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Marian Hobbs Speech -National Library Society AGM


Good evening everyone. I am delighted to have the opportunity to address you and to thank you for your efforts in strengthening the links between the National Library and the community.

I don't need to tell you that the Library is a national institution, relevant to all New Zealanders, wherever they may be. But for those who live in Wellington, it is easy to become a little blasé about the cultural wealth of this city and to think of institutions such as the Library, and Te Papa, as belonging to Wellington, rather than to New Zealand. It is less certain whether Wellingtonians feel the same attachment to Parliament, another of the city’s major cultural institutions.

The corollary of course is that those national institutions based in Wellington - and that includes most of the principal agencies of government - have to work hard to keep in touch with the rest of the country, and not to assume that the view from Lambton Quay is shared by everyone else.

Libraries are a counter to a narrow view of the world. A good library provides a window that is infinitely wide and a view that is endless. It links the individual with the world, and all that lies beyond.

All libraries have their specialities. Outside of the works of the Argentinean author (and National Librarian!) José Luis Borges, no library in the world seeks to collect everything that is published. (Borges' short story 'The Library of Babel' had a library containing all human knowledge but this dream became a nightmare. The library had no perceivable order, a catalogue that no one could find. Human enlightenment was there for the taking but no one could drink at the fount of knowledge.)

Library collections mirror the communities they serve. While they tend - inevitably - to reflect the tastes and interests of the majority, they also provide spaces for other communities to be visible. That includes minority cultures within the community. But there is also a space for those communities that we might otherwise know of only through the media, or be entirely ignorant of. Making communities visible is a very important function of libraries.

Just as communities are always in a state of change, so too are libraries. Every time we enter the library, there’s something new. In fact, with every single new book that enters the collection, the whole of the library is changed – new references are established, old works are seen in a new context, new subjects and avenues of thought are opened up - very much the way a community is changed by new people coming into it.

Libraries are a link to the communities of our past, to the knowledge of our old people, and to the wisdom of our ancestors. The collections of New Zealand libraries preserve our documentary heritage for future generations, and form important stocks of what is coming to be recognised as "cultural capital" - the raw material from which new knowledge, new understanding, new ways of thinking, are formed. Bourdieum has another definition of 'cultural capital'.

Libraries are situated on something like a moving front, a constantly advancing frontier, where the new is eagerly embraced, placed alongside the old, and made available for us all now.

In the case of the National Library, people encounter this "moving front" at lots of different points. Some people are after the most up-to-date and current information they can find. Others are looking for the very earliest references. And others are looking to study the whole history of a subject, or even – based on all that we may know now - trying to work out what the future may hold.

The National Library Gallery provides another window into the collections, and there have been a number of exhibitions over the years that have provided particular insight into different cultures and communities. In 1998, for example, there was Va’aomanu – an exhibition celebrating the history and culture of Samoa, based on the collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library. In 1999, a copy of Va’aomanu gifted to the people of Samoa, and went on exhibition in Apia. The exhibition was also toured to Auckland and Hawkes Bay.

Communities also engage with the National Library not only as users of collections, but as generators of content. As individuals and as organisations, New Zealanders are the creators of the works that provide the Library’s raison d’etre - the collection of New Zealand’s documentary heritage. As communities, New Zealanders are deeply engaged in the National Library through their presence in the oral history archive, in the pictorial collections, in the music collections, and in all the printed collections. This makes for a very special relationship, and one that implies a special responsibility for the Library to provide a guardianship of these collections.

The National Library has always been a library dedicated to serving all New Zealanders, through its own collections, through support for school libraries and public libraries, and through the information networks that it supports.

The Library’s services have changed over the years, especially as the underlying networks of the community have become stronger. Services available to people living in remote areas have improved considerably. It is not just better roads, mail and telephone services that are providing the linkages between communities.
New information and communication technologies have the potential to provide households with the same opportunities of access, whether they’re in Haast or Hataitai, or Hokitika or Houston.

