On the Changes at the National Library of Australia

I love the National Library of Australia, particularly the archives there. I always thought that when I died (hopefully at some far distant date) it would be lovely (if no doubt impermissible) to have a few of my ashes sprinkled in the manuscripts reading room on level 2, near the window with the view of Lake Burley Griffin and the flowering cherry trees. That room was my idea of heaven. Sadly, however, all in the name of improvement, readers of manuscripts are now directed to a refurbished internal space on level 1 in the centre of the building. It’s much bigger, for sure, and elegantly fitted out, but it is no longer possible to sit close to an external window. It also lacks the charm and companionable atmosphere of the previous room, which was much smaller, and where you might have found yourself bumping elbows with a luminary historian or national cultural icon at the next desk.

This is not the end of the changes, either. Last week when I was there on a rush visit which included Saturday, I found that the library has changed its rules and no longer retrieves books from its collections on weekends. A friendly member of staff whose name I do not know told me this was due “mainly to budget cuts”. The inconvenience to visiting scholars is great, and has either not been thought through, or is not considered a priority. Having hauled myself up to Canberra at my own expense, prepared for two days of blitzing the archives, I was disappointed and frustrated to find that books I wanted to consult as cross-references to the papers I was working on were not available because it was a Saturday. Some of these books are only available in the NLA, not other libraries. Had I known I needed them, I could have booked ahead, reserving them by Friday afternoon. But the whole point of digging in the archives is discovery: often you don’t know what works you’ll need for cross-referencing, because you can’t anticipate everything you might turn up in the papers.

Just to top off this whinge, I note that although the new reading room is larger, the reference collection from the old reading room has been consolidated. Yes, you might now be able to look up the Dictionary of National Biography online, but it’s definitely not the same as that physical process of cross-reading which to me is such an integral aspect of working in a traditional archive, and which leads to so many serendipitous discoveries and insights.

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