The Optimisation of Fisher Library

By Adam Jasper Smith
Issue 4, Spring 2011

In books lies the soul of the whole Past Time: the articulate audible voice of the Past, when the body and material substance of it has altogether vanished like a dream.
Thomas Carlyle (Engraved in stone in the foyer of the State Library of New South Wales)

NINE O’CLOCK AT NIGHT ON LEVEL EIGHT OF FISHER LIBRARY, the central library at the University of Sydney. The stack, as the library’s central collection is called in honour of a tradition of forgotten origin, is quiet and dimly lit. High bookshelves stretch away to vanishing point. Closing time is not due for over an hour, but tonight there’s almost no one around. The only sound is the gentle susurration of the air-conditioning, and the faint whine and flutter of a slowly dying fluorescent globe. Every now and again one of the tall columns of shelves explodes into bright light with a distinct chock, as a reader hits a timed light switch on their slow trajectory through the miles of aisles, searching for some obscure title or chancing upon a text they never knew existed.

If the university librarian, John Shipp, has his way, this quiet, scholarly space will soon disappear. ‘Browsing’, as physically reading books in the library is now called, has been deemed a luxury, unsustainable on cost-efficiency grounds. The problem with browsing is that it is private, old-fashioned and hard to quantify. When physical people read actual books, staff need to be hired to re-shelve them. In contrast, up-to-date social scientists can just use keyword searches to find the quote they need. Students might read only what is required on the course reader, and then probably a third of that. The hard sciences barely need a library at all. E-books, electronic databases, online catalogues, query logs: all the developments point to the imminent redundancy of paper. The recently launched Fisher Library Renovation Plan proposes to exploit this redundancy with improvements to the amenity of the building ‘in accord with emerging international best practice’, in the non-specific boosterism of bureaucratic change management. The new Fisher will be a more kinetic learning environment, room for discussions and informal meetings, with noisy break-out spaces and more space – much more space – for cubicles and PCs, not unlike the new SciTech library over the road, with its fun colours and quirky angled shelving. The chief correlate of this ‘renovation’ is the removal of somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of the books and the permanent reduction in the carrying capacity of the library.

Fisher is not, at first sight, a glamorous building. A stern copper-clad monolith at the edge of Victoria Park, it sits ill at ease with the photogenic, 1862 neo-Gothic sandstone of the Main Quad. For many undergraduates, the discovery of the bronze plaque in the foyer pronouncing the receipt of the Sulman Prize for Architecture in 1962 is a source of sarcastic hilarity. It’s hard to imagine that this modernist bloc was completed two years before the final touches were put on the sandstone neoclassic Mitchell Wing of the State Library of New South Wales. All the same, Fisher has a distinguished bearing, as if the millions of accumulated hours of study spent inside it had soaked into the walls, and a seriousness that the Mitchell – with its kitschy stained-glass window dedicated by The Sydney Morning Herald – can only ape.

Fisher Library stack building under construction, 1966. Photo courtesy of the University of Sydney archives.

As one of the largest Dewey Decimal open stacks in the world, Fisher is an imposing collection. Some million books stretch up to the ninth floor in serried rows of utilitarian steel shelving. The flooring is a kind of black linoleum, scuffed into an unlikely lustre by thousands of feet. The desks are institutional pine, decades-old and scarred into palimpsests of idle graffiti. The windows are thin slits that reveal stripped glimpses of the city and the campus; their verticality seems almost a Calvinist injunction to turn one’s thoughts heavenward, but their real function is to not let in too much light, because direct sunlight degrades paper. The books are arranged by subject, but frequently slightly disordered. I’m looking for some material on the history of outsider art. Alongside some self-consciously progressive contemporary studies and a couple of 1970s manuals promoting art-as-therapy, a slender hard cover volume wedged deep in a long row of nondescript monographs catches my attention. The quality of the cloth binding and embossed lettering of the title distinguish it from its neighbours, and inside, hand tipped plates show childlike drawings of homes and family members, with strangely foreign elements of violence and mourning. An appendix provides a codex of crude tattoos and illustrations for playing cards. It’s a copy of Prinzhorn’s Bildnerei der Gefangenen (Pictures by Prisoners), the first published book on art made by criminals, written by the art historian who effectively invented the field of outsider art. It’s a first edition, from 1926. A plate on the frontispiece tells me that the book was donated to the library in the same decade, as part of the Burkitt Bequest. There’s no barcode, which means it hasn’t been borrowed in many years. I put it in my bag, catch the elevator down to the entrance, and walk straight through the magnetic gates, then in through the entrance and out through the magnetic gates again just to be sure. The book hasn’t been magnetically tagged. Pictures by Prisoners is free as a bird. That’s the great thing about browsing in the stack. You never find what you’re looking for, but you always find exactly what you need.

