Update on the undermining of literacy – no honours for writers and the rundown of libraries

A pre-Christmas post headed New library boasts admirable resources – but don’t expect to find too many books raised concerns for Point of Order readers about New Zealanders’ reading habits and the rundown of public  libraries.

We quoted  Lloyd Jones, writing on The Spinoff news website about his first visit to the new library in Christchurch.  He said it has a “wonderful sound recording studio”, a sewing room and a  3D printer – but he found the books “herded into an area barely more generous than the space on the ground-floor allocated to teenagers and video games”.

Wellington’s central city library, closed as an earthquake risk in March last year, used to hold 380,000 books and have 3000 visitors, including 500 children, a day.

There is no schedule for reopening it or replacing it, but if that happens new mayor Andy Foster told the Dominion Post (Dec 4) he would like it to have “creative spots and activities such as Lego and 3D printing”.

Jones disagreed with Victoria University’s professor of library information and management studies, Anne Goulding, who said libraries were moving away from being storage places for books and “transactions to building relationships in the community”.

“A library is where people go to read,” Jones said. “A library is where they may borrow a book. A library is one of the most honourable and civic institutions that a community can accommodate and offer to its young.”

Jones mentioned a further blow against writers, New Zealand publishers and the generations just being born – the New Zealand Review of Books had just published its last issue after Creative New Zealand discontinued its funding.  And space for book reviews in the mainstream press has been shrunk.

Economist Brian Easton, writing for The Pundit, is similarly troubled by the demise of the New Zealand Review of Books – and by a raft of other corrosive developments that bode ill for the fostering of literacy in this country

The 2020 New Year’s honours did not recognise a single writer (or visual artist).

Just before Christmas the National Library announced it was disposing of 600,000 books – ‘old’ books, and non-NZ/Pacific material, they say. (Are we cutting ourselves off from the world?) The intention is to make way for a similar number of new books.

Sounds sensible, but I was struck that hardly anyone who spoke to me about it trusts the decision. Not trust the National Librarian? (Perhaps because he is far down the Department of Internal Affairs hierarchy and they don’t trust anyone above him.)

Then there was Creative New Zealand’s decision to end the funding of the New Zealand Review of Books. This is not just disrupting the ecology of literary activities by closing down a unique institution, but it was given at very short notice. Imagine New Zealand Ballet being told a week before a current production there would be no more future funding. CNZ’s reaction implies they have no feel for, nor administrative skill with, literary activities.

Meanwhile, the hours of the National Library and Archives New Zealand are being reduced. It is easy to say that there is a lack of funding but why is there? (There have been other funding failures. Why no increase in the Public Lending Right which compensates authors for their books in public libraries? Most authors would be delighted to receive the minimum wage, even at the old rate.)

Other libraries are under threat. The NZ Defence Force seem to have done away with their library, putting the collection in storage. Once upon a time any aspiring officer in the military read widely and closely military history. No longer?

People involved with the production of books have been further stung by an MBIE paper considering the revision of the Copyright Act.

I do not think the paper has clearly expounded the issues which are about some complicated economics involving delicate tradeoffs. (To get an idea of how difficult the subject of intellectual property is  observe that the law applying to software development is quite different from the law applying to pharmaceuticals.) The gripe seems to be that the paper is at such a level of generality it reflects little appreciation of its practical application to books (or anything else).At issue then, is that decisions seem to be being made without practical understanding of literary production nor with reference to those who will be affected.

Easton also revisits the uncertain fate of Archives New Zealand and the National Library.

Labour’s 2017 election manifesto has as clear a statement as there can be that they were to be separated out from the Department of Internal Affairs whose stewardship of the two institutions has been extremely unsatisfactory. Two years on and there is no public indication that the promise is to be implemented.

The problem seems to be at the officials’ level. For some reason the task was delegated to a group led by the DIA, which was like inviting Donald Trump to prepare the articles of impeachment of the president.

Easton muses on the possibility (a grim one) that we are entering a post-literacy world where the significance of the text is downgraded.

Sure, everyone still needs to be able to read in order to respond to advertising and take instructions from above. But engagement with the text is no longer a requirement – except in a democracy.

Easton proposes some measures to postpone the extinction of engaged reading, among them making the National Library an Autonomous Crown Entity in the Ministry of Culture and Heritage (fulfilling the Labour manifesto commitment) and charging it with two further tasks.

First, it should promote active engaged reading in New Zealand. Librarians already do, but let us make it a conscious nationwide strategy for both children and adults. Second, we should transfer the functions which once constituted the Literary Fund from Creative New Zealand, which appears unsympathetic to the promotion of literature, to the National Library, which must be.

He thanks The Pundit’s audience for reading and engaging with his ideas (which include making the Chief Archivist an Officer of Parliament because it makes no sense for the Ombudsman, responsible for the Official Information Act, to be one, “while the Chief Archivist, on whom the OIA depends, is left in the bowels of an unsympathetic government department.”).

But he is probably preaching to the converted, at The Pundit.

It’s much more important he be read by policy-makers and politicians, especially those who made the pre-election commitment.   We assume, of course, that they have not yet lost the ability to read.

3 thoughts on “Update on the undermining of literacy – no honours for writers and the rundown of libraries

  1. Meanwhile independent bookstores are thriving, and this is a worldwide trend. Libraries should build on this fact. Also, Finland – streets ahead of us in educational achievement and literacy has made huge investment in libraries. We should increase the focus on literacy, not diminish it.


  2. No apologies for mentioning a book, but anyone who is unsure about where we are heading as a species ought to read historian Yuval Harari’s book “Sapiens – a brief history of humankind”
    Unlike gadgets, books can change the way we think, and Professor Harari does it well. To many of us , a bookshelf is worth a thousand 3D printers


  3. I am a Cantab. I burst out laughing on my first visit to Turanga, the new ChCh library. The Te Papa approach is what they’ve gone for…good luck finding a book for a while!


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