Asian studies research in Australia is being hampered by loss of library expertise and poor access to resources
Asian Studies is a burgeoning topic in Australian librarianship. The Asian collection in Australia is obscure, tucked-away under ‘Arts’, categorised as ‘special ’—and therefore remains unseen.
Asian studies is regarded as a field for the ‘specialist’ who has the specific languages, and therefore remains inaccessible and foreign to mainstream librarianship. Arguably, this is the same generally for Asian studies in Australia. Except this is the ‘Asian century’. Interest in the region is growing, as is the number of students from Asia studying in Australia. And there is a limit to how much reliable information one can get from Google!
Three main issues relate specifically to Asian studies library resources, and each has significant implications for Asian studies, its teaching and research in Australia.
Asian studies scholars in Canberra are well served by collections at the National Library of Australia (NLA) and the Menzies Library at the Australian National University (ANU), and in Melbourne by the Melbourne and Monash university libraries. These institutions carry substantial and established Asia–Pacific collections with attendant specialists. Scholars elsewhere, however, either have to rely on smaller collections, travel to Canberra or Melbourne, or rely on interlibrary loans.
These measures may suffice to a degree, but they are never the preferred option and place hurdles in the way of research. But more importantly, how do we encourage in our universities an understanding and appreciation of our Asian neighbours when we set limits on what and how much our students can discover?
While many of us are thankful for the NLA’s Asian collections, they are not without issues. While the collections have managed to come through the latest federal budget cuts largely unscathed, they remain subject to the whims of the government of the day and the NLA’s own executive board.
The NLA has a strict collections policy that focuses squarely on Australiana publications. Despite its best efforts, the library’s capacity to provide adequate, timely resources to its nationwide constituency is not limitless.
Following a panel presentation at the 2014 Asian Studies Association of Australia’s Conference in Perth, it was obvious in the ensuing discussion that, while an NLA project to archive political websites of various Southeast Asian countries is to be applauded, it can only deliver on a few selected countries such as Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand. Many other countries in the region are not represented simply because the NLA does not have enough staff.
The discussion agreed that responsibility for archiving the websites could be shared among Australian university libraries. And that was that! Without a mechanism for collaborative projects nationwide such aspirations die a natural death.
There are two types of Asian studies librarians in Australia: the specialist who is responsible for collection development and user education specific to a region, and the non-specialist who is not necessarily required to develop the collection but has overall responsibility for user education and academic liaison for Asian studies within the humanities. Understandably, the second model is less expensive and more cost-effective.
Loss of expertise
However, the successful development of a collection on any topic or subject requires dedicated staff with specific knowledge, an appreciation of the publishing industry regionally, adequate language skills to create catalogues, and more hands-on-deck to process material. This is expensive to sustain, so many libraries opt for the less costly route.
In fact, some libraries that had specialists for specific geographical areas have begun to lose this expertise. The ANU, for example, has lost expertise and staff through staff cuts and early voluntary retirement. The university now has a combined position of China-Japan-Korea librarian, which has meant a loss of specialisation mainly in Japanese language and Japan.
In many cases, libraries pass on the responsibility for book selection to academics who are already overloaded with teaching and research pressures
The ANU has also lost its Vietnam specialist. Vietnam is now part of the Southeast Asia, South Asia and Middle East portfolio—an amalgamation of three former positions. Similar developments are occurring at the Melbourne and Monash university libraries.
What loses out? Indigenous language material is passed over and not collected. Without the expertise and language capacity, libraries rely on acquisition models and agents. This leads to libraries losing control of the quality of publications they receive and their pertinence to research and teaching. In many cases, libraries pass on the responsibility for book selection to academics who are already overloaded with teaching and research pressures. Further, as libraries around the country use the same vendors, there will be an increasing homogeneity in collections, which is detrimental to the development of new ideas.
All libraries—university, research, public, large or small—face a fast-changing publishing world where modern technology has transformed how we read, use and access information. How we do research has changed as a result of this. The availability of the British Foreign Office files on East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia, for example, allows one to search a topic cross-regionally. With the increased availability of e-books and other electronic resources, particularly from China, Japan and Korea, digital technology is becoming a force all Asian library collection managers have to contend with.
In the interest of library space, staff time and resources (for reshelving etc.) and ease of access for users, libraries around the world have shifted their purchasing and subscription strategies to e-preferred. Publishers and commercial aggregators, such as Proquest and Elsevier, mainly in the Euro-American centres, have taken advantage of this development. They have pushed to develop and sell e-products and, in the last 15 years, have repackaged new and old products in ingenious ways to increase profit margins.
This trend, however, has resulted in an increasing concentration of the market share in the hands of a few major commercial aggregators and publishers. Consequently, they have been able to raise subscription prices for journals and, increasingly, e-books, effectively pricing out the larger e-journal packages and contemporary e-resources for many smaller libraries.
Another area of concern is, while libraries globally opt for e-books and e-resources, Asian publishers are not making them available evenly across the region. At one end of the spectrum, commercial companies and libraries in China, such as CNKI, are making e-journals and e-books available online in large databases. At the other end, while India’s print publications flourish, its e-publications are held back by an inadequate legal environment. Thus when Australian libraries impose an e-preferred or e-only policy on new purchases, Asian collections suffer.
Asian studies librarians argue that the only way to counter some of these issues in Australia is to forge a national approach to Asia-related collection development. We envision a shared-collection development plan and strategy across various university and research libraries. This, however, is not easily realised as the area of focus slips through the cracks of existing consortiums and we lack an external impetus to focus library administrators on these issues.
Nonetheless, as a group, and as part of the Asia Library Resources of Australia, we are in the process of establishing a national register of Asian studies librarians and specialists, as well as a national database of e-resources and a communication network to share information and knowledge. We believe we’re louder when we stand together.
We also hope for many more opportunities to continue our dialogue with Asian studies scholars, researchers, lecturers and students in order to improve access to resources on Asia and help position Australia to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the ‘Asian century’.
The National Library of Australia carries substantial and established Asia–Pacific collections with attendant specialists. John Conway 2004 CC BY-SA 3.0