The Wolanski Foundation Project


Paper no 34









List of papers








By Paul Bentley

Article originally published in Online Currents July/August 2004 and reprinted with kind permission of the publishers Enterprise Information Management Pty Ltd. 

The senate inquiry into the role of libraries in the online environment gnawed at the question of national leadership, but left solutions to others.  Some of the contexts for leadership were explored in reviews of the inquiry report in the January/February and May issues of Online Currents

It seemed, at the time, that further examination of the subject would benefit from findings of the feasibility study leading to the establishment of the Collections Council of Australia (CCA) and from the Routes to Knowledge report by the Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) in the UK.  The decision not to publish the CCA feasibility study and delays in the publication of the Routes of Knowledge report, anticipated in January 2004, hint at underlying difficulties in leading libraries, archives and museums.


The task of the Senate Inquiry committee was made difficult by the lack of current data on some issues.  The committee, for example, tried to find out whether library funding was trending upwards, downwards or remaining in line with inflation.  Much evidence it received was anecdotal, but at least, the report said, “it reflected the perceptions of managers concerned.”

This is a somewhat alarming comment on the profession. It is, as John Houghton observes in Economics of Scholarly Communication, an information profession with very little information about itself: “all too often judgements are made, rather than decisions, because of a lack of information.”  Experience, instinct and predilection often drive action in the absence of hard data. 

If there’s a need for better data, though, what do we measure and how do we do it?

Morris, Sumsion and Hawkins, in The Economic Value of Public Libraries in the UK, point to the difficulties of measuring the work of organisations with multiple educational, informational, cultural and recreational objectives.  It is “necessarily a complex task and no simple formula can be expected to cover the whole.”

The use of library statistics has been on the professional agenda for at least four decades, culminating in the National Information Standards Organisation’s Information Services and Use: Metrics and Statistics for Libraries and Information Providers: Data Dictionary.  Although the standard is not comprehensive in scope, it provides a framework of common elements pertaining to libraries of various types and responds to a NISO forum on the subject, held in February 2001, on the critical need for systematic data collection and methodologies to support research and analysis on the performance and effectiveness of libraries in the USA.

Currently, Australian libraries are able to draw on some public library, archive and museum data produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.  The Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL) produces regular statistics on university libraries.  Assumptions can be made from statistics produced by overseas bodies , such as the Association of Research Libraries and occasional reports by OCLC.  And there is a large body of international and local research on particular issues such as library users, often incorporate quantitative and qualitative data.

The Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) has sensed the importance of the issue.

In 1998, it published The Value of Libraries and Library Professionals to Australia’s Top 100 Companies, which concluded, that negative perceptions of the value of corporate libraries were influenced by, among other things, lack of uniform metrics.  ALIA’s publication, Library Industry Statistics in Australia (Averill Edwards, 2000) recommended a central database of statistical information.  Its Scoping Paper on Information on the Australian Library and Information Sector (Alison Batterham, 2001) identified sectors in which there were statistical gaps and lack of information.

More recently, Ian McCallum and Sherrey Quinn, in Valuing Libraries (Australian Library Journal February 2004), surveying the literature of the past decade, echo NISO and Edwards in calling for the systematic collection of data which can be compared nationally.

Maureen Nimon, in School Libraries in Australia, highlighting the absence of nation-wide data on school libraries, tells us about the difficulties of collecting such statistics when bureaucracies are churning, and relationships between national and state government authorities keep on changing.  The complexity of the school environment also makes it difficult to handle the variables of library quality.

The information industry is an elusive concept. Libraries are scattered across all industries, but are widely perceived as being part of the cultural sector. Libraries, archives and museums are not prominent in Australia’s measures of a knowledge based economy and society. Information handling in most organisations does not involve libraries.  Traditional library roles are morphing into new information disciplines.

ALIA aims to promote research that “underpins innovation and fosters a research culture in the provision of library and information services.”  A research project that warrants priority, despite the complexity of the task, is the creation of a reliable body of statistics to provide answers on running the business of ALIA, running libraries and developing the interests of the workforce - rather than a nebulous search for innovation and the promotion of a research culture, an objective which is of doubtful value to many working in libraries and other parts of the information industry.


The attitude of librarians has attracted criticism in a number of recent reports.

