Has the library outlived its usefulness in the age of Internet? You’d be surprised

Donald A. Barclay, University of California, Merced

U.S. institutions of higher education and U.S. local governments are under extraordinary pressure to cut costs and eliminate from institutional or governmental ledgers any expenses whose absence would cause little or no pain.

In this political climate, academic and public libraries may be in danger. The existence of vast amounts of information – a lot of it free – on the Internet might suggest that the library has outlived its usefulness.

But has it? The numbers tell a very different story.

In spite of the findings of a survey in which Americans say they are using public libraries less, the usage numbers reported by libraries indicate the opposite.

Some upward trends

In the last two decades, the total number of U.S. public libraries slightly increased – inching up from 8,921 in 1994 to 9,082 in 2012 (a gain of 2.14 percent). Over the same period, the data also show that use of public libraries in the U.S went up as well.

U.S. public library usage statistics: 1993-2012.
Chart created by Donald A. Barclay, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, CC BY

Here’s what data on circulation (books and other items checked out to library users) and annual visits to public libraries reveal.

The number of books and other items borrowed from U.S. public libraries increased from 6.5 items per capita in 1993 to 8.0 items per capita in 2012 (up 23 percent). Over the same time span, the number of visits to U.S. public libraries rose 22.5 percent.

The one major public library usage measure that did decrease was the number of times library users asked questions of reference librarians, dropping 18 percent from 1993 to 2012.

The popularity of U.S. public libraries is, it seems, at least as strong as it was before the web became a household word (much less a household necessity).

Rise of the e-book

For academic libraries, the data are more mixed. Circulation of physical items (books, DVDs, etc.) in U.S. academic libraries has been on a steady decline throughout the web era, falling 29 percent from 1997 to 2011.

Total circulations (in 1000s) by U.S. degree-granting post-secondary institution libraries: 1997 through 2011.
Chart created by Donald A. Barclay, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics., CC BY

More tellingly, over the same time span and among the same academic libraries, the annual number of circulations (of books, DVDs, etc.) per full-time student dropped from 20 circulations to 10 (down 50 percent).

Number of circulation transactions per full-time student in U.S. degree-granting post-secondary institution libraries: 1997 through 2011.
Chart created by Donald A. Barclay, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics., CC BY

That fewer books are circulating is hardly a surprise given the vast amount of scholarly information (the bulk of it purchased with academic library budget dollars) that is now available to students via their electronic device of choice.

Electronic scholarly journals have driven their print-format predecessors to obsolescence, if not quite extinction, while e-books have become increasingly plentiful.

In 2012, U.S. academic libraries collectively held 252,599,161 e-books. This means that over the course of about a decade, U.S. academic libraries have acquired e-books equal to about one-fourth the total number of physical books, bound volumes of old journals, government documents and other paper materials acquired by those same libraries since 1638 – the year Harvard College established the first academic library in what is now the United States.

E-books are not only plentiful, they are popular with academic users (in spite of some shortcomings in usability). For example, data provided to the author show that when the University of California, San Diego made a collection of academic e-books available to students and faculty through the popular JSTOR interface, the usage numbers proved impressive.

In just under a year, UCSD students and faculty used 11,992 JSTOR e-books, racking up 59,120 views and 34,258 downloads. In response to user demand, the UCSD Library outright purchased over 3,100 of the titles offered via JSTOR, making those e-books a permanent part of the UCSD library collection.

Who needs the encyclopedia?

As with circulation numbers, reference questions asked of librarians in U.S. academic libraries have undergone a sharp decline – standing now at 56,000,000 per year, down 28.4 percent from 16 years ago. For the 60 largest U.S. academic libraries, the average number of reference transactions dropped from 6,056 per week in 1994 to 1,294 per week in 2012 (down 79 percent).

Average number of reference transactions per week for the 60 largest U.S. academic libraries: 1994-2012.
Chart created by Donald A. Barclay, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics., CC BY

There’s not much mystery behind the drop in reference transactions. When I first began working as an academic reference librarian in 1990, hardly a day went by when I didn’t put my hands on such reference works as Places Rated Almanac, The Statistical Abstract of the United States and College Catalogs on Microfiche to answer reference questions.

Today, students access information digitally. The Google app on their smartphones allows students to look up information they once would have found only in analog, library-owned reference sources. And as for that old reference warhorse, the printed encyclopedia – Britannica churned out its final set in 2010.

