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’.