The UK’s Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, in Towards a Strategy for Workforce Development,  talks of a ‘cultural malaise’ in the library sector.  Although it “is inhabited by more than averagely intelligent and more than averagely articulate people” who are “committed to ideals of public service, and believe passionately in the worth of their calling” it has a “cultural problem”: willpower is lacking, inertia rules, and, surprisingly, there is positive hostility to learning.  The report says this malaise has arisen because people have become demoralised after years of funding cuts, accountability demands, and a failure to attract the best and brightest into its ranks.  There has been “a tendency to pull the wagons into a circle, to retreat into specialisms, to dwell in nostalgia, and at the very worst, to ignore the way the world is changing, in the hope that it will all go away.” Confronting this cultural malaise, the report says, is the biggest challenge facing workforce development.

The OCLC 2003 Environmental Scan goes further when it asserts that “the library community is mostly in denial about real issues and questions.”  It says librarians have made retrieval and accuracy a god, ignoring the fact that users have become satisfied with the quality, reliability and accuracy of the information they find on the Web.  It calls for a change in the professional mindset.

But is it a mindset that’s the problem?  Does the call for a shift in mindsets create misplaced expectations about the capacity of librarians, and, for that matter, kindred professionals, particularly in recordkeeping and archival domains, to change the way they operate?

Few librarians, records managers and archivists run the business that employs them.  More often than not, they occupy support roles in someone else’s business. Libraries are a niche market rather than the primary market for commercial information goods and services.  Australian library revenue amounts to less than one per cent of total information industry turnover.  Librarians and records managers have limited opportunities to exercise leadership because of their position as middle managers.

Opinions about a flawed mindset may be flawed diagnoses.


The Australian senate urged the Cultural Ministers’ Council to reactivate a working group to monitor, manage and report on library and information matters, including the development of a national information policy, and it urged stronger consultation between the National Office of the Information Economy (NOIE, now the Office of the Information Economy or OIE) and the National Library of Australia on matters of substance affecting the library community.

Is that all there is to it?  Is a national information policy desirable and possible?  Is structural change required?  Or is it simply a question of more collaboration, more tightly managed?

The Australian library sector has unsuccessfully promoting the concept of an Australian information policy for the past couple of decades.  In 1979, draft National Information Policy Statements published by the Australian Advisory Council on Bibliographic Services (AACOBS) - and a subsequent seminar on the subject - were attempts to set libraries in a wider context.

Australian national information policy currently flows from A Strategic Framework for the Information Economy, Advancing Australia and related government statements, developed by boards representing politicians and bureaucrats on the Online Council, Ministerial Council for the Information Economy and Cultural Ministers Council.  An earlier National Policy Framework for Structural Adjustment with the New Commonwealth of Information (1997), produced by a now defunct Information Policy Advisory Council, and proposing major steps, decision principles and roles for governments, industry leaders, associations, consumer and community stakeholders,  may have ongoing relevance in developing a rounded national information policy involving wider stakeholder representation.

MLA, in its Wider Information and Library Issues Project report (October 2003), considered the question of national information policy or strategy as a context for action by archives, libraries and museums in the United Kingdom, noting conflicting views on the subject.  “There are those that believe a national information strategy or policy is needed, while there are others who prefer a policy or strategic framework that links strategies in each of the sub-domains, regions, home countries or subject arenas.”  MLA decided to ignore the word play and to develop a framework linking related strategies in the sub-domains, regions, home countries and subject areas.  Progress on this front is yet to emerge.

Policy responses on libraries in isolation may be possible, but are no longer desirable.  Leadership of library, archival and museum sectors increasingly involves more government control.

In February, the Cultural Ministers Council established the Collections Council of Australia to play a role in developing long term strategies to address issues facing collections; undertake industry support, and implement initiatives to address cross sectoral issues.

In the curious absence of the Collections Council’s feasibility study outlining the rationale for its establishment, we can perhaps take a glance at reports on the library, archival and museum domains by MLA in the early stages of clarifying its purpose.  There was some evidence, it said, of cross-domain linking between archives and libraries, but not between all three domains.  In the archival world, there were many overlapping sources of information and the quality or appropriateness of such information was not always clear.  In the museum world, there was no common understanding, a high level of uncertainty about a range of issues, and tension about the different needs of large institutions and small, independent and volunteer-run museums.  Libraries, it concluded, needed to resolve their own problems before they could sensibly begin to work in cross-domain mode.