Despite prevailing stereotypes, libraries have a history of being early adopters of new technologies. According to Tim Berners-Lee, widely regarded as the designer of the world-wide-web, the first web server outside the CERN laboratories was implemented by a librarian in Palo Alto.

New Zealand libraries have been just as quick to see the opportunities offered by new technologies. Again, the principle has always been, how to use these technologies to provide the most useful library services to New Zealanders? Much of the focus in the last 20 years has been in using these technologies to automate existing practices. For example, building electronic versions of the union catalogue, and shifting from card catalogues to electronic records, so as to unleash the capacity of computers to perform rapid and sophisticated searching of large catalogues.

But now we are entering a period where technologies are providing opportunities to deliver wholly new services. This is the so-called "digital revolution" where it appears possible to represent almost anything – a poem, or a painting, a piece of music, even the genetic code that underwrites life itself – as a numerical series of ones and zeroes. Books are now being written, published, and read, entirely electronically. An entire library can fit on a single disk.

Increasingly, the National Library is looking to harness these new technologies to deliver library services to communities outside of Wellington. One such project is the Alexander Turnbull Library’s Timeframes database -- digitised images from its pictorial collections. Timeframes has only a fraction of the images in the pictorial collections, but was an early instance of the Library providing new opportunities of access.

Other projects have followed – Te Waimano being the most recent - and more will come. They serve several purposes: as well as providing new access opportunities, they reduce the demand on the originals, they showcase the marvellous treasures the Library holds, and in a very real way they democratise the collections. Despite its best efforts, many people still probably view the National Library as a little forbidding. Seeing people - especially school children – using a computer to view images on from Te Waimano, we may be confident that they are learning not only about what the Library holds, but also realising that these collections belong to them, that they are there for them to use and enjoy, and they are welcome at the National Library.

Earlier this month, the Minister for State Services released the Government’s vision for e-government. That vision is that New Zealanders will be able to gain access to government information and services, and participate in our democracy, using the Internet, telephones and other technologies as they emerge.

E-government is a way for governments to use the new technologies to provide people with more convenient access to government information and services, to improve the quality of the services and to provide greater opportunities to participate in our democratic institutions and processes. E-government presents us with some tremendous opportunities to move forward in the 21st century with higher quality, cost-effective, government services and a better relationship between New Zealanders and their government.

Already, there are examples of e-government in New Zealand. They range from being able to register a new company on the Internet to getting comprehensive statistical information about New Zealand from Statistics New Zealand’s website.
The National Library has been one of the pioneers of e-government, starting in the 1980’s with initiatives such as NZBN and KiwiNet - providing public services in the very early days of the online environment. That same spirit is informing the National Library’s response today, to the opportunities that are provided by the spread of personal computers in homes, and the world-wide connections provided by the Internet.

There is some disquiet at the extent to which computers are supplanting books - and even people - in our lives. We might take solace in the assured fallibility of all machines, but we should be prepared for computers to become more and more prevalent. Those who feel that the experience of reading on a computer screen will never supplant the touch and feel of reading a book, should be warned that electronic ink is being developed, that can be printed like ordinary ink, but reconfigures itself to any text according to an electronic signal. The time may not be far off, when something that looks, and feels, and smells, exactly like a traditional book, actually holds in its memory (a tiny chip in the spine of the book) the entire canon of Western literature.

Some may conclude that these technologies mean that libraries must some day face being altogether redundant. That is unlikely. Many of the prophets of the demise of libraries mistake the purpose of libraries. Whatever new technologies may arise to challenge the book is essentially beside the point, because libraries are not really about books at all - libraries are about people.

Libraries are about people wanting to know about other people, wanting to know about themselves, wanting to know about their ancestors, wanting to know about what the world is going to be like for their children and their children’s children. Libraries are about people wanting to share what they know, and what they don’t know. They’re for people who want to see a bigger view of the world. So long as people want to do that, then there will be libraries.

The work of the National Library Society is very important to the success of the Library. The intentions of the Society to build a wider membership should be applauded. The Society represents in itself an important community for the National Library, and deserves every success in continuing, and strengthening, the very positive relationship that has been established.

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