Managerialist medicine, Jim Traue

The National Library is about to be restructured for the umpteenth time, for the same reasons as the last time, and the times before that. Restructuring will make the Library even more sensitive to its customers’ needs, more effective and efficient, more focussed on its mission of “national access to library and information resources”. Incidentally, 50 jobs will disappear from 400, or one in every eight.

This restructuring is an attempt to conceal the truth, that “savings” of $2 million have to be made to fund depreciation on a new computer system and an additional building. The real problem is that government funding is inadequate to enable the National Library to do its job. Worse still is that the kind of structure being proposed is dysfunctional and will make a sorry situation worse. It suffers from the same weakness as the past attempts and will suck the National Library even deeper into the same bog. National libraries are totally unlike other libraries. They are monsters: that is, artificial creations, designed by governments to perform functions that other libraries cannot, or will not, perform. Examples are the indefinite preservation of comprehensive collections of the national literature, management of cooperative networks on behalf of the community of libraries, national management of interlibrary lending, the creation of national bibliographies and indexes, and the setting of national standards. They are necessary, and beneficent, monsters, but nevertheless they are monsters and as such they work to different rules.

Because a national library is so different from the local school, public or university library, its organisational structure needs to be different. The structure has to provide a flexible envelope for a diverse bundle of functions. For other libraries the organisational container is rather like a quiver; for a national library, the container must be such that it can manage the odd arrow or two, a golf club, a cricket bat and a football, a fishing rod, possibly a pickaxe, and, if need be, a garden shed.

The National Library’s management is determined to impose a strong unitary structure modelled on a standard library, to create a “single, clear organisational entity with a seamless client interface”, in the belief that this will solve long-standing problems. These problems are identified as public confusion about which “collections, products and services” are available, and “structural barriers making it difficult to point clients to all those resources which may be available to them”.

In fact, the public confusion and the barriers are direct outcomes of previous policies which sought to represent the Library to the public as a homogeneous entity. In pursuit of a “seamless identity” for the National Library itself, the various component services have been obstructed from branding themselves for easy public recognition. Thousands of donors have been confused by learning from the media that the gift that they thought they had made to the Turnbull was made instead to the National Library. Further puzzlement, and confusion, has been generated when rare manuscripts, rare editions of John Milton’s works, and valuable paintings appear to have been acquired by the National Library, and not by the Turnbull as most would have thought. At one stage there was a refusal to have the name of the Turnbull on the outside of the new National Library building on Molesworth Street on the grounds that such a separate identification weakened the National Library’s identity!

Other problems identified, of “efficient decision making at senior levels” and “effective allocation of resources”, are also legacies from past refusals to recognise that different elements had distinctive functions, with differing collections, users, needs, and priorities. The Schools Library Service, with its function of backing up school libraries throughout New Zealand, and the Turnbull with its specialised collections geared to research, have overlaps in stock, staff skills, and priorities, of less than 5%, and massive differences in function.

The existing monolithic structure, first imposed in the 1980s, created a proliferation of meetings and coordinating committees, and a prodigious investment of the time and energy of the staff, especially senior managers, just to sort out day-to-day problems of liaison, funding, and priorities. That this new machinery has endemic problems is evidenced by the ratio of chiefs to indians, one to ten. There are 27 positions designated as director or manager, and a further 8 as executive officer or coordinator, a total of 35 for 350 staff. Further, and stronger, doses of the same old “seamless” medicine are only going to make the patient sicker.

The kind of organisational structure needed by the National Library bears little relationship to that of a conventional library. The appropriate model is closer to that of a business conglomerate manufacturing cars, cigarettes, toothpaste and biscuits, and managing a hotel chain, and owning a football club.

The confused thinking, and dysfunctional nature, of the proposed structure is most evident in the treatment of the Alexander Turnbull Library. The Turnbull is a classic example of a specialised research library, with collections of evidential materials designed to be used by researchers to create new knowledge in the form of books, periodical articles, theses, radio and television programmes etc, and with highly specialised staff. It has a narrow focus, and performs well within that focus. On the assumption that the National Library is like every other library, with a front of house dealing directly with the public (lending, reference, displays), the Turnbull is now to be transformed into the Client Services Division of the “library”, the “primary public face” responsible for all the National Library’s general and reference public services to people on the spot and by mail and telephone throughout New Zealand, including inquiries from other libraries; supporting all New Zealand subject inquiries from schools; managing collection policy and budgets for all the National Library’s collections, including the Schools Service and the General Collections; and establishing national electronic access to a comprehensive range of resources by 2001.

This is the managerial equivalent of pouring whisky and wine into the same glass on the grounds that both are alcoholic drinks and that using one container is the more cost effective. To combine all these jobs, most of which are irrelevant to the Turnbull’s core functions, will obscure its unique identity, cause even further public confusion, and divert its energies elsewhere. With staffing resources stretched so thinly after the latest 12.5% cuts, and all these increased responsibilities, the Turnbull is being set up to fail.

However, the restructuring as it relates to the Turnbull, the separate identity of which is guaranteed by the National Library Act, is of dubious legality. Despite solemn promises made by the then National Government in 1956 that the Turnbull would never be subsumed into another division of the National Library, this is effectively what has been done. It is apparently believed that by naming this new division the “Alexander Turnbull Library” it will be possible to sidle around the intention of the Act.

The senior management of the National Library has conspicuously failed in its stewardship of the Turnbull. It has persisted in hammering, hacking, squeezing and splicing to make it fit an inappropriate model. To try to make a sword function as a pike is unwise; to try now to turn it into a pickaxe is folly.

Jim Traue is a former Chief Librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library. He is currently a Senior Associate at Victoria University of Wellington and an independent researcher and writer.

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