Leadership, it asserted, “will only work if MLA and its key partners can carry the profession with them.”  Unrealistic expectations may have been created about MLA’s capacity, especially over the pace of progress.  “Some goals will take years to reach and there will undoubtedly be setbacks along the way.  The profession will need perseverance and determination to work its way through them.”


The senate inquiry applauded librarians as exemplars for cooperation across jurisdictional boundaries.

But some other commentators have been less enthusiastic about the quality of library cooperation. GE Gorman, for example, says there has been more smoke than fire.  In examining a three-tier model for collaboration developed by the Research Support Libraries Program in the UK, he said there had been a failure to achieve anything like truly meaningful collaboration.  “Information organisations cannot survive without substantive change in terms of resource sharing, not least because they are faced with increasingly robust networks and partnerships among information creators, packages, vendors and distributors.  In order to compete, and to provide the best service possible, libraries and library consortia must become serious about deep resource sharing.”

The need for more astute business approaches is underscored in, among other reports, Diane Zoric’s A Survey of Digital Cultural Heritage Initiatives and Their Sustainability Concerns, which highlights the pervasive lack of business plans, the use of unproven business models, increasing competition and overlapping agendas among digital cultural heritage programs.

The Library of Congress’s National Digital Information Infrastructure Preservation Program raises questions about responsibilities and finances in its report about transforming roles. Managing information for long term preservation “calls for active management of files from the beginning - a huge shift in the relationship between preservation and access that is little recognised and less understood.” Rapid change makes it difficult to develop viable business models.  New models and incentives need to be created to encourage  publishers, distributors and aggregators to handle shifting responsibilities.

Connecting libraries with other parts of the economy is difficult enough.  Connecting libraries with other libraries – beyond existing arrangements - is also no easy matter.

The senate inquiry focused its attention on public libraries.  When MLA took this approach in its Framework for the Future (February 2003), it was nudged into the Wider Information and Library Issues Project (WILIP, October 2003) to assess the potential of a broader network of libraries in the production and distribution of public information.  After surveying librarians and others working in twelve types of libraries, it found that, although there is diversity within the sector, there is a surprising amount of unanimity about challenges and direction.  Based on the thoughts of those surveyed, it recommended a more joined-up approach through a policy framework linking information strategies in each industry sector.  Routes to Knowledge, when published, is expected to develop the theme.

Australian library cooperation has been the meat in the sandwich of most reports from the 1935 Munn-Pitt report onwards.  Eric Wainwright in a recent article (Australian Library Journal, February 2004) recalls noteworthy attempts by librarians to consolidate their resources through the 1988 Australian Libraries Summit and Towards Federation 2001 activities.  Warren Horton’s words at the summit launch continue to resonate: “I believe we must immediately develop a mechanism for involving all professional bodies, major stakeholders and the library community in a vigorous and structural identification of the difficulties and opportunities confronting us.”

Wainwright concludes that the summit and its aftermath had positive and negative impacts.  It consolidated the National Library of Australia’s position as a leader and facilitator of cross-sectoral national library development.  It set much of the agenda for improving access to material of Australian origin.  It strongly influenced access developments in related cultural sectors.  And it established a process for co-ordinated action - careful analysis of the issues, bringing together major stakeholders, and public acceptance by assigned stakeholders of responsibility for agreed actions.  However, he said that the process had had little impact on the formal structure or mechanisms of the Australian library system, little impact on government, minimal impact on the structure and functioning of the Australian document supply system and did not allow effective consideration of the problems of particular client groups in obtaining the information they need.  “The process fell short of identifying practical actions of a political or community oriented nature which might result in greater resources for achieving some of the outcomes sought.”


At the conclusion of the summit, Warren Horton said that “The test of our effectiveness will now be how well (issues are) taken up by LAA, ACLIS, ASLA and other bodies and libraries…and how well we sell (them) to the key decision makers in the Australian community.' The names may have changed, but the test may be the same.