Further contributing to the decline of in-person reference service is the fact that students are increasingly able to consult with academic librarians via the Internet.

By 2012, 77 percent of U.S. academic libraries were offering reference services via email or web chat. Currently, over 400 academic libraries provide around-the-clock, chat-based reference service as members of OCLC’s 24/7 Reference Cooperative, a global library cooperative that provides shared technology services.

Given only the above numbers, the hasty conclusion would seem to be that everything is online and nobody uses academic libraries any more.

But not so fast.

Even while circulation and reference transaction numbers were tanking, the data show a steady increase in the number of people actually setting foot in academic libraries.

The cumulative weekly gate count for the 60 largest U.S. academic libraries increased nearly 39 percent from 2000 to 2012. Library gate count data for all U.S. institutions of higher education show a similar (38 percent) increase from 1998 to 2012.

Cumulative weekly gate count for the 60 largest U.S. academic libraries: 2000-2012.
Chart created by Donald A. Barclay, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics., CC BY

So if students are not going to the academic library to access print collections or ask reference questions, why are they going at all?

The lure of the academic library

I believe that students are trekking to academic libraries because academic libraries have been actively reinventing themselves to meet the needs of today’s students.

Academic library square footage is increasingly being converted from space to house printed books to space for students to study, collaborate, learn and, yes, socialize.

Libraries are no longer cold, forbidding spaces.
Howard County Library System Follow, CC BY-NC-ND

Besides providing some of the last refuges of quiet in a noisy, distraction-filled world, academic libraries have taken such student-friendly steps as relaxing (or eliminating) longstanding prohibitions on food and drink, providing 24/7 study spaces and generally recreating themselves to be comfortable and friendly rather than cold and forbidding.

Examples of how forward-leaning academic libraries are attracting students include:

The Grand Valley State University Library’s Knowledge Market provides students with peer consultation services for research, writing, public speaking, graphic design, and analyzing quantitative data. Among a number of specialized spaces, the library offers rooms devoted to media preparation, digital collaboration, and presentation practice.

Library space is changing: three girls using a computer at San Jose library.
San José Library, CC BY-SA

The libraries of North Carolina State University (NCSU) offer Makerspace areas where students get hands-on practice with electronics, 3D printing and scanning, cutting and milling, creating wearables, and connecting objects to the Internet of Things. In addition, NCSU students can visit campus libraries to make use of digital media labs, media production studios, music practice rooms, visualization spaces and presentation rooms, among other specialized spaces.

The Ohio State University Library Research Commons offers not only a Writing Center but also consultation services for copyright, data management plans, funding opportunities and human subjects research. Specialized spaces in the library include conference and project rooms, digital visualization and brainstorming rooms, and colloquia and classroom spaces.

Reimagining libraries

By thinking beyond the book as they reimagine libraries, academic librarians are adding onto and broadening a long learning tradition rather than turning their backs on it. In the words of Sam Demas, college librarian emeritus of Carleton College:

For several generations, academic librarians were primarily preoccupied with the role of their library buildings as portals to information, print and later digital. In recent years, we have reawakened to the fact that libraries are fundamentally about people – how they learn, how they use information and how they participate in the life of a learning community. As a result, we are beginning to design libraries that seek to restore parts of the library’s historic role as an institution of learning, culture and intellectual community.

Any library, public or academic, able to live up to so important a role will never outlive its usefulness.

The Conversation

Donald A. Barclay, Deputy University Librarian, University of California, Merced

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Top 100 Children’s Books?

The link below is to an article that takes a look at the top 100 children’s books on Goodreads – any thoughts?

For more visit:

‘Shakespearification’ obscures the other literary and cultural treasures of 1616

James Knowles, Brunel University London

This year marks 400 years since the publication of the first volume of poet and playwright Ben Jonson’s collected texts, the first complete English translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, by poet and translator George Chapman, and the Political Works of King James I, arriving a few years after the King James Bible. Little would contemporaries have guessed that 400 years later these momentous works would be eclipsed by a death in Warwickshire – one William Shakespeare.

It seems now that every Shakespeare anniversary must be marked by a tide of special performances, exhibitions, biographies (even including this year one promised from Boris Johnson) and the usual mugs, T-shirts, commemorative coins, cakes – and the London Book Fair offering “the Shakesperience”. Each day, announcements of new anthologies of Shakespeare criticism or “essential” reference volumes flop into the inbox like exhausted seals in search of a suitable rock. We’re in danger of being “bard to death” by it all.