If the idea that a library is bound to protect and extend its collection is a myth, it’s a myth that libraries work hard to foster. From educational posters endorsing reading through to stern warnings against dog-earing pages, from epigraphs carved in stone praising the memory of books through to overdue fines, they generate the illusion of a covenant between readers and libraries, with the library as a Noah’s Ark of collective memory. Toute la Mémoire du Monde (All the Memory in the World), made by Alain Resnais in 1956, purports to be a simple documentary commissioned by the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

It shows a day in the life of a repository library, tracing the movement of a single book as it is meticulously catalogued, indexed, and stored away in the archive that from now on will be its home. Long panning shots of the library corridors show accumulated centuries of learning, treasures from Louis XIV, maps from the earliest exploration of the New World, handwritten manuscripts by Victor Hugo, letters of Voltaire. Irreplaceable treasure mounts on irreplaceable treasure in a kind of sweeping delirium that thirty frames a second of film seem insufficient to capture. The library extends organically to keep pace with the collection, a perpetual building site with corridors and archives fanning out of a central reading hall in which humans collectively bone away at history, geography, metaphysics, pataphysics, astrobiology and ultimately, the problem of happiness. The film is more than a corporate video. It’s an allegory about learning, about collective memory and shared culture, and of the library as a reservoir not only of information, but of time.

It is therefore unsurprising that the destruction of books raises hackles. In 1995, some 10,000 books were donated by the University of Sydney to the new University of Western Sydney library as part of the Morgan Bequest. Lacking the funds to catalogue them, the ill-fated books were dumped into a mass grave and buried under 2.5 metres of soil. For a book loving public, it was about as appealing as the sight of a dumptruck full of live kittens. The number of books likely to be discarded under the current plans are at least an order of magnitude more.

In the Fisher Library stacks, September 2011. Photo by Jessica Maurer.

What, then, are the new criteria for the discarding of books? According to University Librarian John Shipp, the best guide is frequency of use. Much of the collection, Mr Shipp says, ‘really is crap… [full of] scientific books that really aren’t needed.’ ‘But it’s not the case that 60 percent of the books in the stack are outdated engineering textbooks?’ I ask him. ‘No, certainly not,’ he replies, ‘but the 1956 proceedings of the Hungarian Bibliographic Association [can go].’ Sources within the library have told me that the most heavily borrowed items of the collection are business textbooks, so they will all stay. Journals and periodicals are to be thrown out en masse. Nineteenth century books and folios will be checked and, if valuable, some will be deposited in the rare books section. All duplicates will be offered to other libraries, or perhaps donated to the Third World if shipping costs are favourable (Bangladesh and Tonga are vaguely mentioned). The majority of the collection – books that have been borrowed once or less since 2000 – are to be transferred to what is euphemistically referred to as a ‘storage facility’ somewhere between Camden and Canberra. Where any individual book will be ten years after it has disappeared into the maw of the warehouse is anybody’s guess, but it seems safe to assume that it’s unlikely to be borrowed again.

Mr Shipp recounts fondly of how, as an undergraduate, he got special permission to access the Mitchell Manuscript Room at the State Library of New South Wales. ‘Being able to go through those doors, that were normally open only to postgraduates and serious researchers,’ he recalled, ‘I valued that more than anything else in the world.’ Ross Coleman, who is perhaps ironically head of both digitisation and rare books, remembers that the most important reference in his thesis was a book he found by chance, browsing the shelves at Fisher. These are both quietly spoken, learned men. Why are they presiding over the destruction of the library?

