VALA Remixed: Ten Magic Words for Australasian Libraries and their Friends, 2014-2016

Last week I gave a keynote at VALA in Melbourne. It’s a biennial conference for people who work in galleries, museums, and libraries. The text below builds on key ideas from my speech – you can see a full video at the VALA website.

TARDIS on the Powell Estate, graffiti;ed
Think of the public library as the TARDIS on your streetcorner…a local gateway to human knowledge and dreams

Let’s say it in ten magic words:

Judge Australasian culture organisations by where they physically hold events.

Libraries, e-books, and physical space

Australia’s first Digital Writers’ Festival launched this week. It’s a season of online programming from the people behind Melbourne’s Emerging Writers’ Festival. It got a lot of hype.

Matt speaking at VALA, trending on TwitterMeanwhile, at VALA, we were talking about the festival director’s controversial piece on library futures, discussed on my blog.

Here’s the deal: Digital Festival director Connor Tomas O’Brien says he can’t picture a future for public libraries in the age of e-books. He blames this on the double challenge of piracy and Digital Rights Management imposed by publishers. He asked, “[I]f you don’t need to visit a real-world space to loan the ebook, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the public library existing physically as a cultural hub?“

Connor acknowledged that “The public library […] is nowhere near obsolete. In some cases, it’s more important than ever”, but without giving examples of what he expected the library to do in this brave new world.

I invited Connor to a follow-up interview. In it, we found out that Connor’s vision involved consolidating such services into places like Melbourne’s own Wheeler Centre, where he’s based:

The issue public libraries face is largely that there often isn’t that critical mass of energy. Instead, that energy is usually spread across state writers’ centres, universities, cafes, and bookstores. […] If you have one or two central spaces for books and ideas in a city, all the energy flows through those spaces, and it has a catalysing effect.

Is consolidation really the best move for public access to culture and ideas in the 21st century? Australian transport and communications are better than ever. So why is there such a tendency to centralise events in the Lucky Country?

 Take the State Library of Victoria.

The State Library is a beautiful public space. It shows that libraries are about more than shelves by housing Ned Kelly’s armour. It commits to play as well as display by allowing kids to make their own copies of that armour. Yet it also expects audiences to come to  Melbourne’s city centre if they want to make the most of this state organization’s offering.

Last year I highlighted a Zombies vs. Unicorns event organised by the library’s national Centre for Youth Literature. They charged schools $7 a student to bring them into the city centre and serve as audiences for writers. That’s a big ask for schools and it only works for places within commuting distance of Melbourne city centre. Then, in November, the library hosted a visit from Cory Doctorow. As a leading light of the maker movement, Doctorow has been exploring new and decentred models for technology, business, and cultural practice in the 21st century.  All of Doctorow’s Melbourne events took place in the city centre. Despite its progressive subject matter, the programming on offer was entirely old-school. If you wanted to follow the discussion from outside Melbourne’s Swanston Street, all you could do was read tweets from audience members. Months later, all we had to show for the event was a Facebook page with a few pretty pictures.

It needn’t be this way. At the time, I suggested that Doctorow’s talks should have taken place in marginal venues. The library could have live-streamed them back to the urban centre. And a pop-up Swanston Street makerspace could have complemented the digital offering.

“Hitchock blondes” dressed as VERTIGO’s Madeleine served as guides to the Barbican’s event in East London

Other cities are already pushing the boundaries of outreach in ways Australia could build on. London’s Barbican Centre is the largest multi-arts venue in Western Europe. Britain might be in financial woe, but the Barbican tried something new: it ran its 2013 Hitchcock season in Waltham Forest, a London suburb which hasn’t had its own cinema for ten years. The movies screened in places like churches and school halls, decorated to suit each film and preceded by a walking tour that linked Hitchock and the movie to the immediate surroundings.

In New Zealand, people are debating plans to take culture away from traditional centres and share it at the margins. The Kiwis are proposing to build a new outpost of the national museum Te Papa in suburban South Auckland. And out here in rural Parkes, New South Wales, we don’t have so much as a single cinema screen… But we let country teens fight zombies on the streets of their own town. We connect our young people to publishing professionals from across Australia and the world. We try to develop local responses to global challenges in culture and technology.

For the pleasure of the Capitol?: Authority, outreach, and centralisation

Tensions between the centre and periphery have always existed in modern libraries. In 1627, Gabriel Naudé reimagined the library as a point of open access to information, but also an institution that brought glory to those who housed and funded it.

Each library feels the struggle between a centre which claims power and privilege for itself, and an outer wheel which works to keep contact with the real world. You can see this in the design of the classic library reading room.

