Wednesday 24 June 2015

Blog Every Day in June day 24: Libraries and Structural Change

This post is the 10th in a monthly series written by Tim Mather, a librarian at the State Library of Queensland. "Libraries and structural change" weaves personal reflections and analysis to bring insight on change within the profession. You can read the rest of the series here.

Read the original post. titled "Libraries and Structural Change 10" here

Beyond about twenty years ago libraries could fulfil their promise pretty much by conscientiously doing what they’d always done. Everybody knew what a library was and how to be a library wasn’t problematic. But from about twenty years ago massive structural change progressively undermined the efficacy of inherited practice. With the ground shifting beneath them libraries couldn’t stand still. But even as they struggled to reinvent themselves the relationship between the promise of libraries and what libraries actually do became strained and ambiguous.

Compelled to reinvent themselves, the last twenty years have been revolutionary times for libraries. I became a librarian in the years immediately before the revolution, when everybody knew there was going to be a revolution but not which way it would go. The Berlin Wall had just been torn down, a revolution that terminated a lost revolution. Anything seemed possible.
    Tearing down the Berlin Wall, November, 1989.

In different orbits my last two posts revolved around a remark by Talleyrand, a statesman who served French governments, before, during and after the French Revolution:

He who has not lived in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of living is.

I’ve always read this remark as epitomising nostalgia but it seems more commonly interpreted as saying the opposite – that appreciating how sweet living is depends on knowing how bitter it was before the revolution. I like to think that Talleyrand, a man of uncertain allegiances, was more ambivalent about the revolution than that. Perhaps he was remarking on the sweetness of living in the years immediatelybefore the revolution, which must have been marked by a growing sense of promise.

Not long after the Wall came down I read about a group of six films disinterred from the archive of the state owned film production company in the defunct German Democratic Republic, made in the mid-1960s by a rising generation of filmmakers hitting their stride; members of the generation of the peace, too young to remember much of the world’s descent into violence and chaos but who grew up saturated in the memory of it, which everywhere infused hopefulness with defiant indignation. The attribute that these films have in common, the reason they were being talked about in the wake of the Wall coming down, was that a little more than twenty years before, within a month or two of each other, they were all banned.

The disinterred films were toured around the world in 1992, under the name Verbotene Filme –Forbidden Films. We made some inquiries and secured screenings at the Library, in what is now called Auditorium 2, then called the State Library Theatrette.

The State Library Theatrette is a great little venue, cleverly proportioned to seat over a hundred but even with small audiences sustaining a sense of intimacy. It hasn’t changed much over the years. It was left alone when the rest of building was transformed in the mid 2000s – except for being entombed. Now it is entered at the end of a dimly lit passage, but originally a door opened directly onto a plaza outside the old main Library entrance. Audiences would congregate there before and after the screenings and other events we put on. Sometimes we would provide food and drink, which meant people stayed a little longer, talking to each other and to us. Often enough this lead to something else – to people coming back, of course, sometimes venturing further into the Library, but sometimes also participating – contributing to the Library being the rich and rewarding place we knew it could be.

After a while everything we did – screenings, talks, forums but also, in various ways, more orthodox library activities, involved external input – universities, schools, the ABC, the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Library, industry associations, film festivals, individual filmmakers, journalists, critics, writers and so on. Collaboration strengthened and perpetuated relationships and lead to other relationships around the country and the world so that the circle of participation was continuously widening. Collaboration also underpinned our own education, the best kind of education – learning, being, doing, no longer sundered.

We worked across a wide range of conventionally segregated activities, which meant that knowledge and motivation could flow freely between activities, at each turn benefiting, and benefiting from, an overarching view. Ends commanded systems and processes; not the other way around.

In those pre-revolutionary days, burgeoning with possibility, we imagined we were on the verge of something grand. We imagined that the imminent revolution would be about libraries inserting themselves more and more actively and ingeniously into the myriad intellectual, cultural and educational capillaries that sustain communities, like haemoglobin or antibodies.

People were often hanging out in the little screening room adjoining the main viewing facilities. Once a client spent hours there with the door closed and the blinds shut, alone with three boxes of tapes from the National Film and Sound Archive of early footage of Brisbane. We wondered what he was doing. Finally he excitedly beckoned us in. About twenty tapes were stacked on top of the videoplayers. He started playing the tapes, one after the other, all precisely cued for the flickering images of our own city to tell a deeper, stranger story.

