What’s happening to the Mitchell Library?

by Joy Hughes

At the beginning of December 2013, Dr Alex Byrne, the State Librarian, announced an appeal for funds for the ‘revitalisation’ of the Mitchell Library. The appeal’s ritzy brochure outlines exciting plans on a grand scale for a large below ground auditorium and for current office spaces on the first floor to become galleries.

Not so exciting are the spaces and services proposed for historians and researchers of all things Australian. Dr Byrne gave a Power Point presentation earlier the same day to regular users of the Mitchell Library. He announced that the grand Mitchell Reading Room would be turned over to students to work on their laptops. They would be allowed to keep their bags and water bottles with them. This would necessitate removal of the entire Mitchell Library reference collection from the shelves; all Mitchell books were to be integrated with the State Reference Library (SRL) collection. In future, books would be issued only on the lower ground floor in SRL. As many considered the merging of the printed books collections would contravene the terms of David Scott Mitchell’s will, there were requests for a copy of the will to be put online.

When funds permit, the special collections section (original materials such as manuscripts and pictures) is to be relegated to a back room. In the meantime it remains at the rear of the Mitchell Reading Room. With the reference collection now removed to another building, this means that historians and researchers can no longer use reference and original materials in conjunction with each other — which can be critical for some research. The trek back and forth between buildings makes it difficult, sometimes impossible, to function effectively (that is earn our living!). And with the microform reference collection now moved to the State Reference Library it’s a matter of competing for the use of microfilm readers.

There seems to be a lack of understanding how professionals use the library and its collections. Unlike similar institutions, the library has not had a users’ advisory committee. At least it has now established a consultative group, which has met once. The Professional Historians Association [ed. represented by Joy Hughes] will lobby for the retention of the group as a permanent channel of communication.

Once the special collections section goes to its back room, any sight of readers poring over manuscripts and pictures will also be gone. Visitors and tourists will see only a sea of laptops. In the grand Mitchell Reading Room there will be no hint of the world-renowned Australiana and Oceania collections. The sight of this once vital, now desolate, space is incredibly depressing and probably more so for the dedicated library staff. For historians and researchers of all things Australian, the Mitchell Library’s current ‘revitalisation’ is looking more like ‘devitalisation’.

15 thoughts on “What’s happening to the Mitchell Library?”

  1. I’m a professional historian and researcher of 19th century colonial australia and immigration from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. I could not have completed my PhD without the Mitchell Library and my life work is threatened by the withdrawal of services and material held in the Mitchell Library. It is a specialist library and should remain so for the people of Australia and those interested in serious research. I’m not only ‘concerned’, I’m horrified that this brilliant collection is being vandalised in the name of ‘progress’. Dr Perry McIntyre

  2. I believe Dr Perry McIntyre, summed up the changes to the Mitchell perfectly. Image so many hours wasted walking to and from the all the different reading rooms which are based a good 15 minutes apart, changing lockers etc. The Micthell Library (as it was) was a showcase of Australian history and culture.

  3. Turning over the Mitchell Library to students at the expense of dedicated researchers (amateur and professional) seems crazy. There is ample space, better lighting and more power points in the State Library for students to use. I have also noted that students often spend more time checking and updating their social media accounts than studying or researching. Dedicated researchers travel long distances (even from Perth) to use the Mitchell Library’s collection – I know of one West Australian who spent several weeks in Sydney solely for that purpose. For those of us whose research requires extended study of large bound volumes that require their own trolley and supporting pillows cope with the cramped desk and floor space in the State Library or in a probably more cramped back room?

  4. I think it is absolutely outrageous what they have done to the Mitchell Library reading room. There is no respect for this cultural and historic venue which was purpose built to encourage serious academia in our history and heritage. The changes taking place without consultation with the long time users and general public are to be condemned.

  5. The destruction of the layout and amenities of the Mitchell Library as it has been for many years is most reprehensible.It shows a complete disrespect for literary and historical scholarship, for the honourable founder, Sir Thomas Mitchell and for his memory. The technologically absorbed younger generation is being given a lesson in their elders’ disrespect for history and scholarship while the learned researchers are being greatly inconvenienced and dissuaded from researching efficiently, for example a prize-winning author who is visiting from Perth, W.A., was warned that he “might find an attic in which to wait for the material he needs to be found in the depths of the re-organised chaos” let alone an area conducive to quiet research.
    Why can the State Librarian not admit that the current changes are being made for financial reasons and not for reasons of enhancing research and scholarship?

