7 July 2022.

[2] For a general history of library and archival trends in Australia since the 1990s, see Peter Biskup (with the assistance of Doreen M. Goodman), Libraries in Australia, Centre for Information Studies, Wagga Wagga, 1994, pp. 34-5, 251; Graeme Davison, The Use and Abuse of Australian History, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2000, pp. 225-6; Michael Wilding, Wild About Books: Essays on Books and Writing, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2019, pp. 133, 158; Alex Byrne, “Early Adopters Down Under: Technology in Australian Libraries”, in R.N. Sharma (ed.), Libraries in the Early 21st Century, Volume 1: An International Perspective, Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin, 2011, pp. 51-9; Guy Morrow, “Why Arts and Culture Appear to be the Big Losers in this Budget”, The Conversation (Australian edition), 31 March 2022, https://theconversation.com/why-arts-and-culture-appear-to-be-the-big-losers-in-this-budget-180127 accessed 7 July 2022.

[3] Observations based on personal experience and informal chats with librarians and archivists. See also Australian Library and Information Association, “10 Reasons Why Library and Information Professionals are Essential”, https://read.alia.org.au/10-reasons-why-library-and-information-professionals-are-essential accessed 7 July 2022.

[4] The transformation of the library in the western world as a multipurpose space with an emphasis on the digital since the 2000s has been described in a variety of sources, including Toby Burrows, “History in Practice: The Historian as Librarian”, Limina, Vol. 6, 2000, pp. 117-18; Zachary Valides and Wyoma vanDuinkerken, “Leveraging Collaborative Repository ‘Resource-in-Common’ Model to Find Space – and Solace – in Downsizing Legacy Print Collection: A Case Study”, Collection Management, Vol. 47, No. 1, 2022, pp. 2-19; Jill Rowbotham, “Books Out: Students In”, Australian, 28 November 2018, p. 32; Richard Neville, “What’s Really Going On At the Mitchell Library?”, INCITE, Vol. 35, No. 3, 2014, p. 30.

[5] Of the 31 respondents, 11 were established historians, 11 were mid-career historians, 5 were Early Career Researchers, 3 were PhD candidates, 1 was Independent.

[6] “Archives win $67m in urgent funding”, Australian,  1 July 2021, p. 3.

[7] Tom Griffiths, The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft, Black Inc., Carlton, 2016, p. 5.

[8] For a discussion of library culling, see Alex D. McAllister and Allen Scherlen, “Weeding with Wisdom: Tuning Deselection of Print Monographs in Book-reliant Disciplines”, Collection Management, Vol. 42, No. 2, 2017, pp. 76-91.

[9] The energy in local government libraries appears to have shifted away from book borrowing to providing an avenue for social cohesion and digital education and access within the community. Public relations statements such as “A modern library is much more than just a place to borrow books” are common. “Riverway Library Work Set to Begin”, Townsville Bulletin, 14-15 May 2022, p. 7.

[10] For a discussion on school libraries and teacher librarians, see the Letters to the Editor, Age, 19 November 2018, p. 16; Jonathan Pearlman, “Aussie Schools Drop Libraries in Favour of Digital Hubs and E-Learning”, Sunday Times (Singapore), 9 February 2020.

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Lyndon Megarrity
Lyndon Megarrity

Dr Lyndon Megarrity completed his PhD at the University of New England (Armidale), which was awarded in 2002. In recent years, Lyndon has been a lecturer and tutor, teaching history and political science subjects. He was the inaugural history lecturer at the Springfield Campus at the University of Southern Queensland (2012-13) and since taught at James Cook University in Townsville, where he is currently an adjunct lecturer. His book Northern Dreams: The Politics of Northern Development in Australia was published in 2018.