One overt reason is space. The library is full to bursting – full of journals, monographs, ephemera. New texts jostle old volumes, and fight for space with material brought in from the thirteen minor departmental libraries that Mr Shipp has managed to close in his tenure as university librarian. Level one and two of the stack are currently occupied by the Faculty of Arts, with whom the library has fought and lost repeated minor territorial wars over the years. Those levels are unlikely to be regained any time soon. Administration occupies the fifth floor, and has exclusive access to a large roof garden that had once been open to library patrons. There is no political will to re-open it to reduce pressure on other communal spaces. In a remarkable irony, in honour of its receipt of the Sulman Prize, the building was heritage listed as an outstanding example of functionalist architecture. As a result of being heritage listed, it cannot be extended in order to fulfill its function. The organism is being killed in order to preserve its shell. There is physically nowhere for the stack to expand.

'Rainfall Data of India', 1890s – in the Fisher stacks, September 2011. Photo by Jessica Maurer.

Enter the deus ex machina of this story: the Better Universities Renewal Fund provided by the Australian Government’s Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). In the avid rush for government grant money, the library has managed to secure some $30 million in extra funds, money it is legally obliged to spend by December 2012, but at least currently holds secure in its own account. Now $30 million is by no means enough to build another library, apparently, but it is enough to gut the one we currently have. As Ross Coleman pointed out, ‘the stimulus money is driving this, but there are OHS consequences, there’s new lifts, things like that, once the money comes into play certain things follow.’

For pressing Occupational Health and Safety reasons, the shelving will be reduced in height by a third, because reaching over one’s head for a book constitutes a safety hazard (one wonders why the library doesn’t simply stop employing dwarves, but apparently this would open a host of equal opportunity questions). Also, the distance between shelves will be doubled, because the aisles are too narrow. Regulations state that the shelves must be 1200mm apart. Which regulations? Who says? John Shipp can’t tell me. ‘I’m still trying to find out the legislation… I just haven’t been able to find it for myself’. Maybe an architect said something to that effect. Furthermore, the floor plate will be cut into to make space for a larger elevator, because the lift is too small. ‘Too small for what?’ one wonders. Answer: ‘a stretcher’. OHS regulations insist that the lift be large enough that a full-sized stretcher, with bearers, can bring a body lying flat from any place in the library to the entrance. ‘How many people have then died in this exceedingly dangerous library in the fifty years of its history?’ I ask. ‘No one,’ admits the university librarian.

Occupational Health and Safety is a wonderful tool. OHS rules are of exceeding number and punctiliousness, and in a system as complex as a university library there are guaranteed to be infractions of OHS in some form or another. This makes it an excellent instrument for bureaucrats in the exercise of power. To bring the neo-Gothic sandstone of the Main Quad – the picture postcard mascot of the university – into compliance with OHS guidelines would require demolition. Merely to get from the University Senate Hall (where the final authority in the university resides) to the entrance requires four changes in level, yet no one is suggesting sending bulldozers into the Main Quad.

It would be unfair to make the university librarian the sole responsible party for these plans. He is merely the face of a large pedagogic institution (the library), itself an organ of a larger pedagogic institution (the university). At certain points in our interview, the university librarian expresses ambivalence about the proposed changes, but always with a weary resignation, conveyed with a benign expression, as if he hopes his fatalism might be contagious. When I suggest to Mr Shipp that I don’t buy the OHS justification, that OHS is rather part of the executive machinery, his expression changes from benign to positively beatific. ‘Yes, I’ve used OHS in order to get things done. In order to jump the queue and get things done. It’s unfortunate that we have the imperative to spend this stimulus money [by December 2012], he says. But ‘the Vice-Chancellor [Dr Michael Spence] doesn’t support the browsing argument at all. The average user doesn’t really browse anymore.’ When I point out that the problem with electronic searches is that they tend to find what has already been found umpteen times before, and that popular books are popular because they are well known, Mr Shipp adds that, ‘Yes, but the economics of that is can we afford it, and, will the university allow us to afford it? The university is now introducing a space charge for all units, so we have to pay for the space that we have and use it better.’ A better library, one with fewer books.

