Date: June 30 2012
In 2012 it is possible to interview the incoming chairman of the National Library of Australia about his new role with no mention of the word ''books''.
I realise this as I scour in vain my notebook pages headed ''Ryan Stokes'' for the two simple shorthand strokes denoting those familiar bound paper objects which, after all, still make up more than half the library's collection of 6.24 million items. No luck. Everywhere, though, are the words ''digital'', ''digitised'' and ''digitalisation''.
The 36-year-old scion of his father Kerry's diversified media and mining services empire with a Bachelor of Commerce from Perth's Curtin University makes no claims as a scholar or a lover of books even when invited to do so. Instead what he brings to the chair, according to federal Arts Minister Simon Crean, is ''a wealth of business, media and entrepreneurial expertise'', not to mention connections.
In particular, said Crean in announcing the appointment, Stokes has ''shown leadership in driving digital content and developing the digital economy''. This presumably refers to his stewardship of wireless broadband provider Vividwireless which Seven Group Holdings recently offloaded to Optus for $230 million.
In his own words Stokes brings a ''great interest'' and ''passion'' for the ''treasures that are in the library, the uniqueness of that material and its meaning to Australia''. He's also an admirer of the world-leading work the library has done both in digitising the physical collections and archiving material which originates in digital form, such as websites.
Our interview takes place in a meeting room at his Sydney office where the walls are thick with 19th-century Australian landscapes by famous named artists. It's a reminder that his father has one of Australia's most highly regarded collections of art and historical objects. Some of these have been lent for National Library exhibitions which is just one way Stokes came into the orbit of both the NLA and the arts minister. (He was also chair for three years of the Federal Government's National Youth Mental Health Foundation, or headspace, until 2008, and is on the board of the Perth International Arts Festival.)
Ships plunging in stormy seas are also heavily represented on the walls. But Stokes, whose carefully articulated sentences punctuated by hand movements suggest media training more than assurance, indicates he will seek plenty of counsel to run the ship steady as she goes when he officially replaces former chief justice of the NSW Supreme Court Jim Spigelman as NLA chairman from tomorrow. He is impressed by the strength of the organisation and its executive team. The council he chairs, he says, ''brings a great wealth of experience''. Its role is ''to assist the executive team'' and to ''help set the direction as we look at some of the longer term questions around digitisation and other collection issues''.
Goals for his three-year term as chairman are to broaden the collections themselves and extend the use of technology as a ''wonderful enabler'' to ''broaden the reach and relevance'' of the collections for both their information and cultural heritage value.
On the face of it, the digital revolution, which has pundits sounding the death knell for the printed word, sounds like bad news for libraries. So it's a surprise that the nation's two most senior librarians argue on the contrary that Google is great for business.
Google is the library's friend because it has ''turned people on to information'', says Alex Byrne, state librarian of NSW. Where once only highly educated people looked things up, ''now you see it across the population'', Byrne says.
NLA director-general Anne-Marie Schwirtlich says the work of libraries and the skills they embody will be more important than ever as people face the task of navigating masses of information and finding the relevant and authoritative bits so they can make good decisions. And reading, she says, is the ''building block of digital literacy''.
As libraries work feverishly to digitise their physical collections, the interactive nature of digital learning is transforming libraries from studious to social environments.
They are no longer places where people go to be sequestered in silent solitude with a book, although that is still catered for. Rather libraries are being remade as safe communal spaces with comfy furniture in which to loll, ''where people come to relax, educate their kids, study for school or university, look up information for careers or business or pursue interests in retirement'', Byrne says.
Libraries are ''physically much less warehouses of books and now very much the work rooms and the living rooms'', she says.
The ability to interact with libraries via the internet means log-ins will be no less important than in-person visits as a measure of libraries' reach, especially when the National Broadband Network is doing its work. ''I think we are only at the beginning of conceiving how we can use that capacity,'' says Schwirtlich.
The amount of data the library can supply and the way people interact with it will be transformed. Curatorial experts physically visible to community groups or classes on the other side of the country will be able to conduct virtual tours of collections.
Stokes says ''continuing to enrich the experiences available for free'' remains a core objective for the NLA under his stewardship.
Schwirtlich reminds that, powerful as it is, Google doesn't pay for and provide access to the vast array of information resources housed in libraries, which have always played an important social role in giving people access to information regardless of their wealth. The ''purposeful, long-term, methodical, expert work of collecting, cataloguing and archiving'' remains vital to the nation, she says. ''The future is tethered, shaped, informed and nourished by the past.''
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