Why are New Zealand libraries letting their enemies write “the final chapter”?

A local politician in Marlborough, New Zealand, has suggested ditching the district’s libraries in favour of distributing e-readers to residents.

The Kiwi TV show Breakfast on One reported this news in a piece titled “The final chapter for libraries?”

Although Kiwi librarians are attempting to push back with the Twitter hashtag #morethanbooks, responses have tended to focus on the fact that libraries use e-books too, and include other items like music in their collections as well.


The simple truth is, libraries aren’t about books on shelves, or compact discs, or even e-readers. Those are tools, mere means to an end.

Libraries are about helping the public to explore the world of knowledge and culture on their own terms. That might mean performance art in British libraries, bringing books to life through gaming in Toronto, or holding teen zombie battles in Auckland.

A library isn’t just a storage space for books on shelves – it’s also a place where musicians perform; where computer software is written; where teens get to wrestle a zombie-bitten police officer to the ground while debating the ethics of surviving a disaster scenario.

Yet one local politician has said “Why not replace libraries with e-readers?” and Kiwi librarians are on the defensive, letting their enemies set the terms of the debate.

I experienced similar frustration in the way that television coverage of our zombie event in South Auckland emphasized reading levels over immersive play and creativity. Teenagers from this deprived area of New Zealand’s biggest city were doing more than just reading: they were given the chance to step into the world of a zombie adventure, using library resources to plan their own survival but also venturing out among the zombie hordes!

Libraries are not schools; they needn’t directly concern themselves with reading levels; they’re about exploration and enjoyment of culture through many forms of media. A space for imagination, play, and learning on your own terms.

I can make the case for New Zealand libraries to operate this way in just three points:

  1. Even the UN’s basic missions for a public library don’t mention books, so let’s not even TALK about shelves vs e-readers when we debate the future of librarianship. Libraries are about service and content  – the media we deliver them by are just the means to an end.
  2. At 4 million people, New Zealand is just the right size to become a leading library nation globally, in the same way that little old Finland transformed its school system to one of the best in the world.
  3. All we need to do to achieve this is get frontline librarians to be more confident about service innovation, and for management to support them by giving them time, public relations support, and the backing to take risks and try new ventures.

Kiwi libraries need to stop being on the defensive and allowing their enemies to set the terms of the debate. Libraries aren’t even close to writing their final chapter. They’re making the future, and in more fascinating ways than almost any other part of the public sector.

It’s time to remind the public of that fact. And let that poor Marlborough councillor know – libraries are going on the warpath.

Librarians on the warpath. We’re not above eating your braaaaiiiins….

22 thoughts on “Why are New Zealand libraries letting their enemies write “the final chapter”?

  • Great blog on the value of Libraries in a NZ context and the evolving role Libraries have been at the forefront of in order to meet to the knowledge needs of our society through free access to information – Libraries are more then BOOKS – thanks for booming this out to the stratosphere Dr Matt – awesome analytical thoughts and so easy to comprehend:) Please share everyone.

    • Love it – excellent response to that tired old one-dimensional view. Probably not a lot of nutrition in that brain though……..

  • Maybe the reason we get caught in the trap of talking about the ‘things’ we provide – books, ebooks, buildings, computers – is that they’re concrete and easy for Joe Average to understand.
    I absolutely agree that the idea of a library – the philosophy – is much more important, not to mention timeless, but it’s also harder to communicate to people who aren’t used to thinking about it that way.
    I don’t think that means we shouldn’t try, but maybe we need to think of good ways of doing that. You’re right, we totally need to shift the conversation.

    • Hopefully one thing we can do is show off our services (as opposed to just emphasising our collections) whenever possible. Celebrating not the ‘things’ so much as the ‘moments’ that a library gives its users.

      I love that Auckland librarians explored digital literacy in a low-fi fashion by inviting kids on their holidays to set up a real-life version of the Angry Birds’ video game, for example.

      And Get It Loud in Libraries – the widely copied British gigs-in-libraries activity – is another great example. Stewart Parsons from the project wrote about it recently for this blog.