Let’s not quibble: Shakespeare’s work is fabulous. The plays fill us with curiosity and excitement. They force us to think and rethink every time we encounter them on the page, on the stage, in the cinema, or stumble again upon some previously unregarded corner of the canon. Each time it feels like we have grown new ears. But the tsunami of studies, rehashing of critical material, and general commercialisation of “Brand Shakespeare” is exhausting. Do we really need a Shakespeare themed flowerpot to coincide with the 400th anniversary of his death?

We have seen how Stratford-upon-Avon has become a newly-Disnified site of literary pilgrimage, but while this endless Shakespearification (perhaps Shakespeari-fiction?) intends to commemorate a man’s great work, it drowns out much of the complexity of reconstructing earlier lives. Indeed, the sun of Avon threatens to blot out all the other voices, lives, and achievements – not only of 1616, but also the incredible richness of the entire late 16th and early 17th centuries’ creative culture.

Also appearing in 1616

1616 was the year in which logarithms, the foundation of much of mathematics, were first translated from Scots Latin into English. It was the year in which William Harvey gave the first lectures tracing how the heart pumped blood around the body.

The sexual scandal revealed by the trial of the Earl and Countess of Somersetlink for murder and adultery has given us insights about how news spread, how the personal and political intermingled, how women – even those of the elite – could be treated during that era, and perhaps even marked the start of the de-legitimisation of the Stuart monarchy.

In 1616 Pocahontas was in England, while, from the court of Jahangir in India, Sir Thomas Roe wrote to the Countess of Huntingdon on linen paper, the start of the rise of the East India Company. Yet all this variety – and so much more – gets ridden over in the Shakespearean stampede.

Putting English literature on the map

Benjamin Jonson is as important a literary heavyweight as Shakespeare.
Abraham van Blyenberch/National Portrait Gallery

The paradox of celebrating the death of a man whose works fascinate us points towards the other great event of 1616, the publication of The Works of Benjamin Jonson. Scholars argue as to whether this truly is the first publication of vernacular English works in the collected form used by classical texts of authority and significance. But by locating English culture in relation to European literature and the Greek and Roman classics, The Works represents the entrance of a new sense of English identity, and of the potential of English as a language.

Jonson’s Works may not have launched the age of the book but it marks the arrival of English literary print culture. Filled with complex margin notes and allusive texts, the publication of The Works also marks the coming of age of critical reading – and the sense of reading and writing as valuable in themselves because they can reshape the ways we understand the world. Jonson’s Works can be seen as the foundation text of English literature as a discipline.

Without Jonson’s 1616 text, Shakespeare’s posthumous 1623 folio is unthinkable, but also unreadable: Jonson gives us the ways to read what were formerly seen as “unconsidered trifles” as serious literature. Homer, the King James Bible, and Jonson are mentioned here from among many others because they combine the classical poetic heritage, the prose (and especially Biblical prose) tradition, and the dramatic world of London theatre, and it is these three that continue to shape so much of our literature – our world literature – today.

Of course, this group is as much a constructed product of critical and intellectual selectivity as the Shakespeare so celebrated at the moment. In 1616 these were not the most radical voices, nor were they the most silenced ones by any means. But, through the rich culture they evoke, they illustrate what can be lost by taking Shakespeare out of all context, as we seem to be doing in 2016.

The Conversation

James Knowles, Vice-Dean of Research and Professor of Renaissance Literature and Culture, Brunel University London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why it’s time to take children’s books seriously

Catherine Butler, Cardiff University

Both as an author and an academic I take children’s literature seriously – it’s my professional raison d’être. This doesn’t mean that I think it should be discussed in hushed tones, however, only that it shouldn’t be dismissed as trivial. Children’s authors are excellent writers – moreover, our earliest encounters with the written word colour all that follows, so anyone who takes books for adults seriously should take children’s literature seriously too.

I’m not the first to make this case. Once a generation, it seems, a cri de coeur goes out, in which a representative of the world of children’s literature speaks with revelatory authority to the literary establishment and makes it reassess the place of children’s books.

In 1968, the Times Literary Supplement invited Alan Garner, the author of The Owl Service to write about his approach. Garner argued that children are the most rewarding and demanding readers, pointedly saying of his next book: “If it is good enough, it will probably be for children”.