Two associations, the Council of State Libraries (CASL) and the Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL), are central cogs in the development of library resources.  As Wainwright notes, “both CAUL and CASL had become stronger, better-supported bodies over the (past) decade, exerting influence on government funding bodies and working to improve input into policy issues by university academics and researchers.”  Their development, attendant tensions and fluctuation synergies are traced in Kate Irvine’s Cooperation and Influence.  CASL was established to counter the ‘unwieldy structure’ of AACOBS, later the Australian Council of Library and Information Services (ACLIS).  In 2000, CASL and CAUL discussed a proposal for a new body to represent their combined interests, but the meeting decided their divergent requirements limited mutual opportunities.  The interests of university libraries and their customers have been advanced by the establishment in 2003 of the Australian Research Information Infrastructure Committee (ARIIC) representing government, academic, library and information technology professionals.  Papers by Neil McLean at the turn of the century serve as touchstones in identifying issues of importance to research libraries and other types of libraries, working in concert.  Issues continue to seek resolution.

Recent attempts by the library sector to create political leverage through a single professional body have not yet met with success.

ALIA has traditionally represented the interests of individual librarians through information provision, networking opportunities, professional development and accreditation. A 1997 review of the roles of ALIA and ACLIS, noting widespread concerns that there were too many library bodies with overlapping agendas, and confusion on the nature of representation, recommended that a single association be created rather than a federation of library bodies.  ACLIS folded up in 1998 when the National Library withdrew support for its national office.

A meaningful macro information strategy can only be realistically determined by those who hold purse strings, but those with the money have not been given correct weight in the new ALIA structure.  The task of running the business of the association has been muddied by notions of democracy that reinforce tribal instincts over business sense.  In the past decade, ALIA membership numbers have dropped dramatically, a trend shared by some other professional associations, influenced by forces that have been outside their control as well as factors that have been within their control.

In Australia, a federation or coalition of associations may be today’s interim answer for a sector in transition.

Rejected, after superficial consideration in the 1997 report, such a proposition continues to be explored.  In February 2002, the National Library of Australia called a Peak Bodies Forum, involving selected associations. A second meeting was held in November 2003.  Although, its momentum and effectiveness have not yet been clearly established, it is a tentative step to fill the vacuum created by the demise of ACLIS.

The Peak Bodies Forum, in a modest way, echoes the National Forum for Information Planning and Cooperation (NFIP) in the UK, formed in the late 1980s to monitor the development of regional and subject-based library and information plans.  NFIP’s lack of profile can be attributed to its status as a discussion forum rather than business enterprise, lack of funding, partial representation, competitor cooperatives in the higher education sector, the voluntary status of some members, and the limited capacity of some to make other than vague commitments.

New government bodies - such as the Collection Council of Australia - may necessitate adjustments to existing roles and modus operandi of institutions and associations in handling policy and services. The creation of the government-funded Museums and Galleries Foundation New South Wales, for example, has challenged the capacity and relevance of Museums Australia NSW Branch, which had been responsible for many of the programs now run by the foundation.


Is the search for a grand vision tilting at windmills?  Wainwright, in noting that the Australian library sector is without a national body through which libraries can pool resources - to influence government policy, develop strategy and encourage cross-sectoral projects - says that “most of us have less belief both in grand visions and the likelihood of broad consensus.”  He argues that the need for Summit-style gatherings has changed and the information and communication fields are now so fast-moving that institutions are having themselves to react more quickly.  It is less likely that national mechanisms built on consensus can respond within the timescales needed for decision.

In a matrix world, do structures matter any more?  The National Library plays a coordinating role on a number of levels.  ALIA is developing relations with kindred associations such as the Australian Society of Archives, Records Management Association of Australia and Museums Australia.  There is tentative mixing of information disciplines at ground level in knowledge management groups rather than in library forums.  Deep collaboration, in an evolving digital world, may be a long way off.

Technology is the leader.  Philosopher kings appear occasionally to cut through uncertainty, inertia and tribalism – as did Lawrence of Arabia in directing the bedouins across the Nefud to Akaba.  Leadership by librarians and by those in kindred sectors is limited by their positions as contributors to industry and corporate agendas.  Responses by the library world and cultural sector are dependent on actions by major institutions and associations with control of institutional spending.  Better national statistical data is needed to help libraries, archives and museums navigate the shifting sands.

See also 

Leading Libraries Archives & Museums in an Online Environment: Bibliography

Libraries in the Online Environment, Part 1: Contexts

Libraries in the Online Environment, Part 2: Challenges


 About usWhat's newSite map | Searching  | Managing  | Learning  |  Library |  Research 

  Contact us | Home  

© 2004 The Wolanski Foundation Project 

 Email web manager.  URL:

Page last updated: 20 September 2004