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2008-12, 360, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

Book Reviews

Print is Dead: Books in our Digital Age. By Jeff Gomez. Macmillan. 221pp. $49.95

The Academic Research Library in a Decade of Change. By Reg Carr. Chandos. 237pp.$95.

Magnificent Obsession: The Story of the Mitchell Library, Sydney. By Brian H Fletcher. Allen and Unwin in association with State Library of New South Wales. 512pp. $59.95

Cook, The Discoverer. By Georg Förster. Sydney: Hordern House. 276pp. $325


To link the Spice Girls and libraries seems incongruous. After all Victoria Beckham once said she had never read a book, even though allegedly she is the author of two. The Spice Girls’ song Wannabe has as its second verse, “If you want my future, forget my past, / If you wanna get with me, better make it fast, / Now don’t you go wasting my precious time, / Get your act together, we could be just fine”. Such lines are actually relevant to the dilemmas faced by major research libraries, which have to confront the line “If you want my future, forget my past”.

Alice Garner in her memoir of student life at Melbourne University, The Student Chronicles, writes: “The Library is one of the only places left that offer the possibility of stumbling across something old and forgotten. Only op shops compete”! A not totally helpful comparison even if tongue in cheek. In an era in which more and more commentators, like Jeff Gomez, say that book and print are dead or dying, yet still publish their books in traditional print form, the need to recognise the challenges for ‘treasure house’ libraries, such as the Mitchell in Sydney and the Bodleian in Oxford is essential.

Gomez’s book Print is Dead is divided into three sections: “Stop the presses”, “Totally wired” and “Saying goodbye to the book”. It is essentially a cut and paste commentary of recent views on the future of the publishing industries and the non reading habits of “Generation Download”, with their “media-created attention-deficit-disorder”. Steve Jobs said in January that Amazon’s recent Kindle e-book reader was dead on arrival, since Americans have largely abandoned reading. Gomez writes in this context, “The biggest change in the past fifty years, in terms of life on Earth, has been the introduction of the Internet and the abundance of gadgets that have arrived along with it: iPods, laptops, Blackberries, PDAs, eBook devices, not to mention cell phones, video cameras and portable video games.” Some would argue this is societal hell rather than heaven.

Gomez is Director of Internet Marketing for Holtzbrinck Publishers, owners of major publishing firms such as Farrar, Straus & Giroux, St. Martins Press, Henry Holt, and Picador. Gomez notes that “while eBooks […] have not really taken off, in the meantime what has indeed taken off is electronic content. So while people may not be buying novels in PDF format, they’re buying music online, streaming TV shows from the websites of networks, and integrating their daily lives with a number of different interactive websites (such as Myspace and Facebook). So consumers are certainly ready to consume content digitally (witness the rise in online news, and the demise of the newspaper), so now it’s just up to publishers to come up with a great digital reading experience […] What’s held back eBook adoption isn’t that they’re not enough like regular books, but rather it’s that they’re TOO much like them.”

There may be initially greater impact on the role and nature of newspapers than perhaps the content of books. Certainly the historical collections of the world’s libraries will not be fully digitised for decades to come, although the University of Michigan’s Library , working with Google, announced in early February that it has just put the millionth book on-line out of the 7.5 million volumes in its collection.

Major research libraries, are caught between a digital rock and an historical hard place. Some libraries, like the British Library, have been able to successfully juggle the balance of preserving historical collections with digital access. Dame Lynne Brindley, Chief Executive of the British Library, launched the recent UK Report “Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future” (http://www.bl.uk/news/pdf/googlegen.pdf), with the words: “Libraries have to accept that the future is now[…] We are a trusted and independent source, both in cyberspace and through our vast printed collections, with more than 67 million hits on our website in the past 12 months and 500,000 readers passing through our doors every year.”

Dr Reg Carr, Bodley’s Librarian at Oxford from 1997 to 2006, graphically outlines in The Academic Research Library in a Decade of Change, the problems that he and the Bodleian faced in this context. The Bodleian has experienced a number of PR turmoils in recent years as historical structures, both physical and administrative, clashed head on with digital needs and budget demands. Carr says that the major threat to the world’s great research libraries is not from the computer nor the Net, but more “because of systematic underfunding and neglect”. Carr writes: “Will libraries like the Bodleian simply be pushed to the margins of the post-modern world, as more and more of the information needs of the 21st century are supplied across the global digital networks?” He responds with a firm negative.

The main Oxford University system has 40 separate libraries on 45 different sites and the problems of copyright storage continue to escalate. Oxford City Council late last year rejected the plans for the Bodleian’s huge 29 million pound repository at Osney Mead, partly because of the alleged impact it would have on the views of Oxford’s “dreaming spires”. Dr Sarah Thomas, Bodley’s Librarian, responded that “the City’s failure to approve the proposal will rapidly have serious consequences […] for the long-term future of the Bodleian as a world-class library”. Oxford University made a significant error, unlike Cambridge, in not moving the vast majority of its library holdings to a new building on the outskirts of the city in the 1930s, erring instead to erect the gloomy New Bodleian building, in which this writer worked for ten years, on the opposite side of Broad Street.

At least the State Library of New South Wales, which includes the Mitchell Library, has had a recent new building and refurbishment of the old. Emeritus Professor Brian Fletcher’s Magnificent Obsession, which claims to be “the first extensive, scholarly history of the Mitchell Library”, is a detailed and comprehensive account of the development of the Mitchell and its role as a treasure house of Australian culture. 2007, the year of publication, marked the centenary of one of the greatest single cultural bequests to the Australian nation, namely David Scott Mitchell’s extraordinary collection of books, documents, maps and pictures on Australia and the Pacific.