Likewise, in 1996, Philip Pullman began his Carnegie Medal acceptance speech by declaring: “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.” Like Garner, Pullman had written books rich with literary reference and intellectual scope. Both men were self-confident, Oxford-educated and could not easily be patronised. Both men were in a field of literature numerically dominated by women. People listened.


For a time, because of Pullman’s own novels and later those of J.K. Rowling, children’s books were everywhere. Some suggested that the distinction between children’s and adult literature was disappearing: titles appeared in child and adult editions – identical but for the jacket (and price). For the majority of mid-list children’s authors, however, things soon reverted to the status quo ante. Review space in national newspapers, briefly abundant, dried up, and advances reverted to pre-Potter levels.

Genre snobbery

When the former Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson called for children’s books to be taken seriously in 2013, her plea formed part of a recognisable cycle in the world of children’s literature. First comes neglect, tinged with contempt, then a shock in the form of some literary event or articulate advocacy, then a slow backsliding.

Why does the literary world go through these spasms? Let’s look at a few unrelated snapshots, and see if we can build an identikit face:

Such instances aren’t just a matter of snobbery towards “genre fiction”. A man seen reading a thriller may be sneered at, but if he is seen reading “chicklit” his virility may be questioned too. Similarly, adults who read children’s literature are tainted with childishness. Does that decision to publish some books with adults’ and children’s jackets really show barriers being broken down? That some were prepared to pay an extra pound or two to avoid being seen reading a children’s book suggests otherwise.

Childhood ideals

Ultimately, disdain for children’s literature has less to do with the quality of the work than with the contradictory feelings adults have about children and childhood. These fall into two broad groups, the first of which can be summarised: “The more grown-up the better.” As St Paul put it: “When I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly: but then face to face” (I Cor 13.11).

The adult view is the real view; the child’s just an approximation. Applied to children’s literature, this leads to the belief that children’s books are literature with training wheels – and that those most nearly resembling adult books are the most worthwhile.

But this attitude coexists with its opposite too: think of Wordsworth’s vision of children trailing clouds of glory and dwindling into adulthood. Against St Paul we can recruit Jesus of Nazareth: “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Mark 10.14).

John Tenniel’s original wood engraved illustration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Wikimedia/John Tenniel, CC BY

The idealisation of childhood is often held to have reached its zenith in children’s books of the early 20th century. But this view is actually tenacious – it lives on in the duty adults feel to shield children from adult knowledge, especially when it lurks between the covers of a book. Publishers and reviewers regularly let authors know that certain words and topics are out of bounds. Children must keep their innocence.

Despite opposition to these traditions, both continue to flourish – for both speak powerfully to adult fantasies. Children, and adults associated with children, are constantly buffeted in their cross-currents. If writers create a safe space sequestered from the wider world they are patronised for thumb sucking. But if they try not to be cosy, then they are corrupting the innocent youth who should be protected.

The battle to get children’s literature taken seriously will never be concluded, because so many adults are invested in not doing so. It would rob them of the comforting shibboleths they clutch like favourite toys: I am serious, you are trivial; I am adult, you are a child. I don’t say we should accept such opinions, but we should recognise that they will not go away. Taking children’s literature seriously is part of taking children seriously, and that is a lifetime’s work.

The Conversation

Catherine Butler, Senior lecturer, Cardiff University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What makes a book ‘good’?

Nicholas Royle, Manchester Metropolitan University

How many copies of Fifty Shades of Grey does it take to make a fort? A branch of Oxfam in Swansea, south Wales, received so many unwanted copies of EL James’s erotic novel, that staff decided to build a fort out of them in the back office.

Well, why not? Once the hottest book in publishing, Fifty Shades now can’t be given away fast enough. Relief at last, perhaps, for all those high-brow academics and frustrated authors – myself among them – whose hearts sank when this fan fiction-derived tale became the fastest-selling paperback of all time in Britain and went on to sell more than 125m copies around the world.

But was it any good? Critics seemed to think not, but just as publishers will tell you a good review does not necessarily sell books, nor, it seems, does a whole series of bad reviews harm sales of a book once momentum has been achieved.


When I was a child listening to the Top 40 countdown on Radio 1 on a Sunday evening, there was no doubt in my mind that the higher up the charts my favourite singles climbed, the better those particular songs were shown to be. In my ten-year-old mind there was a straightforward correlation between commercial success and artistic quality. A single that reached number ten was pretty good, but one that went straight into the chart at number one and stayed there for four weeks was clearly better.