      Auckland Libraries are also looking at ways of delivering our services off-site – librarians beyond the four walls of the library! – keep your eyes peeled for more on that project…

  • Hi Matt

    Some good points and I like that you challenge libraries to think about their placement and lead the discussion. This is something we are not always good at. Some context for Laurinda is she had little notice, and no idea what questions were coming. She did a great job and seriously impressed me as the incoming president (TVNZ got it wrong) by her ability to handle herself and appear professional. I am excited by what she can do for us.

    I think what we need to do is look at this as the start of a push to move the discussion forward and on our terms. This is something I will be seeking to get us as public libraries to do.

    • Thanks Corin – I totally agree – Laurinda did a great job facing down the critics on the show.

      The issue of how Kiwis perceive libraries is more widespread than yesterday’s TV feature. The Marlborough kerfuffle just brought it to light.

      For example, when the wonderful Karen Tay wrote in support of libraries for Stuff, even her piece was couched in terms of nostalgia and the idea that libraries are a thing of the past, something in need of rescue.

      Libraries are not the past and can’t afford to be seen that way.

      Libraries are the future – the front line of community engagement in the age of digital literacy. Kiwi librarians need to make sure their nation knows this.

  • Why oh why do councils and Government love to pick on libraries so much? What kind of society are they planning on developing in the future. We are a family that goes to the library EVERY week. My kids LOVE it. We love the holiday programs, we love the resources and we love that it is generally free. Like frogs and bees, libraries are an indicator species of our society and the world at large. If they fade away, how long before our society collapses in on itself? Only the ignorant and misinformed would believe that an e-book could replace the value and role of our public libraries.

  • Great piece on the value of NZ libraries, and you are right about the books e-books thing, we are about knowledge, providing free access to that knowledge to empower our community, to allow everyone equal access to information and knowledge. You raised some good points and I like that you challenge libraries to think about their placement and lead the discussion. We need o be more proactive in our advocacy for libraries after libraries are the hub of our communities and the future of society.- Bookman

  • What happens when all the hard copy collections go? Do libraries then become ‘Activity Centres’? And what happens to all the books that libraries dispose of? What do traditional library patrons do (the one’s that have supported us all their lives and still want books)?

  • Matt, I totally agree, and your blog echoes what’s been bouncing around in my head for a while now. How do we change the frame of that conversation about libraries? And, how do we get the media (who often love to simplify and sensationalise) to sit up and take notice?

    I take your point about #1 – and if we don’t use the word “book” anymore, we need to create a new vocabulary that reframes what we do. I don’t think that’ll be easy (or am I overcooking that?), but I do think it’s worth doing.

    I’m going to write a blog for Library Life (tomorrow) with some of these thoughts in it too – I’d welcome your comments over on lianza.org.nz.

  • I agree completely with what you said regarding libraries, but what’s up with this fascination with Zombies, particularly in Auckland, at the moment? Zombies at Tupu, a Zombie show at the Aotea Centre. Personally, I think that when you start investigating the history of zombies and its origins in Voodoo (e.g. http://news.discovery.com/history/history-zombies-12-6-4.htm), I think it’s opening people up to influences that they just don’t need in their lives. Light hearted fun? Maybe in some people’s eyes, but I for one, am not comfortable with celebrating voodoo and the concept of ‘undead’.

    • Thanks for the comments, Adrian – this is a really important part of the discussion about Auckland’s recent teen event.

      I think the same arguments Jackie Marsh made with regard to using Teletubby literacy activities in preschools applies to using carefully designed horror activities with teens: using pop culture to engage a youth audience is a powerful tool for libraries and learning.

      One of librarians’ responsibilities is to reflect, and engage with, the cultural interests of all users – that includes the pop culture of young people. You’ll have noticed the prevalence of zombies in movies, games, and literature at the moment – from the Plants vs Zombies game to the upcoming Brad Pitt blockbuster World War Z.

      There’s some excellent discussion of whether zombies are “good for kids” over at the School Library Journal website in the US. And Miguel Rodriguez has also written about the educational value of the horror genre more generally.

