City News

War of words over Mitchell Library

Authors are concerned about changes to the Mitchell Library reading room. Source: Flickr

A group of influential authors is determined to fight changes at the Mitchell Library which will strip the Reading Room of staff and relocate researchers to a smaller “scholars’ room” next door.

Led by David Malouf, Evelyn Juers and Geordie Williamson (also the chief literary critic of The Australian), the group has circulated a petition which has thus far garnered more than 5000 signatories, including the likes of Clive James, Les Murray, Mandy Sayer and Louis Nowra.

As part of the $25 million “revitalisation”, the state library will also lose almost a quarter of its staff.

The petition won Ms Juers, Mr Malouf and Mr Williamson a meeting with chief librarian Alex Byrne, held on Wednesday last week. It did not go well. The next day, Ms Juers penned an open letter to Mr Byrne, obtained by City News. In it, she accuses Mr Byrne of arriving 15 minutes late and proceeding to “suck the oxygen out of the room”.

“You had invited us to come to the meeting, but you asked us no questions, showed no curiosity. You spoke to us as if we were children who did not understand the lesson you were teaching,” she wrote.

Ms Juers dismissed Mr Byrne’s argument that there were insufficient scholars using the Reading Room to justify its current set up. “The reading rooms of great libraries are valued for their generosity of space, not regimented sardine-tin accommodation,” she wrote.

Ms Juers said she understands there is pressure from above forcing Mr Byrne’s hand, but accused him of failing to defend the library’s position in the face of attack.

In an interview, Mr Byrne said the petitioners were making a mountain out of a molehill.

“The changes are not terribly dramatic. What we’re doing is re-establishing the David Scott Mitchell research library,” he said.

From there, researchers can order books from the Mitchell’s collection and have them delivered to the Reading Room if they so wish.

That is a change of position from what was first advised in an open letter penned by Mr Byrne, in which he said: “It is no longer possible to deliver books to that Room due to reductions in staffing which are necessary for us to live within our budget, a situation we share with other public sector agencies in NSW and nationally.”

Mr Byrne confirmed it will be possible to deliver books to the Reading Room again by the end of March. He rejected the idea that the Mitchell would become a function space, wifi lounge and entertainment area, and said he had spoken with

Mr Williamson and Mr Malouf after their meeting and was increasingly satisfied their concerns would be satiated.

But Mr Williamson told City News that is far from the case. He said the reforms would still “cut the umbilical cord between the room itself and the content of the library”, and would dissuade researchers and writers from using the space.

“This is an act of vandalism of one of the great libraries of the world, in our opinion,” Mr Williamson said.

“I can’t see how it is that precious materials would be permitted to go into that room without the attention of the librarian. It won’t be a place of study, it will be a place of gathering.”

He also criticised the lack of public consultation around the changes and called for an open forum in which the matter can be debated.

“He [Byrne] doesn’t want to do it…because this is a decision made according to a technocratic logic,” Mr Williamson said.

“Which constituency do the senior librarians at the state library think they are serving?”

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