Inaugural Colin S Watson Oration - Books & Technology (Past and Future Issues)

Delivered by Hon Barry Jones, AO

Tuesday, 16 May 2000
Unitarian Peace Memorial Church
110 Grey Street,
East Melbourne

Barry Jones, AO
Colin S. Watson Oration

I congratulate Friends of Libraries Australia Inc (FOLA) for establishing the Colin S. Watson Oration, to be held during Australian Library Week.

I was honoured to have been invited to deliver the inaugural lecture, here in the Unitarian Church, scene of so many important public meetings from the time of Victor James.

I first met Colin, I think, at the time of the Labor split in Victoria in 1954-55, when we were both members of the Young Labor Association, together with Clyde Holding and John Button. Over more than forty years, his was a face one looked out for at meetings, both public and private, at which great issues were to be discussed, or at concerts where great music was to be performed. And for decades, Marie Dowling's face was linked with Colin's. I always felt confident that if Colin and Marie were in the room, that any proposition I put up could count on at least two votes in support, as well as my own.

We shared passions - for books and music.

His career is at least as familiar to this audience as it is to tonight's speaker, but I will follow normal practice in outlining the details.

Colin Stanley Watson was born on 18 October 1927 at Nyah West. His parents were farmers. He died on 6 August 1999 in Melbourne.

He grew up in acute hardship, was educated at the Yarraby State School (just a public hall - now defunct) and the Swan Hill High School, where he was Head Prefect and active in debating, music, athletics and drama. He matriculated in 1943.

He graduated from Melbourne University as a Bachelor of Commerce in 1951. In the same year he married Lorna June Broadley and they had two daughters: Christine and Vicki, both teachers.

He worked at the head office of Colonial Life Assurance 1949-57, completed the Preliminary Certificate of Librarianship 1957 and became Librarian of the City of Brighton 1957-71.

At Brighton he was a pioneer in the application of computer technology to library administration, introduced photocopying (1961), a home delivery service, collected books in languages other than English, and audio-visual materials, initiated MINTERLIB - the muncipal library interlibrary loan delivery van, the first use of bar coding and scanning in local libraries and became a founder of the Brighton Historical Society (1963).

In 1966 he became an Associate of the Library Association of Australia (ALIA).

He became Foundation Librarian of the Dandenong Valley Regional Library Service 1971-92 at a time of phenomenal growth in the Springvale, Dandenong, Berwick, Cranbourne and Pakenham corridor. Here he actively promoted adult literacy programs and English as a second language.

In 1979 he married Marie Dowling.

He was Founding Secretary of the Australian Library Promotion Council, Editor of Australian Library News for 15 years and received the Alfred McMicken Award for distinguished services to library promotion in 1983.

An activist for many causes and projects, he was a long standing member of the Humanist Society, the Australian Labor Party, the Fabian Society, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the National Trust and the National Book Council, to name only a few of the bodies he was associated with. He was a foundation Vice President of Friends of Australian Libraries (FOLA) in 1994.

He was both dreamer and realist, a practitioner of the arts, a pianist who loved Chopin and played jazz and boogie-woogie, an enthusiast for science fiction and Sherlock Holmes, a theatre and opera lover. He was long-sighted, tenacious and fiercely loyal.

He died after a long battle with cancer.

He is sadly missed, an unsung hero whose life was dedicated to public service, without thought of reward or recognition, with a deep commitment to democratic ideals, to the social good, and the conviction that education - especially reading - was the central instrument to personal understanding and human freedom generally.

Flaubert wrote: "Read in order to live".

That is a sentiment that Colin lived by and I share.

The printed book was the central artefact of the Renaissance and Reformation - as it was of the Communist Revolutions in Russia and China, and (it must be admitted) a central factor in Hitler's revolution in Germany, linked with radio and film.

I am relatively optimistic about the future of the book culture - more so than I was a decade ago. The printed book and the book culture are potent symbols of personal autonomy, with with immense cultural, social, political and economic significance.

The book is portable, a possession capable of being consumed at any time, in any place, a consolation for loneliness or insomnia, not dependent on an intermediate technology, capable of being made abolsutely personal and individualised, annotated, underlined and highlighted, so that each reader may interpret, edit and re-write the contents for him/herself. While e-mail and faxes have destroyed the art of letter writing, the book culture seems to be riding high, with more outlets than ever.