  6. I’m also incredibly disappointed to hear of the plans to dedicate this inspiring space, that’s fostered the work of generations of historians, as well as the research fuelling novelists and other creative types and public intellectuals , to students for study, chat and eating and drinking that could be done anywhere. Like Perry, I could not have completed my PhD without the Mitchell Library, its reference and manuscript collections and card catalogue. I recently visited the New York Public Library, just to view the various reading rooms, all clearly cherished, historic spaces and home to serious research activity, and I was proud to know that back home, I could expect to return to the Mitchell and enjoy something similar. I could not possibly have foreseen that its days were numbered. For a long time, students cramming for exams and chatting have competed for space with researchers in the Mitchell – its a very attractive space – but I did not possibly have imagined that this would be the result! Seriously alarmed, Emma

  7. This seems to be a very backward step for the State Library with little consultation. Researchers wishing to consult original material from the Mitchell have little choice whilst those taming advantage of the internet and digital collections do and can make use of their uni and public libraries. I have undertaken much research in the Mitchell and believe my visit as an eager student in high school led me to my career path. I was entranced with the collection and remember being in awe of those historians around me. Very sad and disappointed.

  8. Similar to everyone else responding to this post, I’m very disappointed that the Mitchell Library Reading Room will no longer be available as quiet reflective study space manned by helpful and knowledgeable specialist library staff; and that books and other research materials will no longer be accessible on the shelves and that the room will be manned by a lone security officer. It’s especially disappointing that this decision was announced as a foregone conclusion, without any consultation with key users (at the briefing we were informed that consultation was not required because library users were being scrutinised and our user habits recorded). It seems that quiet reflection and scholarly endeavour in an aesthetically pleasing environment such as the Mitchell reading room is valued less than the revenue that can be gained by hiring out such a space for public events, and that public programming is more valued than learning. One wonders if the digitisation of selected library resources in recent times has paved the way for this to occur – and likewise the sacrifice of specialist staff. Interesting to note that no retrenchments are planned but that full time staff need to be reduced by almost a fifth, from 360.5 in 2013 to 312 by 2016-17 http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/la/qala.nsf/c1e52c2011c46013ca2574a20081ab75/36239397e50ad278ca257c15000eb6db?OpenDocument

  9. The terrible thing about this closure on Mitchell facilities is that for projects such as mine in the heritage and shared history of Aboriginal / settler relations, the prospect of reconciliation moves further and further away…

  10. Just to set the record straight, these changes are in response to long held frustrations expressed by many readers that all of the State Library’s books could not be requested from the one place. They now can in the State Reference Library Reading Room and, for researchers on manuscripts,rare books and other special collections, all of our materials related to their research will be available in the re-established Scholars Room later this year. Far from a ‘back room’, it is the original heritage reading room opened in 1910 – we just have to restore it to its original condition over the next few months. With specialist staff and the resources to hand, this will be a boon to researchers.

    The Mitchell Library Collection and State Reference Library Collections are not being combined as a correspondent suggests but both can be retrieved for use in the same place. No books have been withdrawn and all of the Mitchell Library Collection is on site in Macquarie Street.

    And the grand Mitchell Library Reading Room remains a reading room as can be seen by visiting it, not a space for hire, nor handed over to students with laptops – but of course many students and researchers do use laptops. Although we cannot continue to deliver books to that room because of the staffing reductions that a correspondent has noted, the room will continue to inspire future generations, some of whom will go on to research careers.

  11. What’s happening? Answer is its happening across the NSW public service. It’s the peril of small government and public service cuts. See http://psa.asn.au/anne-gardiner-sydney-morning-herald-us-horror-show-highlights-peril-of-small-government/

    Its a case of trying to do ones best, killing two birds with one stone – meeting future challenges in the digital age and at the same time making employment-related savings. See http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/la/qala.nsf/c1e52c2011c46013ca2574a20081ab75/36239397e50ad278ca257c15000eb6db?OpenDocument

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