Dr Christine Dann on why the disruption of Wellington means New Zealand needs the knowledge in books rather than the ‘information’ on screens more than ever.

Book Guardians Aotearoa has expressed its concern and support to the staff of the National Library who have been effectively locked out of their work place for the past three weeks by the illegal blockade of the streets around Parliament grounds, and by some of the lawbreakers compounding their offence of blocking access to downtown Wellington by physically assaulting and verbally abusing citizens going about their lawful business in the vicinity.

We know that most of the librarians understand how and why this disruption is happening at this time, and we hope that it may be starting to dawn on management that if you deprive people of the knowledge available in books – wherever they are published – then what you get instead is a rise in ignorance and misinformation that is easily spread by digital means. This can lead to the sort of awful consequences which we see in Wellington today.

As the Turkish-British writer Elif Shafak responded to Kim Hill on February 5 (when Hill said that “… the collapse of sustained reading is something that worries him [referring to Johann Hari, author of Stolen Focus*] and I wondered if that worries you too – especially with young people. Books are just too long; their attention span is just too short.):

“I do very much share that concern. I also think that we live in an age in which we are bombarded with information. We have way too much information, but very little knowledge, and even less wisdom – and they are completely different things – information, knowledge and wisdom. The problem is we have romanticised information for such a long time. You will remember the early 2000s, late 1990s – it was a time when people were predicting that this was the Age of Information. If you could spread information thanks to digital technologies people would become informed citizens and the only way forward would be the triumph of liberal democracy. Things didn’t turn out that way.

I think that actually information is sometimes an obstacle in terms of proper knowledge because it gives us the illusion that we know something about every subject, that you can ask me anything. If I don’t know the answer, I can google it, and in the next 5 minutes I’ll be able to say a few words about that subject – making me think that I know the subject. In fact I know nothing. When was the last time we ever said – I don’t know?

What I am trying to say is let’s focus less on information and more on knowledge, and hopefully ultimately more on wisdom. For that we need books, we need slow journalism, because knowledge can not be rushed, and for wisdom we need to bring the mind and the heart together. For that we need emotional intelligence and literature and art as well. So I want to change the focus, the ratio and deal with less information but more knowledge and hopefully with more wisdom.”

With Shafak’s wise words in mind, I have been trying to understand why the current so-called protest in Wellington does not resemble any protest I have ever experienced (personally or via reporting and studies of the same) in the past fifty years. A moment of clarity came to me when I was shopping in Christchurch on the morning of February 22, and found myself driving down Barrington St behind a large, flash motorhome with NO WAY JACINDA neatly stencilled in orange letters on the back doors. It was presumably associated with the illegal campers in Cranmer Square, who have the same motivations as the ones in Wellington.

The link with Cranmer Square put me in mind of a winter’s day in 1968, when with two other schoolmates in the sixth form at Cashmere High School I cycled the other way up the same street to join the protest which began with a rally in that square. It was against the proposed siting of the Omega US nuclear submarine navigation signals base in Canterbury.

When I got home on February 22 I searched for accounts of that protest and found that around 4000 people were involved. Given that the population of Christchurch was c. 270,000 at the time (and none of the protestors came from out-of-town, unlike many of those currently in Wellington) this was a much more impressive expression of public feeling than what is happening in Wellington today.

Protest in Christchurch against American nuclear war apparatus, 1968

Another difference between then and now was that the Christchurch protest lasted for a mere two hours, at most. (It was a lunchtime protest.) No public property was damaged, other citizens in downtown Christchurch were (slightly) inconvenienced for an hour at most, and none of them were abused or attacked. Finally, the protest succeeded in drawing attention to the strong opposition to the Omega base, and the government stopped it from going ahead.

I found some of this information in an article by Massey University politics lecturer Toby Boraman in the journal Counterfutures (Issue 6, 2018 – see Revisiting the Global and Local Upheavals of 1968). In this article Boraman also describes the protest at the opening of Parliament in 1968. The MPs and dignitaries were inconvenienced to the extent of having to use a side door to get into Parliament House, but the Leader of the Opposition spoke to the crowd and there were clearly good channels of communication between well-organised protestors and those supporting them in Parliament. The whole event was over within three hours. (Listen to radio reportage of it at Demonstration at opening of Parliament)

Boraman’s article situates what was happening politically (especially with regard to protests) within the global context of the worldwide political upheaval in 1968. This has been well-studied and written about, and Boraman cites forty-four books published in various places, including the UK, the USA, France and Germany, which he referred to when writing the article. He cites only half that number of New Zealand published works, and all of these deal primarily with what was happening in New Zealand at the time, rather than the international context and the ideas and practices from elsewhere which had a greater or lesser influence on what happened in New Zealand. Yet it would be impossible to understand even very basic things about New Zealand protests and campaign groups of the era without reference to knowledge of what was happening in the rest of the world. Why did the Maori and Pacific Island action group call itself the Polynesian Panthers, for example?

It occurred to me that, as well as giving reliable information on the most important protests in New Zealand in 1968, Boraman’s article provides a perfect case in point of why New Zealand libraries need to provide easy public access to books from the rest of the world, and why the National Library needs to maintain a permanent collection of the best of them. At a time when anti-Semitism is rife in one faction of the lawbreakers in Wellington, and is causing great offence and even fear among New Zealand’s small Jewish community (as reported on February 23 –Covid-19: Jewish community worried by Nazi statements at parliament protest) why did the National Library not keep its books on the Holocaust and its causes in the library instead of adding them to the rest of the 600,000+ books to be disposed of merely because they are published overseas and therefore deemed by the current National Librarian to be ‘not good for New Zealand’ ?

As the Wellington Jewish Council chair David Zwartz rightly points out in the interview, the people and platforms driving the anti-Jewish slogans and images outside Parliament, and exchanging them via their digital ‘information’ channels, are the same ones responsible for spreading the lies about Muslims which led to the mosque terror attack of 2019.

It is not the role of civic libraries to keep research collections of non-New Zealand books (or even all-of-New Zealand books), while the research collections in most tertiary educational institutions can only be accessed by current staff and students. That leaves the National Library as the only place where books containing knowledge and wisdom – which are needed more than ever by non-academic Kiwis – can be accessed by them, for free or very little cost. In these times, is that really too much to expect?

  • Stolen Focus: why you can’t pay attention – and how to think deeply again, Johann Hari, 2022

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