At some point I must have given voice to this theory, because my elder sister once told me that “just because one song is higher up in the charts doesn’t make it better than another song that’s lower down.” While I reeled at this news, she did happily agree that Slade’s Cum On Feel the Noize was nevertheless the best song around at the time.

Making good

So what does make a book – or a film or a song – good? What gives a work lasting value? There are methods of assessment; you can apply criteria. As a lecturer in creative writing, who marks novels written by MA students, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But as a reader – and as an editor for a small publisher – I obviously have my own, subjective views on what’s good and what’s not so good.

The lesson my sister taught me has stayed with me over the years and I’ll admit that these days I’m suspicious of anything that seems to be enjoying too much success. Was Zadie Smith’s award-winning White Teeth really that good? How about David Mitchell’s acclaimed Cloud Atlas? Fifty Shades of Grey? I don’t know, because I haven’t read them. There are lots of interesting-sounding books out there, but why should I feel obliged to read the same ones everyone else is reading? Is the culture really nothing but a huge book club?

Zadie Smith has won plenty of awards for her books – but prizes aren’t everything.
Steve Parsons/PA Archive/Press Association Images

It’s frustrating for publishers working hard to launch new careers (they’ve long given up trying to sustain flagging ones) when they know that only a tiny number of titles will account for the vast majority of sales.

One first-time author of my acquaintance whose debut novel was published in 2015 to a small number of enthusiastic reviews and poor sales feels so disappointed by the whole experience he often talks of jacking it all in. Is the Fifty Shades phenomenon part of that problem? Would I rather that great literature was achieving that level of commercial success? Well, yes, but can we as a society agree on what is great literature? I don’t think we can and I even prefer to think that we shouldn’t, being inherently suspicious of the exclusivity of the canon.

So, let big houses continue to publish bestsellers. They make money and keep people in jobs and maybe, just maybe, there’s a trickle-down effect. Profits from big books may enable risks to be taken on smaller ones. EL James donated £1m of her royalties to charity.

And so what if we end up with mountains of unwanted books? As long as we continue to build new roads (and that’s a whole other subject), we’ll continue to need unwanted books. When the M6 Toll opened in 2003, building materials supplier Tarmac revealed that 2.5m Mills & Boon novels had been pulped and used in the manufacture of the asphalt.

Swansea’s red-faced consumers of James’s “mommy porn” may not have donated 2.5m copies of Fifty Shades to Oxfam, but a quick calculation, studying the photograph of the house-like construction that has been tweeted all over the world, suggests it takes about 600 copies of Fifty Shades to make a fort.

The Conversation

Nicholas Royle, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Australia produces $30 billion worth of ‘grey literature’ that we can’t read

Timothy McCallum, University of Southern Queensland

Australia spends more than $30 billion a year on projects which produce “grey literature” – documents which are produced by government departments, academic institutions, private companies and more. But despite all this effort, Australia lacks a standardised mechanism to curate and freely distribute grey literature.

There has never been a better time, than right now, to investigate opportunities into improving our country’s memory.

Government agencies allocate billions of dollars, each year, to research projects and programs. These activities produce research papers, conference papers and other forms of grey literature.

Examples of these agencies include The Australian Research Council and The National Health and Medical Research Council. These two agencies collectively allocated approximately $19 billion dollars in public funding to Australian research projects between 2000 and 2014.

Students in the higher education sector also produce high quality grey literature in the form of Theses and Dissertations.

Of course the public – inclusive of tax payers, business owners, teachers, farmers, researchers, students and more – can all benefit from free and uninterrupted access to all publicly funded knowledge and information.

The importance of grey literature

Given the context, grey literature is a very important source of information in this age of immediacy. It is also perfect for industry research collaboration due to its greater speed and flexibility of dissemination to a wide audience via the internet.

Unfortunately, Australia, unlike its competing international counterparts, has limited provisions for the digital curation or information stewardship of grey literature. At present firms mostly use their company web sites to store information and in turn, the Australian public are heavily reliant on commercial search engines to find information.

The inability to find information quickly impacts innovation and stunts collaboration.

