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9th National Library Technicians Conference, Canberra, 24 September 1997: address on the occasion of the opening.

First of all let me say what a delight it is for me to be with you for the official opening of the 9th National Library Technicians Conference.

This is the third library-related function that I have attended during the last month. The first was the launch of a major new Australian National Islamic Library project here in Canberra. It will be the largest collection of Islamic literature and other works in the southern hemisphere and will be available throughout Australia through the Australian Bibliographic network. The second function was the opening of a major extension to Mosman Library in Sydney. It will involve completely modern Information Technology including the utilization of CD-ROMS, Outlining Public Access Catalogues and Internet access for clients. I mention these two prior functions for two reasons. The first is to seek to create a completely false impression that I am knowledgeable about current library technology. The second is to make plain that my pleasure at being with you this morning does not flow from any lack of library related invitations.

The cause of my pleasure this morning is that it gives me an opportunity to acknowledge a life-long and ever-growing debt. Throughout my life I have been a constant user of libraries and the beneficiary of the knowledge, technical skills and kindness of those who work in them. As a child here in Canberra, I had the benefit, through I must admit personal friends of my parents, of access to the libraries housed in the old Parliament House and the old National Library building. At Sydney University, I was constantly indebted to the overworked staff of both the Fisher Library and the Law School Library. Subsequently, while at the Bar and during my early years on the Bench, I was the cause of much work for and the recipient of many benefits from the Supreme Court Library. Later still, during my period of almost 14 years on the High Court, I had close and constant contact - in later years as Chairman of the Court's Library Committee - with the dedicated and extraordinarily able staff of the High Court Library. Among their numbers, as you know, was Mrs Marion Boyd who is the Convenor of this Conference and an old friend. These days, as Governor- General, I am constantly receiving invaluable help from a large number of libraries - primarily, the Parliamentary Library, the National Library and the High Court Library.

I have deliberately made one omission from this chronology of my indebtedness to the knowledge, technical skills and kindness of library staffs. The omission is of a famous library, namely, the library of Trinity College, Dublin where I spend a post graduate year. At that time, the Trinity Library was, in terms of its content, one of the great libraries of the English speaking world. You may recall that, under the United Kingdom Copyright legislation, it was one of the four libraries that was entitled to receive a free copy of every book in which copyright was claimed under English law.

Unfortunately, you will be surprised to hear, that was a mixed blessing. The reason why that was so was that the staff at Trinity was quite inadequate to cope with such an ever-growing avalanche of books, some good, some of limited use and many completely useless. The result - and I must stress that I am speaking of a time more than forty years ago - was that uncatalogued books were piled absolutely everywhere: in passage ways, on balconies, on tables and wherever. The solution to the problem - changing the law to require supply on request rather than supply simpliciter - had, I think, already been implemented but the effects of the old regime of supply of all publications had not been corrected. Briefly, the Trinity Library at the time seemed to me to provide an unforgettable example of what happens when you have an absolutely wonderful library in terms of content but do not have a library staff to make access to that content reasonably available. Perhaps it was partly that the section dealing with international law, which I was studying, was the worst of the lot. But I found it almost impossible to find anything at all.

As you no doubt have guessed, I have been guilty of just a little exaggeration to make the example a more striking one. Nonetheless, the essentials of it are accurate and it does provide an appropriate setting for the three points I wish to make in these brief opening comments.

The first point is essentially a statement of the fairly obvious. It is that libraries are, at the one time, the custodians and the purveyors of much of the knowledge, the cultures and, at a more mundane level, much of the pleasure and the amusement of our world. They make an immeasurable contribution - both to our daily lives, and to the intellectual fabric of the nation.

Without their libraries, hospitals, museums, universities, technical colleges, governments, municipalities, and of course, courts of law could not function in the manner we have come to expect of them. Without a knowledge of what has gone before - and increasingly, what is happening contemporaneously - research, to name but one field of human endeavour, would be carried on in a kind of intellectual darkness.

The second point is implicit in my story of the Trinity College Library. It is that, even in the days before electronic information and transfers and modern inter- library access, a large library was no better than its staff, that is to say, content without access is always, for practical purposes, useless. If, as Lord Samuel once said, a library is "thought in cold storage", then it is librarians and library technicians who have the knowledge of where in the freezer to find what is required and of how to thaw it and present it to the particular client.

As the custodians of all that frozen thought, librarians and library technicians form a team which gives every person in our society access to information. In a democracy such as ours, we hold dear the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of thought. Underpinning those freedoms is the ability to seek and find information. The team consisting of librarians and library technicians are the keys to that information.

Currently, of course, we are in the throes of an information revolution which is making the role of librarians and library technicians more important than ever. The rapid rate of change in the way information is stored, accessed and retrieved, is overwhelming. Computers have changed forever the way libraries function. Videos, CDs, the Worldwide Web, the Internet, e-mail and computer searching have widened the horizons of libraries. But they have also complicated the issues facing modern libraries and brought about a fundamental change in the roles, tasks and skills of librarians and library technicians.

In theory, the world now has access to unlimited quantities of information. In practice, however, that access depends less and less upon the physical content of the particular library and more and more upon the knowledge, skills and expertise of those who staff it.

The third point which I would briefly make will make me sound more than a little old-fashioned or perhaps simply old. It is that I have a fear of a possible disadvantage of modern library technology namely, that the increasingly ready availability of electronic information and electronic printouts will lead increasingly to a move towards libraries without books. Put differently, I have a perhaps unreasonable fear that modern technologies making visually written information available and lessening the necessity for physical possession of a tangible book will combine with the lure of television and other electronic media, including electronic newspapers and literature, to lessen the availability of the use of ordinary books to a stage where leisured reading as we know it and love of actual books are threatened. I sincerely hope that, notwithstanding all the new technologies, our library staffs, including our library technicians, will never lose the love of the feel of a book in the hands and will never permit that perhaps unreasonable fear to become Orwellian reality.

To turn to more pleasant things, let me congratulate all those who have devoted so much time and effort to the planning and organisation of this Conference. I hope that all of you who are participating in it will derive substantial and lasting benefits as you share your knowledge, your experience and your aspirations with one another and make or renew friendships with your colleagues. And I also hope that you derive much pleasure from your visit to our National Capital with its Spring blossoms and bulbs. Canberra is, I venture to suggest, truly one of the world's most beautiful cities.

Finally, I wish to address a special word to the participants who have come from overseas. To each of you, I say welcome. I hope your visit to our country is a happy one. I hope that you come to know as much of Australia as is possible in the time you are here. And I hope that, when the time comes to leave us and return to your homeland, you will carry with you fond memories of Australia and Australians.

And now, with great pleasure, I declare the 9th National Library Technicians Conference to be officially open.