Before I return to my bookish seclusion, this is a letter I sent to Dr Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, on 19 May 2014 about the changes planned for the libraries of Sydney University. As Dr Spence has not (yet) replied – and given the secrecy and speed with which these changes appear to be unfolding as well as the university’s stated desire to ensure greater transparency and to deepen its engagement with alumni and stakeholders – I am making this an open letter.
Dear Dr Michael Spence
I write as a former student of the University of Sydney, a continuing and avid user of Fisher Library, and a member of the local community. So, in corporate parlance, I am a University of Sydney stakeholder. And one extremely interested in institutional transparency – and deeply concerned about the changes to the university’s libraries that continue to unfold at speed and it seems with some secrecy.
I have written all three of my books using the resources of Fisher Library. Given they all take a long view of history – one on ‘classics’ from Homer to Salman Rushdie, another on accounting from Mesopotamia to the 2008 financial crash – I could not have written them without the paper books of Fisher Library. Many of which, in the case of my accounting book Double Entry, were published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and had not been taken out of the library since the 1940s. These are the sorts of books that were among the 500,000 culled from Fisher Library during its recent ‘Renewal‘.
Given my interest in accounting and its history, I am only too aware of the exacting cost-benefit calculus that governs life in the 21st century at all levels and across every sphere, but I am also painfully aware of the non-financial costs of this calculus.
I see these non-financial costs already apparent in the changes that have been made to Fisher Library (and more devastatingly at the library of the University of New South Wales where I am a postgrad student) and I fear these are just the beginning of the changes set to unfold at the University of Sydney.
So when I heard last week that there are more changes to be made to the libraries of your university, that books and entire collections – at the Medical Library and Badham – are under threat, along with the jobs of librarians and access for undergraduates, I could no longer see this simply as a problem that affected me and my ability to research my books, but as one that affects the whole university community and its stakeholders broadly, with implications for scholarly life in the 21st century more generally and, I would also argue, for democratic society itself.
With all this in mind and in the name of transparency, I would be extremely interested to hear from you just exactly what is planned for the libraries of the University of Sydney, their librarians and their books. And, if possible, why.
With all the brilliance of your literary and legal mind, the reach of your power and the depth of your spiritual convictions, I cannot believe that you cannot conceive of a better way to address the problems of space and the demands of financial accounting than to work secretly to offload books from an institution founded on books.
I look forward to hearing from you when you have a moment.
All best wishes, Jane Gleeson-White