However, Jason Epstein expressed some concerns in his article 'The Rattle of Pebbles' in the New York Review of Books [April 27, 2000] that direct marketing via the World Wide Web may destroy the viability of traditional publishers. Their capacity to maintain long backlists of quality works in print was subsidised by best selling novels, and books on cooking, gardening and travel. Mega authors such as Stephen King now sell directly on the web when consumers download on their PCs, eliminating publisher and bookseller. Epstein noted that a recent novella by King, offered only on the web, secured 200,000 sales on its first day.

I commend two significant books to you (surely unnecessary in an audience largely made up of librarians? - but still...).

They are Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading (Flamingo, 1997) and Nicholson Baker's The Size of Thoughts (Chatto & Windus 1996).

Manguel suggests that reading - silent reading - may be the ultimate private indulgence (well, one of them). St Augustine made a point of the fact that St Ambrose always read silently - it was unusual enough to merit comment. Libraries in antiquity were very noisy places as readers verbalised. Plutarch (admittedly not in a contemporary account) said that when Alexander read a letter silently, his troops could not work out what he was doing.

Baker's book includes a provocative and disturbing essay 'Discards', which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1994.

It is a thoughtful, essentially nostalgic, piece about the decline and fall of library science based on the book, and when book stocks were recorded on card catalogues. In the 1980s many US (and Australian) libraries joyfully discarded their catalogues, sending cards off to be burnt or used as packing waste. Baker sees a cost in the transition to centralised data bases such as OCLC, the Online Computer Library Centre, because individual cards often contain cross reference or updates by actual users. Of course, the old systems were economically inefficient and wasteful of space. He quotes a historian as putting the Great Discard 'in a class with the burning of the library at Alexandria'. Certainly, the explosion of monographs and serials made the vast British Museum Catalogue of Printed Books and the 756 volume National Union Catalogue obsolete. Fred Kilgour, the founder of OCLC, noted gleefully 'not having to go to a library is a very important improvement in providing library service'. Well, I see what he means.

With the new systems there is an infinity of new material to be accessed, providing that you have the right key to use. Nicholson Baker argues that the electronic retrieval system shows intolerance involving variant spellings for Mao Zedong or Tchaikovsky, or various name forms such as Tennyson, Alfred, Lord. Traditional librarians knew how to cope with the variants. Dumb machines do not. They are temperamental too, if the user has too broad a question, with system rebuffs for asking too much. Some requests for information on Madonna come up with funny answers. He points to a high incidence of screen fatigue and user dropout. Still, we can't challenge progress, can we?

But the life of the mind must be encouraged and defended at every point.

Since 1996, I have taken an interest in the great Bibliotheca Alexandrina project in Egypt and I am now a patron of the Australian Friends. I visited the site of the site of the project just after the end of my term on the Executive Board of UNESCO. The project was initiated by UNESCO, a very high priority for President Mubarak and his Government, largely financed by the Arab Gulf States, with substantial contributions, so far, from Greece, Spain, France, Norway, and Germany. In the US some non-government organisations have raised support.

The original library (sometimes called Museion) of Alexandria was set up in the royal quarter by Ptolemy I, the successor to Alexander the Great, in the 4th Century BC, within sight of the famous Pharos (one of the Seven Wonders of the World). Alexandria was then essentially a Greek-speaking city. It was the world's greatest intellectual centre for some centuries.

Euclid's elements of geometry were propounded here and Erathosthenes calculated the earth's circumference to within 1 per cent. The anatomist Herophilus pioneered the anatomy of the brain, the eye and the genitals (but failed to grasp the significance of the blood stream. Nobody got it right until William Harvey in 1628). Heron of Alexandria made the first simple steam engine there. Archimedes studied, but did not teach, in Alexandria.

Strabo wrote that Aristotle's book collection was accessioned by the Library of Alexandria. It was said to have housed nearly 500,000 scrolls. But to get things in perspective, Manguel asserts that until the development of printing, the Papal library at Avignon was the only one in the Christian West with more than 2000 volumes.

