A new vision for a Maltese public and national library system
by William Zammit
The setting up of the Malta National Archives as a distinct corporate entity in the 1990s has undoubtedly proved a landmark and a great success where the accessibility and preservation of our nation’s documentary heritage is concerned. Albeit having to function with limited financial and human resources, the Malta National Archives has succeeded admirably in the variety of roles assigned to it. The various projects undertaken by our National Archives with the aim of saving and disseminating the fabulously rich written patrimony of our islands have included the acquisition of privately-owned material, annual lectures, international conferences held in Malta and ambitious digitisation initiatives.
All those who hold Maltese culture at heart have since yearned for the day when a similar legal framework, which would comprise a clear identification of the roles that our public and national libraries should be fulfilling, would see the light of day. The draft Malta Libraries Act being currently discussed in Parliament aims specifically to radically and positively transform what up to now has been a rather bleak and uninspiring situation. A reformed public library service, reaching out to all and addressing 21st century realities and challenges in a dynamic way, would constitute an indispensable piece of cultural infrastructure. This would fit within the wider context of the series of healthy reforms being carried out in the education system and the increasing emphasis on the provision of life-long learning opportunities. Where the National Library is concerned, the draft law provides for a proactive move towards better services for researchers, both Maltese and foreign, as well as a concerted effort at preserving the present collection and acquiring material that it lack at present.
A Maltese public library network for the 21st century
It is acknowledged that our public library system can and should be in a position to give a far greater contribution to fostering reading and thus enhance the cultural enrichment of the population in general. The services currently provided are already considerably utilised and that itself is positive indication that a receptive audience is there for the taking. The key rationale that should be behind any public library system is that of reaching out to the public in the widest sense of the phrase. This would require two fundamental requisites, first that a public library system has to provide information and leisure sources and services which are relevant to a 21st century publi. Such material and services have then to be promoted and brought to public attention. In this context, areas requiring urgent attention comprise the following:
Putting it bluntly, I cannot envisage how a traditional public library system can eventually survive, let alone thrive, in an ever-expanding technological reality. As has been successfully proved by public libraries around the globe, addressing the technological ‘threat’ precisely by exploiting technology for our public libraries in every possible way, rather than shying away from it and wait for the inevitable, is really the best possible approach. Technology has to be increasingly harnessed both where services provided and the collection content itself are concerned. Such services as a better online catalogue, greater use of e-mail and SMS facilities to communicate with users, an online service informing users of newly-acquired material or new services are just a few examples in this regard.
Where the public library stock itself is concerned, this needs a radical, even if gradual overhaul. The reference departments of forward-looking public libraries have seen the most dramatic changes in recent years thanks to technology. While the retention of some traditional book-format reference works, such as encyclopaedias, dictionaries and subject reference sources is not wrong in itself, it is really not the way where investment in such a department should be going. Database and other electronic reference sources are a must in any reference department worthy of the name. Great potential exists here for a revamped reference department which would be thrown wide open to organised hands-on student visits; a learning experience which would become part and parcel of their school IT syllabus.
A public cultural experience
A public library system that actively encourages the acquisition of such values as critical and objective thinking, openness to new ideas, toleration and above all the right of access to knowledge is really indispensable if we want to create a more genuinely democratic society. Every Maltese citizen, irrespective of financial and education background, has the right to a public library system which satisfies his or her needs as well as providing new cultural experiences. Some initiatives are briefly described below:
• Acquiring contemporary fiction and non-fiction material may not always be affordable, but how about utilizing public donations of books and the purchase of second-hand fiction? Books are not meant to last in a public library, but to be read. I’d rather have 10 second-hand modern fiction works which are read to tatters after a year than purchasing three brand new copies of the same.
• The public library should be a hub of different cultural activities, book-related ones in particular. It should organise book launches, particularly where fiction and literature by Maltese authors is concerned. Book launches are held in other high-status premises, but not so much in the most obvious of places, the central public library. Publishers and booksellers too should be encouraged to promote new authors and publications, Maltese and otherwise, at the public library.
• A massive promotion campaign to foster reading, aimed at all age and social groups. Much here can be achieved through the use of media, collaboration with schools and local councils.
The National Library
Very urgent issues relating to accessibility, collection development and conservation need to be addressed where our national library is concerned. It is convenient to blame individuals and successive governments for the present state of our national library; yet deep down this has resulted from the lack of national pride, something which every national library should reflect. Our national library constitutes a cultural and financial treasure of the greatest importance, and the proposed legal framework in this regard deserves the appreciation of all. Major areas to be addressed on a short and long-term basis would include:
• Improving the financial and human resources allocations as befits our national library. Assistance from the European Union and from local and foreign institutions may also be sought. This is particularly needed where preservation is concerned.
• Formulating a clear and comprehensive definition of what constitutes Melitensia. This would form the basis of a written national collection development policy where Melitensia is concerned. The updating of legal deposit legislation and legislation aimed at encouraging the donation of rare Melitensia to the national collection is equally crucial.
• Setting up a national bibliographic centre, responsible for all aspects pertaining to the acquisition and bibliographic control of Melitensia.
• Re-cataloguing of the National Library’s Melitensia collection in accordance with modern practices, and making the catalogue available online.
• Studying the possibility of having other Maltese libraries, particularly the university library, participating in the responsibility of acquiring and preserving the national collection of Melitensia by being assigned specific material to collect and preserve.
• Creation of a Melitensia database, listing items missing from the national collection with a view of acquiring them in the original or in electronic copy format.
• Cultivating contacts with Maltese and foreign libraries and collectors. The sale of Melitensia in auctions and on the Internet needs to be monitored so that missing material is acquired or at least recorded.
A vision always comes at a price. The most obvious may be the financial one; yet having the right legislative framework in place and one that would allow new initiatives and ideas to flourish is a great step forward. Vision and ideas may themselves generate funds, but it hardly ever works the other way round.
Dr Zammit’s main area of research and publication is Book History and Melitensia. He currently heads the Division of Library, Information and Archive Studies at the University of Malta.