Australia’s Ideas Boom

It is now widely known that Australia’s collaboration between industry and the research and higher education sector is the lowest in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries (OECD). In response, the Australian government has launched the national innovation and science agenda, with PM Malcolm Turnbull calling for an “Ideas Boom”.

The Ideas Boom promotes the collaboration between universities and industry in order to create more profitable, sustainable and export focused industries.

While there has been much debate about the flow-on effects from the Ideas Boom, contrary to what some believe, recent research shows that successful industry/research collaboration results in the increased quality and quantity of research output.

Unfortunately knowledge does not transfer through silo-ed organisations and institutions automatically. It also does not flow freely through the boundaries of firms or institutions towards the public.

Australia’s knowledge preservation

This raises concerns about the long-term preservation of Australia’s knowledge, which some think is compounded by the recent decrease in funding to the National Library of Australia which directly effected an online database called Trove which was designed to provide a single point of access to Australia’s openly accessible information.

Of course, Australia does have open access policies. These policies, amongst other things, mandate that publicly funded research be made available through university websites (also known as Institutional Repositories). However, individually searching (or even locating the URL for) each Institutional Repository in-turn is both inefficient and impractical.

Moreover, individually searching each of these systems world-wide would be bordering on impossible. This is part of the reason why information technology infrastructure and products like search engines have boomed (and made billions from advertising) during the last decade.

The gap in sustainable collaboration

A recent Australian Research Council funded Linkage Project revealed that Australia lacks a body that can advise and liaise on best practice for digital information production across government, education, civil society and industry.

The project titled “Grey Literature Strategies” identified a potential national efficiency impact of around $17 billion per annum in relation to grey literature accessibility.

Designing deliberate solutions

Last year the AMP Tomorrow fund provided an opportunity to make inroads into building an access portal into the global wealth of publicly funded information. The project artefact, which is in beta, openaccess.xyz has since harvested as much of the world’s publicly funded research as possible.


The free and ever expanding website, allows users to search millions of grey literature records. At present the interface has two modes: a traditional search engine results page, and a modern data visualisation software product known as Bookworm; the software which inspired the Google Books Ngram Viewer:

screen capture of openaccess dot xyz

The artefact is currently in beta and will undergo further development and refinement in the knowledge that solving the problematic transfer of knowledge between industry, governments and academia requires more than meets the eye.

The Australian economy can benefit from the improved curation of, and access to, publicly funded knowledge. Designing and building digital curation infrastructure for grey literature would be of value to Australia.

The unprecedented amount of information which we currently see is, not surprisingly, ever increasing and the time is right to deliberately design a demonstrable system which would ensure the preservation of knowledge and assist in securing Australia’s position as a leading, but more importantly sustainable, industry-research collaborator.

The Conversation

Timothy McCallum, Senior Analyst, University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Whose line is it anyway? The murderer, his mother, and the ghost writers

Christopher Kremmer, UNSW Australia

This is a story about stories. Who writes them. Who owns them and what happens when the two things get muddled. It’s a story about true stories, life stories, stories written by amateurs and professionals. It sounds a warning to the growing number of readers who aspire to publish their own memoirs, and those who write the lives of others.

“Who owns the story?” is the question that lies at the heart of Sonya Voumard’s new book The Media and the Massacre, published this month to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Martin Bryant’s murderous rampage at Port Arthur in Tasmania.

In it, Voumard ponders the case of Bryant’s mother, Carleen, a woman widely reviled by genetic association for the sins of her son, but driven as a mother to tell her side of the story.

It goes like this. After two suicide attempts triggered by the reporting of the 10th anniversary of the massacre, Carleen Bryant writes a 15,000 word memoir of her life before and since that terrible Sunday, April 28th 1996, when Martin Bryant slaughtered 35 men, women and children.

She is not a fluent writer, so friends suggest she seek help from professionals. A literary agent is found, and a journalist, Robert Wainwright of The Sydney Morning Herald is recommended. A $200,000 book deal with a major publisher is mentioned.

Ms Bryant forwards a copy of her memoir to Wainwright, but there are hiccups early on when he passes it on – allegedly without her knowledge – to her daughter, seeking the daughter’s involvement in the project.

A June 2007 meeting in Hobart, at which Wainwright’s wife – another Herald journalist Paola Totaro – joins the writing team, smooths over the trouble. However, when the journalists’ nine-page draft outline of their proposed book – entitled Martin My Son – arrives, relations deteriorate rapidly.