Alexandria had the first two librarians known to history - and the first known power struggle within a library. The rivals were Apollonius of Rhodes, author of The Voyage of the Argo, 6000 lines long, and his deputy Callimachus of Cyrene, a former teacher who became writer, critic, poet and encyclopedist. Callimachus pioneered the first orderly cataloguing of the library, the pinakoi, and organised reading spaces.

In the 6th or 7th Century AD the library was burnt down.

The cause is disputed. It could have been Christian fundamentalists (who hated the values of classical learning) or Islamic fundamentalists (who wanted no challenge to the priority of the Koran). It is even suggested that the loss began far earlier - in a major fire in the time of Julius Caesar.

The original site is lost: no ancient city has been so completely overbuilt as Alexandria. However, the new library is being built roughly in the same area.

An international architectural competition, with 1400 entries from 77 countries, was won by the Norwegian partnership, Snohetta. The basic design is an inclined sun-disc, complemented by a large planetarium, and an already completed Convention Centre.

The world's largest continuously reinforced circular diaphragm wall, a huge drum, about 35 metres high, and the concrete base have already been completed and steel supports for the sun-disc building were completed in 1998. It is hoped that the complex will open in early 2001.

It is planned for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina to be, not just a book repository, but an international think tank, set at a strategic point in the land bridge linking Africa and Asia, with Europe not far away.

Australia has been able to make some contribution to this great project, in cash, kind, books, audiovisual material and expertise. As professionals, it is in your interest to talk the project up because at a time when the media is increasingly obsessed about the Internet, the Information Superhighway and on-line data services, the establishment of an important intellectual centre with a traditional library function as the core, is a cause worth promoting, in the interests of peace, international cooperation, intellectual stimulus for the developing world and the survival of the book culture.

The British Library's new location near St Pancras Station in London is the United Kingdom's largest publicly funded building of the 20th Century. The architect was Professor Sir Colin St John Wilson. The exterior is odd - it could be almost Chinese with its red brick walls and sloping green roofs. The piazza is dominated by a huge statue of Newton by Sir Edouardo Paolozzi, based on William Blake's famous engraving.

But the interior is superb.

The floor space is about 100,000 square metres. The basement has 300 kilometres of shelving, enough for 12 million books. There are eleven reading areas, an excellent book shop, a Conference Centre, a Restaurant and Coffee Shop.

An ingenious centrepoint is the King's Library. The library of George III, remembered for his madness not his scholarship, comprised 65,000 volumes, 20,000 pamphlets and 400 manuscripts. The collection was the core of the Library of the British Museum, given in 1823 by George IV who had no personal use for it. At St Pancras, the King's Library is enclosed in a glass and metal tower, six storeys high and 17 metres long, in which books can be retrieved by staff. This is in the open public space and the books' bindings glow like jewels in the light.

The John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library has a magnificent display of 300 items, including the Codex Sinaiticus (c. 350), the Sherbourne Missal, Magna Carta, a Gutenberg Bible, a Shakespeare First Folio, manuscripts by ohn Milton, Henry Purcell, Handel, J. S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

A particular highlight is 'Turning the Pages', using high quality digitised ../../images to simulate the actual turning of pages in fragile manuscripts. It won the Museum of the Year multi-media award in 1999. The reader can, for example, call up the notebook of Leonardo da Vinci and, by touching the screen, turn to page 7, then use the zoom to get magnified ../../images of the cross-section of a foetus or a vortex in a storm. Other works digitised in "Turning the Pages"include the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the Sforza Hours.

In early childhood, the world of books was opened up for me by Mrs Edwards' Clover Book Club in North Caulfield, a private library of a type which has now disappeared, where books could be borrowed for a week for 3d. My contemporary, Barry Oakley, The Australian's former literary editor, was a fellow user of the Clover Book Club.

I haunted Melbourne's Public Library (as it was then called) for decades, driving reference librarians such at the late Barrett Reid mad. As a formative influence, it was far more significant for me than Melbourne University or, indeed, the Law Library. I spent every Saturday there for nearly two decades while normals were at the football or playing cricket and tennis.