Sometimes, institutions simply lose the will to live. The rigid superstructure of economic rationalism and public liability insurance, designed to protect the institution, begin to eat it from within. ‘It all began with the drinking water’, an elderly librarian confides in me. ‘The Giardia scare of 1998. The government could no longer ensure a supply of safe drinking water. As a public institution with liabilities, we blocked off all the drinking fountains in the building.’ Indeed, in some of the toilets there are still bubblers affixed to the walls, turned off at the base and unused for years. ‘Well, as a result we had to let students bring bottled water into the library with them. And then they started bringing in cordials and juice. Once we allowed them to bring in coffee as well, the flood gates opened.’ The university’s student union – which is not so much a union as a service provider – profited royally from the situation by planting a coffee and refreshments cart directly outside the library’s door, and within weeks you could smell cheap pork wieners over the entire third floor. Students started openly bringing entire meals into the library with them, spilling tomato sauce on books, ordering in pizza and Chinese, jamming uneaten sandwiches into the shelves. The stack became a sty. The librarians themselves, beaten into submission by a new corporate culture that recast students as ‘clients’, and librarians as ‘customer service’, lost that sacred prerogative of librarians in popular culture: the ability to shush. No longer did one see the index finger raised to the pursed lips of a stern cardigan-wearing imperator, as they indicated silence. The librarians, henceforth, were merely learning facilitators. Angry, underpaid, facilitators – for, in the end, who amongst them would have decided to become a librarian if they knew they would end their career not as a curator, but rather as a lowly form of customer service? Little wonder they got sick of sorting books above head height.

The demographics and comportment of students has also changed. Fisher Library was built when there were 17,000 enrolled students at the University of Sydney. Now there are 47,000. Local students increasingly live at home, and study from home, coming into the campus only when the lecture timetable dictates they must. In contrast, large numbers of international students, paying exorbitant fees and often living in inadequate accommodation, use the library as a kind of retreat. Increasingly aggressively assertive of their rights as clients, they sleep, eat and socialise in the library. Serious research is done via electronic queries from computers in bedrooms, because this is the era of IT-enhanced learning. IT-learning is so cheap, so easily quantifiable, that it becomes impossible to defend a practice, like reading books, that is so wasteful, and so indulgently unquantifiable in its value. Arguments grounded in economic rationalism begin to erode the institution from within, and beset with something like collective depression, the librarians even begin to repeat them like nihilistic mantras. The model of a library as somewhat akin to a Protestant church, a place where people are together but also alone, and whose community is expressed through silence enforced by the gentlest of censure, has been replaced by the model of the library as multi-media entertainment palace, in which – in the case of the new SciTech Library – appropriate behaviour is enforced by patrolling uniformed security guards.

Ancient English-Italian dictionaries – in the Fisher stacks, September 2011. Photo by Jessica Maurer.

SciTech, the new model university library to which all libraries ought to conform, is having a rough time of it. The row of computers along the back wall, originally intended as a place for quiet post-graduate study, is heavily populated by students watching movies or updating Facebook entries. Discarded food wrappers abound. The designers have clearly succeeded in their intention of building an active library, rather than a silent one, because it is nearly impossible to read there. With its oversized geometric lounge furniture and diner style booths, it resembles a day care facility, or a crèche for gigantic toddlers. About the downside of progress, Mr Shipp is frank. ‘SciTech is a kind of zoo,’ he says of the kinetic library that he brought into being. And on eating and sleeping and carousing in the library: ‘It’s a problem for me as a person. It irritates the life out of me. We can’t stop it. And nobody in the university is prepared to stop it. The senate won’t back us up with regulations, really. They’ll pass a regulation but there’s no way to enforce it. So we’ve given up.’ Also, the new Law library has turned out to be something of a dud, as the university librarian happily told me: ‘The Law library was supposed to be a quieter place, but there’s an acoustic-architectural flaw that makes it too noisy.’