La Trobe Reading Room, by Wikipedia user Diliff. Used under a CC BY 2.5 licence.
La Trobe Reading Room, by Wikipedia user Diliff. Used under a CC BY 2.5 licence.

This hub-and-spoke layout allowed 18th century librarians to reduce staffing and watch over an entire reading room from a central desk. The idea came from Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the Panopticon, which was more about power and control than access. (Tellingly, it was also envisioned as a prison design. It’s worth noting that Bentham developed the concept at the same time as the First Fleet set off to found Britain’s first penal colony in Australia).

In the present day, the Panopticon has been replaced by the idea of the library or arts venue as “hub”.

At VALA, I spoke about the dangers of this three-letter word. “Hub” covers a range of digital and physical possibilities without having to deal with the hard business of exactly nailing down what libraries do in the 21st century. As a client once told me, “Hub is what you call something when you don’t really know what it does, but want it to sound important.”

Tweet from Digital Writers Festival
The Panopticon lives on…?

The hubtastic Digital Writers’ Festival is receiving enormous hype, but it doesn’t democratise culture in a deep sense. It expects marginal communities to self-select as attendees. The onus is on them to log in to a season of events devised and defined within Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre.

We challenged festival director Connor on the problem of centralisation and urban focus last year. He offered a response at the Writers’ Bloc blog. In it, he again suggested regional outreach was too challenging and ultimately put the onus on marginal writers: “once regional writers link themselves to a network with Melbourne at its centre, it becomes up to them to figure out whether it’s better to stay or to go.”

Is this the future of Australian arts outreach? Has the Lucky Country become a place where city centre types can simply say “regional outreach is too hard and expensive, it’s down to the individual writer”? If it’s too hard now, with transport and telecommunications better than ever, and Australia basking in the glow of a thirty-year mining boom, one fears for the future.

A friend in country Australia laughed when she noticed that the Digital Writers’ Festival were giving away prizes of flights and accommodation to regional writers who entered an online competition. She said: ‘You can tell this was devised by city dwellers. They think that cultural outreach is about marginal peoples competing for free flights to the urban centre – a Hunger Games battle for the pleasure of the Capitol!’

Hunger Games riot scene

There is an alternative to this city-focussed network of arts professionals who seem loath to physically reach out to rural areas. Libraries already exist to serve local communities across both Australia and New Zealand.

Done right, the public library is a powerful engine of democracy, creativity, and intellectual development. Their staff give emergency service to earthquake survivors. Their family history units locate unmarked graves. They support indigenous cultures – for a great example, check out Auckland’s Manatunga exhibition. They provide access to education and information services for the dispossessed and marginalised. And they do all this alongside kids’ storytimes, writers’ groups for all ages, art exhibitions, and even live-action gaming. Libraries already already deliver exceptional digital outreach, too. At VALA, a Queensland library showed us a winetasting event which videoconferenced with a wine grower 2870 kilometres away.

Libraries are there for local people who don’t self-identify as writers, like the American writer Matt de la Peña, and for people who live outside the culture circuit, like the young Caitlin Moran. When libraries nourish your creative talents, they don’t presume that you have money to attend a city-centre event. Nor do they expect you to self-select as “the kind of person who would attend a writers’ festival”, on- or off-line.

Most librarians are passionate about their vocation. It’s just that they struggle with the limitations of local government and a broader failure to recognise the worth of the public library. It can be hard for public librarians to get even basic support like external communications, marketing materials, or use of their own professional association’s file sharing service. They are not going to get the kind of free national publicity the Digital Writers’ Festival has enjoyed any time soon.

Yet we fund public schools because no child chooses where they are born or who they are born to, and public hospitals because none of us choose when we get sick.  In the same way, public libraries provide every one of us with fair access to all human knowledge and culture. Libraries are there to help you explore everything our kind has observed, recorded, thought of, dreamed, or imagined. They are the TARDIS on your street corner. And the librarian is your local Time Lord, there not to teach, or to preach, but simply help you navigate the terrain of knowledge and culture.

TARDIS on the Powell Estate, graffiti;ed

What’s more, libraries’ new love affair with the maker movement might turn them into spaces of knowledge production as well as consumption. If they become a place where you can create and publish on your own terms, then no wonder libraries are getting short shrift over e-books from the Digital Writers’ Festival director. He’s manager of the e-bookstore Tomely, which takes 20% of your book’s asking price for the privilege of selling your words on their platform. Imagine if such a platform was available as part of a local library makerspace, developed at the grassroots and managed for the public good instead of private profit.