      In any case, in our story the “zombies” were actually virus sufferers whose infection was “cured” at the end of the event – the teens were developing disaster survival skills in a playful, spooky scenario. We certainly weren’t training anyone to become a real-life voodoo practitioner!

      • You know, the responses to my post (which, of course, I expected), have caused me to evaluate what I wrote and from what viewpoint I was writing it.

        Firstly, it was not my intention to be critical of the Tupu Library’s zombie event. I think this was an excellent initiative that obviously grabbed the interest of a good number of South Auckland teenagers.

        I have realised that my post was written out of my own world view and my personal beliefs. We all do that naturally, but it is important that we accept that other people have their own world view and personal beliefs. My post came from not understanding why zombies seem to be so cool at the moment, and a discomfort with that, on my part.

        With me being in my early 40s, it’s been a long time since I’ve been a teenager. I’m now old enough that I could have teenagers myself, if I had children. In addition, I have worked in a tertiary library for the last 4 years, so I have not been working with the recreational needs of teenagers and young adults for some time. I have never read a horror novel, nor would I wish to. It doesn’t rock my boat. The nearest I’ve been to “dark arts” is the Harry Potter novels. I’m not into science-fiction either.

        However, I am a librarian, and in that role, I will stand up for the important libraries have to play in meeting the recreational needs of all parts of society, and all interests. Am I uncomfortable with zombie-ism (is that a word?), witchcraft, and other similar customs and beliefs rooted in animist and other similar religions? – yes. Does that mean I think that NZ libraries shouldn’t meet the needs of people who are fascinated by such things – absolutely not. I would not choose to attend any event based on zombies. If I was a parent of a teenager, I think I would be stopping my child from going. I don’t believe that dabbling in the undead and witchcraft is just ‘innocent fun’ that can be separated from its origins and belief systems, but again, that’s my worldview and bias. I have the same view on yoga – from my view, it’s not just a form of exercise – it’s got origins on Hindu philosophy – a philosophy that I choose not to have any part of. However, that is my choice, and others have the right to have other viewpoints.

        I completely accept that horror is a valid genre of literature, movies, television and other entertainment. I understand that an interest in zombies is part of current pop culture, and as such, it is completely appropriate for Tupu Library and other libraries to have this type of event. I would also hope that Tupu Library would recognise that not all teenagers are going to be drawn to this genre of entertainment. We need to meet the needs of all. There are significant numbers of church-going (notably, P.I.) families in South Auckland, whom I suspect would feel uncomfortable with horror and fear-based scenarios.

        So, well down Tupu for taking this initiative, and I completely agree that libraries are not just about our resources any more. In the tertiary library sector, our skills in connecting students with the information they need to complete their assignments is what students often praise. Connecting with our customers, no matter who they may be, and whatever their needs are for coming to the library, is a huge key to our ongoing success.

  • It is interesting to feel discomfort at the notion of zombies due to their apparent genesis with voodoo myths for a number of reasons. First of all, the zombie myth as it exists in pop culture today (in the recent Auckland library event, in movies, in books, and so forth) has lost its voodoo ties, essentially since George A. Romero reinvented them for his film Night of the Living Dead. Voodoo has played almost no role in the zombie myth since the late 60s.

    The second thing I find interesting about the discomfort with zombies and their historical ties to voodoo is the apparent fear of the notion of voodoo itself. Essentially, voodoo is the religion of an uprooted and historically oppressed group of people. It is an amalgamation of a number of belief systems, including tribal African beliefs and various Christian rites and beliefs–a truly interesting cultural phenomenon, to be sure. I think most people’s interest in Voodoo is at best purely anthropological and at worst a cheap thrill. I don’t think there is any more danger at Voodoo having a malevolent influence over people’s lives, though, than Hinduism or Animism, or any number of other religions.

    The concept of the zombie is clearly interesting to people for a variety of reasons, but most notably because they give a clear mirror to death, and we tend to be both fascinated and repelled by the inevitable approach of our own mortality. I did write those articles for the School Library Journal, and I wouldn’t say that zombies are “good for kids,” per say, other than the notion that the natural fascination we have for zombies could potentially lead to a joy of reading. Zombies are a storytelling device, and for various reasons a potent one.