I received enormous assistance from the libraries of the two Parliaments I served in. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Library is a magnificent institution, and the Victorian Parliamentary Library, an architectural gem, has a historical collection of great interest, with some 19th Century works not found elsewhere in Australia. Both were staffed by unfailingly resourceful and friendly professionals.

I enjoyed serving on the Council of the National Library in my last Parliamentary term (1996-98).

National leaders, in business and government, cannot grasp the idea of 'information' as an alternative source of wealth or to see that information competence will be central to creating a better, more cohesive, more transparent society.

The economist Don Lamberton and I first described Australia as an immature post-industrial information economy in the 1970s, but recognition of the phenomenon was very slow in coming. We were too far ahead of the pack. Political wisdom is shown by those who proclaim the patently obvious about ten minutes before everybody else.

My own political party had a National Information Policy, drafted by me, between 1980 and 1990 - but it was never implemented in office due to bureaucratic resistance, and smartly dropped after my Ministerial defenestration. In the year 2000, the ALP is cautiously calling for recognition of the significance of Australia as a 'knowledge nation' but without proposing sweeping policy changes. There is still very limited understanding of what a 'knowledge economy' entails. Australia is a way-station on the information superhighway, but essentially passive.

The Information or Communications Revolution has the capacity to transform and expand human capacity to an extraordinary degree.

This ought to make us feel happier, more confident of our capacity to transform our lives, to enlarge time-use value. The reality is not like that at all. Surveys in Canada and Australia indicate a prevailing pessimism in young people. The aged, who ought to welcome the prospect of healthy longevity are fearful of isolation, loneliness and dependence, although we now have the technological capacity to counteract all three.

Technology which was intended to free humans up to use our time creatively and imaginatively is threatening to the unemployed, underemployed or uncommitted. 'Free' time then becomes oppressive and has to be 'killed' (or desensitised). The end of much traditional work involving physical effort, associated with the land or the seasons, has threatened many blue collar workers with a loss of identity. This has a particularly devastating impact in regions where older work forms mining, for example, have not been replaced by new employment opportunities and transition to post-industrialism seems unlikely.

This is sometimes compounded by three perceived threats - the education revolution, where higher skills are a precondition to employment, the changing role of women in the workforce and society generally, and the challenge of migrants.

It is extraordinary difficult for people to impute an actual value to their own time use. Typically 'time use value' is conferred hierarchically by another, in childhood by a parent, later an employer. If an employer withdraws it, then our sense of personal value diminishes.

Phillip Adams argues, perceptively, that 'the real threat of the communications revolution will not be the homogenisation of cultures but people's desire to be trivial rather than truly national, let alone global...These are not mutually exclusive concepts... Members of local tribes will be able to communicate instantly and comprehensively with like minded people - members of the same tribe - all over the world! And this may include those who are obsessed with pornography, anti-Semitism, or weaponry'.

The WWW is, of course, deeply democratic, rejecting hierarchies and elites - but also populist, which is not the same thing. What John Howard calls "political correctness", and what others called "tolerance", did have the effect of filtering out prejudice from mainstream media, other than some talk back radio outlets. Now prejudice is institutionalised and doing well - and the Internet plays a part.

The Czech President Vaclav Havel has referred to a 'loss of transcendence', the decline of an over-arching belief system which makes sense of the contemporary world, contributing to the rise of cults committed to a conspiratorial or apocalyptic view, with cult members seeing themselves as victims, leading to an absolute commitment to a cause or leader, including - all too often - the use of killing and terror as ideological instruments.

The political process must be revived. This won't just depend on Parliament, political parties and voting. It will require a balancing process with countervailing forces and more creative involvement by intermediate bodies, for example, business groups and trades unionists, churches, environmentalists, a fearless judiciary, universities and other research communities, stronger and more diverse media. Reviving politics will involve encouraging knowledge, curiosity, understanding, scepticism and transparency. It will also require a revolution in education to redefine non-economic values and a critical spirit, with heavier emphasis on history, philosophy and language, as well as the skills needed for vocations.

My political career had an unusually high degree of frustration. One of the worst was the failure of the Hawke and Keating Governments to respond adequately to two reports published by the House of Representatives Standing Committee for Long Term Strategies in 1991 on Australia as an Information Society. I appreciate that 1991 was not a great year for attracting the interest of either Hawke or Keating on long term issues. Their minds were on other things.