The hype for the Digital Writers’ Festival promises outreach and expanded access to culture, but it preserves distinctions between “artists” and “audience” just as technology has liberated creators and consumers, from YouTube to Snapchat, fanfic to mash-ups, and begun to erase those distinctions. And the “artists” tend to be urban, while the onus is on the “audience” to self-select and join the festival from without. When the festival organisers talking about “mapping” responses to the festival, it is rather like an audience survey: they will only identify those who sought them out, not those people at the margins who didn’t even know what creative potential they had within them. This is the great distinction between even the most all-embracing festival and a local library that nurtures its community.

Last year, the American library commentator Anthony Molaro reminded us that revolutions in the field of culture and information start locally. That means strong public library services at a grassroots level. It means cultural activity that arises from the immediate community, not what Connor himself called a “network [that] is largely Melbourne-based, with tentacles extending outward”.

HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu
There’s nothing like an arts professional who channels Cthulhu in the name of community outreach…

The Digital Writers’ Festival and the Melbourne Doctorow event both represent an old-fashioned, centralised approach to outreach. It’s the octopus extending its grasp, with the only difference in 2014 being that the tentacles are digital.

Public libraries might offer a better model for the 21st century. They form a distributed system, sensitive and responsive to local needs, robust because not led from a central point. Individual branches give strength to a public library service, like the distributed nodes of a digital network.

All we need is for Australians and Kiwis to recognise and support the work of their local branches. Large scale organisations should show their commitment to democratising culture and access by focussing on work at the periphery, not the hub. This sends a strong signal about priorities.

It’s deeply troubling that the technology columnist for one of Australia’s best literary journals can write that he’s “tempted to believe that public libraries and e-books fundamentally just don’t mix”, even as Texas, home of George W. Bush, reddest of red states, puts its money where its mouth is and experiments with an all-digital library in San Antonio, not for the finest neighbourhoods but for one in serious need.

London’s Barbican gave a great example of prioritising marginal locations with their Hitchcock festival. Imagine if the Cory Doctorow visit to Melbourne had taken place at a marginal location and then been live streamed back to the city centre. The State Library of Victoria could have flipped the usual poles of authority, prestige, and need!

It’s not all bad news in Australia. There have been small, occasional steps in the right direction. The 2013 national Reading Matters conference took at least three of its VIP guests an hour’s drive out of Melbourne for a day trip to the satellite city of Geelong. But more needs to be done, and soon. The Centre for Youth Literature’s new 2014-2016 strategic plan (PDF download) includes the troubling comment: “to effectively reach regional audiences in multiple states, we are reliant on solid strategic partnerships, which take time to develop.” This is arts-manager speak for “don’t expect any dramatic movement on this issue in the next two years, and when it comes, we’ll just be the hub”.

2014-2016: Time to trade the hub for the margins

Why am I pressing this issue so hard? Why do I seek to hurry this process and draw attention to those who would rather engage via computer screen than walk the red dirt with rural communities?

Because cuts are likely to come for public libraries, very soon.

Already Australia’s library association ALIA has been reduced to selling off books at a farmers’ market to try and save the drugs specialist library ADCA from closure. In New Zealand, proposed changes to the Local Government Act will deny access to a previous source of funding for new community library developments. Under a Liberal government, Australia is more likely than ever to see public library cuts of the kind that have affected the US and UK.

And yet, I can’t find it in my heart to demonise local politicians facing the stark choices of a budget cut. They aren’t culture professionals. They aren’t library advocates. If public libraries flounder in Australia and New Zealand, that won’t just be the fault of local government. Blame will also lie at the feet of arts organisations that prioritised the centre over the periphery.

Australia’s marginal communities deserve more than a hyped-to-the-rafters Google Hangout with the Wheeler Centre posse. They deserve to be met face-to-face with respect, and empowered to devise their own artistic and literary responses on a local level. These days, Internet access is widely available; like talk, it’s cheap.

That’s why I suggest a simple, meaningful litmus for libraries and their friends in 2014-2016.

In ten words:

Judge Australasian culture organisations by where they physically hold events.

Each organisation will have its own sense of the centre and margins. For an individual library, it’s onsite services versus offsite. In a city, the edge is the suburb; for a state, it’s the outlying rural or coastal regions. For Australia, the margins lie inland, away from the population centres, and in New Zealand, it might be the rural communities of the Far North who need most support. But at every level, organisations have the choice to reach out, away from privilege, and empower those at the periphery.