We invited a group of animators to use the theatrette for a program they’d organised of talks by famous visiting animators. In intermissions people would show the latest bits of the films they’d been making or tapes they’d picked up from film festivals or other places around the world. One of the presenters, Barry Purves, had been the original head animator on Tim Burton’s film Mars Attacks! He’d brought one of the original models of the Martians along, which was passed around.

Animator Barry Purves with one of the Martians from Mars Attacks!

One of our collaborators aroused our interest in the revolution in filmmaking enabled by the advent of lightweight 16mm cameras in the 1960s, which seemed to promise the ability to capture reality directly, raw and unmediated. We started buying up tapes of the revolutionary films; not easy in those pre internet days. Of course, it’s not so easy escaping the stories we’ve grown up with; they are like gravity, pulling us into themselves; the stuck ways of seeing we assumed we were escaping. But sometimes, momentarily, gravity lets go, and something outside the familiar narrative, a fragment from an untold story, is caught and brought back.

A young woman had returned her headphones to the counter. She didn’t seem in a hurry to go so I asked her what she thought of the film she’d just watched. “Well”, she said, and talked on and on. She’d watched a 1967 Canadian film, Warrendale, about a psychiatric asylum for children; about the carers, walking the fine line between care and control, and the children, bravely trying to thread a more difficult needle.

Tears rolled from her eyes as she stood at the counter, struggling to say what she meant, and then she stopped, embarrassed perhaps, or feeling that she’d said enough, or realising that she was in a library, that she had all the time in the world. She wiped her face with her sleeve and, as if to substantiate the exchange, picked up the headphones where she’d left them on the counter and put them in my hands.
Warrendale, Alan King, 1967.

I missed the Forbidden Films screenings. My first child had just been born so I didn’t have time. But I did buy three of them for the Library, Karla, Trace of Stones and I am the Rabbit. When I came to watch them I expected they’d be in the same territory as Cold War anti-communist propaganda, or that they’d be instances of the art of saying something without obviously saying it, brought to such perfection by East European dissident writers. But they aren’t like that at all. These films shine with hope for the revolution.


Karla, DEFA, 1965. 

I added a copy of the screening catalogue to the Library’s collection. (1) The introduction describes the filmmakers being reunited with their films:

“They are now well over fifty. In the autumn of 1989 they saw the films they had made when most of them were in their thirties. For almost all these men it was the first time in twenty-four years that they had been able to see these films. There was much emotion after the screenings. Tears; memories of starting out as young filmmakers; memories of ideals. The films were like lost children.”

I Am the Rabbit, DEFA, 1965. 

Anyone involved in making the Forbidden Filmssuffered in one way or another. Some of the filmmakers were able to resume work after many years but the films they went on to make weren’t the same. The introduction goes on:

“These East German films would have made such a mark on their time if they had only been given the chance. That time, however, is long since past, and the spiritual rewards and personal satisfaction it would have provided are forever lost to the men who made the films.”

How did these films come to be banned? I suppose that mid to high ranking officials in the East German government met in a room somewhere and decided that the films weren’t what was needed at that time, that they weren’t on board with the revolution or that one thing might lead to another. Censorship is as natural as breathing, of course; as devastating as it is easy; like being buried alive; easy because the devastation is buried; forgetting is so easy. (2)

Kurt Maetzig, Director of I Am the Rabbit, in 2010. 

By the end of the 1990s the digital revolution was in full flight precipitating massive upheaval in libraries everywhere. What did I do when the revolution kicked off in earnest? For a time I worked as a manifesto writer before losing my way somewhere between soulful evocations of a bright burning promise and grasping what, in radically transformed conditions, libraries now had to do to honour it.

How do you begin to know what to do in transformed conditions, when the old routes to fulfilment of a promise have been blocked, or begin to fall short? You need to keep your nerve; you need not to run for the hills. You need to believe what you believe, how ever could you not? You need to make sense as less makes sense. You need to speak clearly and listen carefully; you need to be thoughtful and patient; you need thoughtfulness and patience. You need to look forward and back … you need a library, place of speaking clearly and listening carefully; place of believing, of making sense, where one thing always leads to another, doing what libraries do – lighting fires of curiosity and wonder, inoculating the communities that they serve – and themselves – against forgetting.


1. The forbidden films. Regine Sylvester ; Goethe-Institut (Munich, Germany); DEFA. Munich, Germany : Goethe Institut München :1992

2. The phrase “censorship is as natural as breathing” is taken from Gateways to Freedom: Libraries and the Next Millennium. Ursula Owen, Editor and Chief Executive, Index on Censorship 63rd IFLA Council and General Conference – Guest Lecture – Copenhagen, August / September 1997

Reposted under a Creative Commons Attribution 3,0 Australia License 

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