The library stripped bare 2: the University of Sydney’s Library draft change proposal, aka libricide

libricide 1. (rare) The destruction of books.

Since writing about libraries here five days ago I’ve been looking into the University of Sydney’s plan to ‘restructure’ its libraries.

The ‘Update on library change proposal‘ issued on 8 May 2014 talks of ‘wider changes to provide library services in tune with the needs of today’s students and researchers’. This seems to mean, to provide services whose use can be more easily quantified.

Regarding the threat of job losses, the university said ‘it is unable to quantify the possible number of job losses for want of a business plan’. It also said it had made clear ‘that the number of full-time equivalent staff in the proposed new structure could be higher than the current number. The number of “job losses” will therefore depend on the outcome of both the mapping and the redeployment processes.’

Those quote marks around “job losses” are not promising. Nor are the ideas of ‘equivalent staff’ and staff ‘mapping’.

My other concern is for the books themselves. This plan entails the removal of entire collections of books from specialist libraries, notably the Medical Library and Badham Library, which is home to veterinary science, agriculture and the environment, and the biological sciences. And the transformation of two other libraries – Camden and Dentistry – into 24-hour access book vending machines.

Nor am I heartened by the university’s 2012 annual report, in which the Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence speaks of ‘our program of library upgrades’. This is partly spelled out in ‘Strategy 7’, which notes that the university’s learning facilities are ‘underpinned by “virtual desktop” technology, which enables students to access hundreds of course-specific applications when they log on to University-provided computers in the new spaces. By end-2012, more than 30,800 students “owned” a virtual desktop and there were on average 6000 logins per day.’

Another key 2012 library initiative was a ‘learning space metrics project’, which ‘identified that students engage annually in more than 5 million online sessions as part of their experience in units of study, interacting with more than 3 million learning objects, and using more than 60 online tools provided by the University.’

Such beautiful numbers. Such empty data.

In my post last Tuesday I alluded to The Walrus and the Carpenter because I like its rhythms. But it is also a poem about deception and mass destruction. Of oysters, by the walrus and the carpenter.

It seems a similar act of mass destruction is threatened for the books of the University of Sydney. This has already happened to its Fisher Library, once one of the largest Dewey Decimal open stacks in the world. As part of its revamp, around half of Fisher’s former one million books were disappeared. Many disposed of. Some put into storage, so they can no longer be browsed.

Apparently ‘browsing’ – which is what physically reading books in the library is now called – ‘has been deemed a luxury, unsustainable on cost-efficiency grounds’. This according to Adam Jasper Smith, in his story ‘The optimisation of Fisher Library‘ published in 2011.

As he explained it, ‘The problem with browsing is that it is private, old-fashioned and hard to quantify.’ Ah. Numbers again. Smith said, ‘IT-learning is so cheap, so easily quantifiable, that it becomes impossible to defend a practice, like reading books, that is so wasteful, and so indulgently unquantifiable in its value.’

For Smith the planned renovation of Fisher amounted to ‘an auto da fe – the burning of books on an unprecedented scale – except that this systematic destruction is being conducted not in public but in secret, and not for overtly ideological ends but rather on behalf of the grinding banalities of economic optimisation.’

Because they are couched in the apparently neutral language of ‘economic optimisation‘, the new plans may not appear to be ‘overtly ideological’ – but ideological they most certainly are. As ideological as the federal budget unleashed by Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey in Canberra last week (both, like Spence, products of Sydney University’s Law School). The ideology is straight from Milton Friedman, who summed up its oxymoronic essence in his 1970 essay ‘The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits’. That ideology whose moral compass is cost-benefit analysis.

The ideological content of this threatened library desecration is not lost on Michael Wilding, professor of English at the University of Sydney. In March, Wilding wrote about ‘Libraries under threat‘ in the Sydney Review of Books. Wilding dates this library destroying movement to the 1980s of Reagan and Thatcher – to that moment when governments began systematically to outsource everything to the market. Or, as Wilding put it, the ‘1980s rejection of all values other than making money’.

Books don’t fit this new world. They don’t make money sitting on library shelves. They don’t generate electronic information every time they’re accessed, opened, read. They take up valuable space. According to Adam Jasper Smith, Michael Spence imposed a usage fee on every square metre of Fisher Library – so it has to pay for the space it has and use it ‘better’. Hence the refit and book expulsion. Presumably the university’s other libraries are subject to the same exacting calculus. Books no longer pay their way. They are redundant.

Smith told a story that speaks volumes about the current crisis in the life of books. In 1995, around 10,000 books were donated by the University of Sydney to the new University of Western Sydney. But UWS didn’t have the funds to catalogue them – so ‘the ill-fated books were dumped into a mass grave and buried under 2.5 metres of soil’. 10,000 books. Buried.

Over five times this number of books were exiled from Fisher Library during its renovation. Who knows what’s become of them all? And what will become of the valuable specialist collections in the university’s Medical and Badham libraries if the new plans go ahead?

And nor does digitisation guarantee survival, as Michael Wilding makes clear with his story about the ill-fated electronic version of the Domesday Book. In 2002 Robin McKie and Vanessa Thorpe wrote:

‘It was meant to be a showcase for Britain’s electronic prowess – a computer-based, multimedia version of the Domesday Book. But 16 years after it was created, the £2.5 million BBC Domesday Project has achieved an unexpected and unwelcome status: it is now unreadable. The special computers developed to play the 12in video discs of text, photographs, maps and archive footage of British life are – quite simply – obsolete.’

The original Domesday Book, an inventory compiled in 1086 by Norman monks, is in good condition in the Public Record Office in Kew and can be accessed by anyone who can read.

The Domesday Book

The Domesday Book

So much for the relative merits of books and electronic information.

I have spent many hours in Fisher Library both as a student and later when researching my books. Books and libraries, especially Fisher, fire my brain and feed my soul. They are part of our shared culture and a democratic society.

I will be asking Dr Michael Spence ( exactly what is planned for the libraries, their staff and their books at his university. I’ve already signed the National Tertiary Education Union’s petition: Save Library Services, Save Jobs.

Tony Birch

Tony Birch

Writer Tony Birch has been a voracious reader all his life. He had a public library card when he was five years old. When his novel Blood was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2012, he told SMH literary editor Susan Wyndham that ‘to hug a book in bed was the equivalent of holding a hot water bottle’.

I know what he means. That warm comfort. I’d rather go to bed with a book than a data set any day.

Fisher Library stack

Fisher Library stack


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

5 Responses to The library stripped bare 2: the University of Sydney’s Library draft change proposal, aka libricide

  1. Gaby says:

    A chilling Sunday morning read, Jane. And to think, I left my bed and book for this! All very well said – thank you.

  2. Thanks Gaby. The story seems to be emblematic of our brave new world, well interrogated by Michael Sandel in ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The moral limits of markets’. Although his only answer to the questions he raises is the need for more public debate, which it seems we’re not very good at having. (

  3. Pingback: When in doubt, seek out the writers: Alexis Wright and Christos Tsiolkas talk politics and the novel at SWF 2014 | bookish girl

  4. Pingback: Stats v stacks, metrics v books: An open letter to Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence, University of Sydney | bookish girl

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