    Just our ability to have this conversation leads me to conclude that the zombie has its place in pop culture.

    • Yes, this is a healthy, respectful conversation, and I think it’s great that we can have that. As I have suggested in previous posts, I, personally, can’t so readily accept that zombie culture has been separated from its origins. I’m also wary of the potential effect that fear-based scenarios (in literature, films, TV etc.) have on the mental health of some people. Many people will be able to separate fiction from reality and not let it affect their lives. However, not everyone will be able to, and there are definitely stories of children and adults suffering from nightmares and other disturbances, after having interacted with fear-based entertainment. You’ve also said that zombies “give a clear mirror to death”. I would suggest that they give a mirror to one view of death, but this is, by no means, the only view of death and mortality.

      Although I am not interested in horror-based scenarios, I am equally happy to conclude that the “zombie has its place in pop culture”, but then so do many other things, that I believe should be recognised (and in many cases, this is happening). At the moment, there seems to be a peak in interest in zombies and the undead. However, as we all know, fads and trends change constantly.

  • Reblogged this on The Room of Infinite Diligence and commented:
    I received an email from LIANZA last week saying that I might be interested in a event. It was being organised by a coalition of library supporters concerned about budget cuts to Wellington Libraries. So far – fantastic! A group from the community who “coordinate efforts against the steady deterioration of library services in Wellington, advocates for users and staff of public libraries and brings together groups” (who also support libraries). The teams looked like an interesting mix of people with a variety of experiences. They looked like they would be very entertaining. Brilliant.

    Then it all went horribly wrong.

    The moot was “Are libraries worth saving?”

    I was unequivocal about my reaction on Twitter.

    No. I am not interested in a debate on “Are Libraries Worth Saving?” Thanks though. #FarCough

    — librarykris (@librarykris) August 27, 2013

    I am ashamed to say that I didn’t send this to LIANZA. I’m telling myself that it was best that I step away for a few days because it made me so MAD. Both the moot, AND that a professional library organisation would send it round to their members thus legitimising the debate. As someone said “May as well just ask: “is culture worth saving?”” What I’m interested in doing now is unpacking on of the opinions expressed by the affirmative team and how they might have come to those conclusions.

    Here’s a tweet from @wizzyrea reporting on those arguments from the affirmative team. There are a few more on her account regarding the debate.

    Focus on a library as a physical space, warehouse, not as a community learning centre or gathering place.

    — Liz Rea (@wizzyrea) September 3, 2013

    Further discussion with Liz indicates that the lack of focus on the library as a community learning space or gathering place was more by omission than statement. She had to leave early, so the concept of library as ‘third place’ may have come up later in the debate. Extrapolating wildly from those two comments, I think that the affirmative team regards the public library as a giant bookshelf for physical books.

    Is that all Wellington City Libraries is?

    Maybe. Every time I go in I see people sitting at desks and chairs. Their laptops are open or they are reading books – to themselves or to others. I don’t know how long they stay there to assess whether they are using the library place as anything other than a space to walk through. Library circulation stats were reported in the paper recently (they’re rising, as is the percentage of active library members) but there wasn’t anything about foot traffic. The library blogs are heavy on promoting books, with different formats thrown in occasionally. A couple of recent exceptions to this are the winter game night and Amanda Palmer ninja gig posts which describe how the space is being used. (That’s as far through old posts as I got before being overwhelmed by the sheer book-iness of them.) The nature of these posts reinforces the notion that libraries = books. I know they’re blogging like this, I get that…sometimes I think we’re our own worst enemy.

    I’ll be at #LIANZA13 if you want to chat further about this. I’ll welcome you with open arms because I need to learn how to articulate the ways in which libraries are essential to a healthy community without getting inarticulate with rage over misguided events from library supporters.

    In the meantime I’ll be reading this blog by Matt to remind me why libraries need to be ubiquitous in our communities, educational institutions, and businesses.

    tl;dr “Libraries are about helping the public to explore the world of knowledge and culture on their own terms.”

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