The library stripped bare: And why the sea is boiling hot – and whether books have wings

So, I seem to be back from plumbing the numbers – and it’s still autumn. Just. I’ve spent some time in libraries lately, so libraries are on my mind.

First, the rare and thrilling story about Sydney’s Mitchell Library, which was destined like so many libraries to be blitzed into the 21st century. AKA stripped bare of books and readers. Turned into a library’s take on a shopping mall: ‘mixed space’ with a lecture hall, children’s education area, galleries for the library’s art collection, rooftop restaurant.

Mitchell Library

Mitchell Library

But in some kind of miracle, a petition against this revamping signed by 10,000 people (!) persuaded State Librarian Alex Byrne to halt the $25 million ‘revitalisation’ plan last month. The petition was led by writers David Malouf and Evelyn Juers (who wrote about it here), and signed by thousands of locals and illustrious book lovers from around the world including Margaret Atwood, Nick Cave and former World Bank boss James Wolfensohn.

Alex Byrne said: ‘We have been listening to the contrary arguments since November and we have come up with an alternative plan that addresses everything that has been expressed. It’s clear that people love the library overall and love the Mitchell building and, within that, love the Mitchell Reading Room.’

Books. Love. Sigh. Malouf was happy too: ‘Everybody is a winner here,’ he said. Cheers to that.

But not so for the libraries at the University of Sydney. I have already written here several times about the ‘Renewal‘ of Fisher Library, which is now a fait accompli. But not content with removing thousands of books from its star library, the University Library management has announced a major restructure for all its libraries, which entails losing not only books but also some 130 librarians – and excluding undergraduate students.

In a doublethink move typical of these library makeovers, this latest postmodernisation manoeuvre will see undergraduates, librarians and books barred from several libraries, some of which will be transformed into 24-hour access computer hubs. For example, Badham Library will be converted into a postgraduate space with no collection (aka books), no staff onsite and no undergraduate access. Ditto the medical library. Two other university libraries – Camden and the Dentistry libraries – will become 24-hour access book vending machines with no staff. The library staff have organised a petition against this latest assault on libraries, books and those who love and care for them. Please sign it.

Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz

There are countless stories of the life-saving – in more or less literal ways – powers of books, libraries and librarians, but one of my favourites came from Junot Diaz at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2008 (the SWF 2014 starts next week). In his closing address Diaz gave thanks to the librarian who introduced him to the wonder of books. He said:

‘When I was young and knuckleheaded, fighting against being poor, against being brown, against being an immigrant, against being rejected by my father, it was a librarian assigned to a tiny precinct in Central New Jersey who took the time out of her work and with care and arid enthusiasm introduced me to the wonder of books and in the process, I would argue, saved my life.’

On the other hand, while out walking today I found this:


And so it is that while cost cutting books and librarians the university has sunk $220 million into a new medical centre which has its open day tomorrow. It is the grand looking Charles Perkins Centre, a multidisciplinary research and education centre focusing on obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and which commerce/medicine student Joshua Lee blogged about here. Very important of course. But there was something amiss – not quite a glitch in the matrix, but anomalous at least – about seeing this spectacle rise up from the sports fields behind the university while pondering the rape of the libraries on the same campus.


And why the sea is boiling hot – and whether books have wings.

Eve Skylar_Walrus & Carpenter




This entry was posted in Novels, poetry, book news, Other news and marginalia. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The library stripped bare: And why the sea is boiling hot – and whether books have wings

  1. Geoff says:

    Don’t be surprised when were back here again in a few months with most of the University of Sydney libraries becoming electronic access-only, and only a few shelved books left at Fisher. That appears to be what the university eventually wants.

  2. Pingback: The library stripped bare 2: University of Sydney’s Library draft change proposal, aka libricide | bookish girl

  3. Yes, it seems you’re right Geoff, about what the university wants. I aim to make that difficult for them. Inspired by the turnaround on the Mitchell Library story, as it has unfolded so far.

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