14 thoughts on “VALA Remixed: Ten Magic Words for Australasian Libraries and their Friends, 2014-2016

  • It might seem incongruent for me, as a programmer and avid IT user to hold this position too. But Kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) is a hugely important thing. For the developers and librarians working on Koha, we have monthly town hall meetings, which are all done remotely. However where the real bonds are cemented, and the real community building is done is at our Kohacons which are held annually. We have a rule that the same continent can not hold 2 within 3 years. Which means they have been in Paris France, Plano TX USA, Wellington NZ, Thane India, Edinburgh Scotland, Reno NV USA, this year it will be in Cordoba Argentina.

    Meeting people, eating with them, drinking with them, laughing with them .. these are things that work so much better in person than virtually. It makes people human, not just some characters on a screen.

    Build the bonds in person, use technology to help keep the bonds strong when fiscal constraints prevent more in person meetings. That’s my 2 cents worth anyway

  • The debate about the value of face-to-face versus using technology is an interesting one. I agree that a balance is needed. Technology has provided us with the means to reach further than before – into far flung communities, or even into the suburbs of the urban sprawl. But there is value in having personal contact.

    As a small example – We recently moved from one extreme to another with the cancellation of our children’s book clubs (budget cuts), which met monthly in our suburban libraries. In order to reduce the impact/backlash and maintain contact with our young library users, an online-only kids book club was hastily created, with mixed results. The pros – anyone, anywhere can participate 24/7; they are not restricted to club meeting times and locations, and the novelty of using technology to participate is a draw card. Reviews of what the kids have read are published online (creating young digital-content creators) for all to see. We’ve had authors discovering children’s reviews of their books and commenting on them.

    But the downside is that the sense of social-connectedness and community has been lost, and the online club participants come and go; no one has really stuck around for long. The kids don’t feel as if they belong to the club anymore, and the familiar faces of their local suburban club have gone.

    Humans are a social, tactile and community-based species. Our historical beginnings are based in small close-knit groups. So I believe that regardless of the use of technology or face-to-face, always aim to create and support ‘community’, locality and a sense of belonging.

    Great topic, Matt. This is an important issue for our community.

  • I don’t think Matt is suggesting that personal involvement should be replaced by these systems, but that hub-centric methods of communication are not a good solution to reaching people in country areas that are disenfranchised by their geography. For many reasons – no matter how much they may desire to do so – people who live in the country simply don’t often have the opportunity to get to the city for ‘face-to-face’ interaction. So given that we have very powerful systems of knowledge dissemination in place, what then is the best way to implement them?

    The hub-based idea is a very 19th century way of thinking, and is completely at odds with the way we now know big complex systems to operate; the internet, brains, bee hives, electric grids, ecosystems – these all work much more efficiently by deploying non-central, nodal models. These distributed systems are better for the nodes, but ultimately also better for the infrastructure as a whole, as they are stronger, more resilient and less prone to egregious damage than a centralised hub system.

    Hubs also have the disadvantage of benefitting the people closer to the hub more than those on the peripheries – this is the main reason our electrical systems and our telecommunications systems are now all adopting distributed models.

    It makes good sense to have a library system follow this model – in some ways, libraries have always been aligned with it. In the days before printed books, libraries were much more hub-based; if you needed to read the works of Plato, you had to visit the place that had those works. When the printing press came along, multiple copies of those works could now be made, and and any library (any node) could allow you to read those works. You now didn’t have to travel all the way to Canterbury to read the bible. It’s a very strong model.

    The internet has made this model even more robust, and its very nature is a threat to those who want to maintain the power they had under the old system, much like the position of the Church after the advent of the printing press… If there’s one thing that can be predictably said about those with power – they really hate to lose it (and they’re very good at coming up with lots of reasons why the status quo is better than any alternative you may offer).

  • I absolutely tautoko your words here Matt. I read them as being part of a global phenomenon of valuing small communities (such as the Transition Towns, and distributed solutions in order to respond to the complex questions of our time. I am excited by the idea of public libraries as the TARDIS in the community, empowering individuals and communities to discover, explore, invent, and creat on their own terms.

    I heard an interesting theory the other day – that as ‘web people’ move their expertise into physical spaces, they are keen to recreate the feeling of community they get online. So they run makers spaces, they travel to meetings in small towns, they care about what is going on in their community, they meet kanohi ki te kanohi. I’m sure the mileage varies depending on the person, my point is that people use technology to enable connection with each other, to create meaning from the world.

    As you say “Done right, the public library is a powerful engine of democracy, creativity, and intellectual development.” Here’s hoping we CAN get it right.

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