Other innovations have produced equally astonishing results. Alongside the stack, Fisher once had a complete and separate undergraduate library large enough to be considered a substantial library in its own right. It extended over four floors, and contained multiple copies of the most frequently borrowed books on undergraduate reading lists. Only a decade ago, the ground floor was one of the best reading rooms in Sydney. Rationally laid out, with staid sixties institutional furnishings and heavy carpets to muffle noise, its narrow windows looked out onto the dense green space of the Chancellor’s Garden where half-feral cats were slyly fed by still indomitable librarians. Then, in 2002, the decision was rapidly and unilaterally made to discard the majority of the undergraduate library, condensing the remainder into a collection around a quarter of the size and renaming it ‘short loans’. The shelves were stripped out, and rows of cubicoid desks installed. Simultaneously, the branch library of the department of teacher education was closed, and its collection was rehoused in a newly partitioned corner that blocked off every window, transforming the space into a windowless basement in which Cantonese students nap, occasionally to wake and take in their environs with expressions that can only be described as justifiably startled and depressed.

Discarding the contents of the undergraduate library did not go smoothly. University academics saved what they could, leaving with shopping trolleys full of books on anthropology, english literature, foreign policy, psychology and history. Scenes of outrage were witnessed, emails flew between departments, and the library retaliated by threatening to throw books out secretly. To the best of my knowledge, they probably now do. The skip outside the library loading bay is permanently locked. At the time, a colleague picked out a complete set of monographs on Shakespeare, as well as some early twentieth century works on Aboriginal anthropology; he had some experience in the antiquarian book trade, and knew what he was looking at. I still have on my own shelves a dozen volumes whose loss could be considered under the category of ‘mistakes made’. A hardbound collection of lectures by the art historian Richard Wollheim comes complete with a bookplate indicating that it was donated by ‘Mrs. Gordon Keesing, A Friend of the Library.’ She would no doubt be delighted to learn that her gift is now in private hands.

I produce Hans Prinzhorn’s book on criminal art that I stole the day before, and hand it to Mr Coleman (to remind you, the head of digitisation and rare books). ‘What about this book? It hasn’t been borrowed in years and is neither barcoded nor electronically tagged.’ Mr Coleman looks at it. He slides it across the table to Mr Shipp, who also leafs through it. They both look at it with genuine interest. ‘That’s a nice find,’ Mr Shipp says. Mr Coleman decides that it belongs in the rare book collection. ‘It probably would have been found [by a staff member], he adds. I don’t believe him. The book is neither a folio in size nor nineteenth century. It probably would have ended up in storage, and then some years later, unborrowed and unremarked, in landfill.

It may be that the university librarian has given up hope in the idea that there is a constituency for the library, one that is vocal enough to express an alternative fate for the institution that once formed the core of the university. He’s asking for the community to step forward and defend the library, because he no longer can. Any effective defence has got to come not only from current students being patronised with break-out spaces, but from alumni whose gifts are being discarded, and from emeritus academic staff whose research is being undermined. Ultimately, protests should be directed at the Vice-Chancellor – whose imposition of a usage fee on every square metre of the library is half of the problem – or higher in the government, if the library is to be recognised as a national asset. For those who have gained so much from hours, weeks or years spent amongst the books at Fisher, and for those who still might, the current plans amount to an auto da fé – the burning of books on an unprecedented scale – except that this systematic destruction is being conducted not in public but in secret, and not for overtly ideological ends but rather on behalf of the grinding banalities of economic optimisation.

UPDATE: The Fisher stacks, as of May 2012. This image did not appear in the original article. Photo courtesy of the author.

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Posted 14 May, 2012.


Adam Jasper Smith is a lecturer in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building at the University of Technology, Sydney. He completed his PhD in Art History at the University of Sydney, and has probably spent over a thousand hours in Fisher Library. He is a regular contributor to Frieze, Art & Australia and Vice.