Alan Ventress, Mitchell Librarian (1993–2001) noted in his April 2001 Royal Australian Historical Society lecture on Mitchell that “of the three great 20th Century benefactors of the State Library of New South Wales, David Scott Mitchell holds pride of place. This, however, does not in any way diminish the contributions of Sir William Dixson or Jean Garling, whose bequests have strengthened and enhanced Mitchell’s original gift to the people of Australia”. Mitchell, who did not live to see the Mitchell Library open on 9 March 1910, died on 24 July 1907, apparently clutching a copy of one of the rarest books of Australian literature, Barron Field’s First Fruits of Australian Poetry (1819)!

Mitchell’s original gift of 40,000 books has now increased to almost 600,000. Fletcher’s narrative of this growth has a strong focus on the people involved: “The history of the Mitchell should be viewed in human rather than in institutional terms”. Fletcher ably brings out the changing nature and skills of the Mitchell and Principal Librarians, who often operated in their own spheres with an obsession the equal of Mitchell’s! Vignettes cover such notable figures as H C L Anderson, who battled to build on the initial bequest, W H Ifould, Ida Leeson, the first female Mitchell Librarian, John Metcalfe, Russell Doust and Alison Crook. Fletcher is never salacious but he doesn’t pull punches, praising as well as criticising as tensions often rose between the more prestigious Mitchell and the wider library.

The collecting tensions between Mitchell and the developing National Library in Canberra are also documented over the decades but are now far less evident. Alison Crook and Warren Horton, when he was Director General of the National Library, were for a time the two leading “public librarians” in Australia and intermittently sparred over collecting and leadership issues. Horton had begun work in the State Library in 1957. Fletcher comments: “Horton, a large man whose initial shyness was replaced with a fondness for company, described the predominantly female staff as ‘ladies of the Mitchell’.” Fletcher sums up much in his well judged single sentences!

The Mitchell and the Public Library provided a microcosm of the struggles of female employees in the public service. Margaret Windeyer was an early proponent of women’s rights, which Jean Arnot continued, a culmination of the process perhaps being being reached with Alison Crook, the State Librarian of New South Wales 1987-1995, becoming the Qantas/ Bulletin Business Woman of the Year in 1993.

Fletcher also covers the role of readers and benefactors. Doust, Crook and particularly stockbroker Jim Bain did much to establish and develop the State Library Foundation, which by 2007 had $12.1 million in net assets. Mitchell had left an endowment of £70,000. John Merewether, the great-great-nephew of David Scott Mitchell, gave a reported $500,000 to the State Library of New South Wales last year to fund two new annual Fellowships. Merewether, a retired architect, recognised he had a “family responsibility”, given that “at 84, I’ve accumulated a few bob”. A magnificent family obsession indeed!

Fletcher, who brings to his work nearly six decades of personal research in the Mitchell, concludes it is essential that links between readers and specialist library staff should not be destroyed. Many staff in the Mitchell are nearing the age of retirement “taking with them their unparallelled knowledge of the collections”. To rely on terminal access is no substitute: the computer-says-no syndrome! Fletcher’s book may prove too detailed for the general reader less interested in the collection and library minutiae, but it is a history which will stand the test of time and which provides invaluable insights for librarians and cultural historians. Fletcher concludes with the relevant words: “No less than the other icons of modern-day Australia, the Mitchell needs to be nurtured and preserved.”

The Mitchell, of course, like the National Library of Australia is a wonderful repository of Cook material. The Sydney firm of Hordern House continue their excellent work in publishing Australiana-related items with the sumpuously produced Cook the Discoverer, the sixth in their Australian Maritime Series for the Maritime Museum. This comprises the first full translation from the German of Georg Förster’s seminal account of James Cook, published in Berlin in 1787 as Cook, der Entdecker. Hordern House commisioned the new English translation, accompanied by an introductory essay from Dr Nigel Erskine of the Australian National Maritime Museum. The original German text is also published in facsimile format.

As an eighteen-year-old, Georg Förster joined his father, Johann Reinhold Förster on Cook’s second voyage (1772–75). Erskine’s essay “After The Fall—George Förster and the image of Captain Cook” highlights the troubled relationship between the elder Förster and the other voyagers. For the younger Förster, however, Cook was not only a superb navigator, but also an inspirational leader and a contributor to the progress of the Enlightenment. Martin Lutz, the current German Ambassador to Australia, notes in his foreword that “it seems incredible that we have had to wait 220 years for an English translation of such an essay, which has long been recognised as one of the best—and earliest—of contemporary biographies of the great voyager.”Cook the Discoverer physically resembles the works of the eighteenth century with its quarter tan kangaroo binding. Carr in his chapter “From Gutenberg to Google” writes: “The microchip and the computer have not made Gutenberg obsolete. The virtual book is virtually unreadable for any length of time; and browsing a book is so much easier when you can hold it in your hands. There’s something enduringly effective about print on paper, by contrast with print on screen.”

Cook the Discoverer is such a book to hold, smell and read! The book future will be a hybrid one, but we must never forget to cherish the historical knowledge banks of history, such as the Mitchell and the Bodleian, as we descend into cyberspace.

Colin Steele



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