Grasping New Paradigms adopted my proposition, first set out in Sleepers, Wake! (1982), for a National Information Policy, something that is now evolving, or stumbling, by default, following changes in technological capacity, but without any attempt to set out social goals, or to tackle the thorny issues of access and equity, narrowing the gap between 'information rich' and 'information poor', a concept which I seemed to have coined.

The Committee's second report The Role of Libraries: Information Networks was the first and - so far - the only Australian Parliamentary enquiry into libraries.

Its starting point was an examination of what had happened to the Horton Report Public Libraries in Australia. In March 1975, E. G. Whitlam, as he then was, appointed Allan Horton, Librarian of the University of New South Wales (not to be confused with Warren Horton, later Director-General of the Australian National Library) to chair a Committee of Inquiry. Following the coup of November 1975, the timing of the Report was unfortunate, handed to Senator Reg Withers, Minister for Administrative Services, in February 1976 and tabled in the Parliament in April.

In September 1981, 67 months after the Horton Report was delivered, the Fraser Government responded that most of its 53 recommendations were 'state concerns'.

It was part of what Bill Hayden, then Labor's Leader, called the 'latest episode in a dreary story of procrastination'.

South Australia and Queensland implemented much of the Horton Report, followed by other states. The Commonwealth virtually ignored it.

Allan Horton told the Long Term Strategies Committee that he estimated that 8 recommendations had been implemented, 13 implemented in part and the rest either ignored or overtaken by events.

As Gough Whitlam said: "The Fraser Government put the Horton Report on the shelf: the Hawke Government has yet to take it down".

The main recommendation made by the Long Term Strategies Committee was:

  • The Minister for the Arts ... develop a national library policy and make a detailed statement to the Parliament about the adequacy of existing library and information networks in meeting Australia's information needs;
  • The Commonwealth Government put the development and provision of libraries and information services on the agenda of a Special Premiers' Conference at which local government is represented; and
  • The Commonwealth review the funding of public libraries and, as part of its national libraries policy, adopt a funding program to overcome the unevenness in library networks and to facilitate the development of new services and the introduction of new technologies.

The Committee specifically adopted nine of the principal recommendations of the Horton Report, and added 12 more of its own.

As we wrote at the time:

The inscription above the library at Alexandria in ancient Egypt, soon to be restored in a UNESCO project, proclaimed that it was a "Hospital for the Mind" and an inscription on its sister institution at Thebes advised that it provided "Medicine for the Soul".

At a time of economic recession we put enormous emphasis on physical well-being, and this might seem an inappropriate time to reiterate the need for intellectual and spiritual stimulation. Although libraries are still well placed to cater for a wide range of needs, we have so far failed to make the most of what they can offer.

Libraries now face the following challenges: an exponential increase in information; increase in demands to interpret information and to transform it into knowledge; demands to provide a greater diversity of services, including some that are quite complex; increasing demands which result from failures in the education system; and the need to acquire and apply a bewildering array of new, complex and expensive information and communication technologies. There must be substantial rethinking of roles and attitudes and resources must be directed to libraries to enable them to develop the services and information networks essential to the intellectual, cultural and economic growth of our society.

In our first report on information we stressed the extraordinary fragmentation of information, with Commonwealth Ministers sharing responsibility, but with ill-defined boundaries. This situation is central to our second Report. The Minister for the Arts ... has responsibility for the National Library of Australia. We can assume that if anyone should have responsibility for a national library policy it should be the Minister responsible for the National Library. But this responsibility has never been taken up. It has been divided between the States and local government, with the Commonwealth conspicuously failing to take up the national challenge.

The reaction was a deafening silence. Although the convention is that Ministers respond to reports by Parliamentary Committees within six months of their tabling, our Libraries Report never had a response. That was deplorable for any government, even worse for a Labor one.

Of course, nine years on, the Report shows its age. It needs continuous updating, perhaps on the Internet.

I was always concerned that librarians (like scientists in another, earlier, context) were not particularly effective lobbyists, either as professionals or citizens. There should have been more Colin Watsons - and we need them now more than ever.

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