In Voumard’s words, Carleen Bryant became “convinced that the story they (the journalists) wanted to tell was not hers but theirs”. In October 2007, Bryant withdrew from the project, and requested that Wainwright and Totaro return her personal documents and other materials. They did so some months later, by which time all contact between the parties had ceased.

There was, therefore, as Voumard tells it, considerable surprise on the part of Bryant and her friends when, in May 2009, Wainwright and Totaro published Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: the making of a mass murderer. In it, they included at least 29 extracts from her as yet unpublished memoir, allegedly without her permission.

The ins and outs of the legal proceedings that followed cannot be briefly summarised. They are, in any case, subject to the confidentiality clause of an out of court settlement. Bryant also complained to the Australian Press Council, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), the Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Books claiming breach of copyright. But the publication and sale of Born or Bred? was not impeded.

Voumard, a Sydney-based former journalist and now a writer and academic, and some of the people she quotes in her book, including the criminal lawyer Greg Barns and Ms Bryant’s lawyer Steven Lewis of Slater and Gordon, feel that an injustice was done. Wainwright and Totaro reportedly claimed they were given the memoir “freely and without caveat”, but in Voumard’s view, Bryant had simply agreed to the preparation of a draft outline.

The literary intersections of journalism, creative non-fiction, book publishing and “ghost-writing” are crowded, with a variety of conflicting interests but no single code of ethics.

Is a journalist bound by copyright laws when someone eager to tell own their story hands them their unpublished account of a highly newsworthy subject without conditions attached? Are they bound by their various journalism codes of ethics when writing books, rather than news stories?

As Wainwright and Totaro wrote in the preface to their book, it was Carleen Bryant who withdrew from “their” project, not the other way around. “When she withdrew, the project turned instead into a hunt for the truth and answers.”

This statement, however, sits awkwardly with what appears to have been a lack of any attempt at fact-checking with their albeit uncooperative star source in the months immediately prior to publication.

Voumard’s book, though far from perfect – neither Bryant nor the journalists could be persuaded to talk to her – it is a useful contribution to our understanding of these important issues and the questions they raise.

Although primarily focused on the Bryant-Wainwright-Totaro conflict, she engages with a range of other journalistic and literary approaches to reporting on violent crime, including Carol Altmann’s After Port Arthur (2006).

Voumard talks to a number of senior Australian journalists who reflect on the fact that Port Arthur inspired a new and more mindful approach to the impact of their craft when interviewing traumatised people – a theme later expanded on by Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Center Asia-Pacific.

As a journalist herself, Voumard knows where to look for the Fourth Estate’s ethical weaknesses, and is critical of her own.

“Not all journalists are the same …,” she writes. “At our best, we do good work – bear witness, seek truth, give voice, explain. At our worst we exploit our subjects.”

For Carleen Bryant, having her say via the agency of professional writers was a once in a lifetime chance to achieve a longed for public understanding of the cross she has had to bear.

As one of her close friends tells Voumard, Bryant

wanted to establish herself in the minds of the people of Hobart as she was, rather than as others believed. She wanted them to know that she wasn’t a terrible mother, or the mother of a monster, that she did her best in every way for her son, that she had a loving husband.

But when a story involves hot button issues like mass-murder, journalists’ ethical compasses veer toward the perceived “public interest”, an approach that is not known for its sensitivity to the feelings or views of anyone associated with the killer.

Journalists remain publishers’ first pick for ghost-writing assignments because they write quickly and colourfully, are not afraid of imposing a given meaning on a set of available facts, know what makes headlines and meet their deadlines. But for some stories, that is not the ideal approach.

As Voumard writes,

Carleen Bryant lost the ability to say to others who she was. Her life story and that of her family had been appropriated, attacked, raked over and profited from by so many media organisations for so many years that her identity effectively disintegrated.

Ms Bryant, whose only son was sentenced to 1,035 years prison without parole, has spent most of the past 20 years living alone in a caravan park an hour’s drive north of Hobart. She eventually published her own book, My Story (2010), with a small, but empathetic Hobart-based publishing house

The publisher, Michael Ludeke, took the unusual step of inviting his new author to collect her book from the printers, telling her,

You should come and see this too. This is your book. The people at the printers would like to meet you.

A happy, if not perfect ending to an amateur life writer’s long struggle to be heard.

The Conversation

Christopher Kremmer, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, School of the Arts & Media, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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