1212th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday 3 July 2013

"Caring for highly processed wood pulp? The role of the State library in the 21st century" - Dr Alex Byrne

At the 1212th ordinary general meeting the Society on Wednesday, 3 July 2013, we were delighted to welcome Dr Alex Byrne, State Librarian and Chief Executive of the State Library of NSW. Dr Byrne gave a wide-ranging talk about the State Library and the extraordinarily valuable collection that it holds.

The State of NSW is fortunate to have perhaps the most important collection in Australia. There is no other state library that is its equal and the only Australian library that might come close is the National Library in Canberra. The State library is a library of deposit (meaning that there is a legal requirement for every printed publication produced in State of NSW to lodge a copy with a library. There are two other libraries of deposit in NSW – the Parliamentary Library and Fisher Library at the University of Sydney). The collection that the Library houses extends to 138 linear kilometres of shelf-space and this is being added to at a rate of 2 linear km per year. The collection represents one of the major assets of the State of NSW and is valued at $2.1 billion.

Examples of important items that the Library holds are the stern-plate of HMS Resolution (James Cook's ship on his second and ill-fated third voyages) and Cook's ammunition belt. There is an extensive World War I collection and of particular importance are personal diaries kept by soldiers. Many soldiers kept these small, notebook-size dairies and they give deep insight into the personal experiences of the writers. There is even one diary that was written by an Australian General, despite these being strictly against regulations.

The collection is diverse and is not restricted to printed materials. There are many important paintings, the entire collection from the Packer Press of newspaper photographs (over 350,000 images) and a wide variety of other artefacts that give the enormous insight into the cultural narrative that has unfolded over the last 200 years or so (the Library started as the Australian Subscription Library in 1826).

Unfortunately, much of the collection is on media that does not last well. For example wood-pulp paper and many of the digital media of the last 30 or 40 years start deteriorating within 20-30 years. Currently, the most practical solution to this problem is to digitise the collection and the Library has been fortunate to receive a government grant of $32.6 million over the next four years to renew the digitisation infrastructure, with a further $32 million over the subsequent six years to commence digitisation of the collection. Even with this substantial sum of over $60 million to be spent over 10 years only about 6% of the collection will be converted into searchable, digital form.

The Library also houses a substantial collection on behalf of the Royal Society of NSW and we intend to work with State library to make this important collection more accessible.

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