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Speech

Hocken Library

Issue date: 
Wednesday, 2 December 1998
Speaker: 
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

E mihi ana ki te Rangi
E mihi ana ki te whenua
E mihi ana ki a tatou katoa tena koutou.

E nga mana
E nga reo
Rau rangatira ma tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Librarians and Library staff, Friends of the Hocken, ladies and gentlemen.

I count it a privilege to have been invited to open this fine new home for one of the nation's greatest taonga.

In his Story of the Yale University Press, Clarence Day wrote: "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall; nations perish; civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men's hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead. And even the books that do not last long, penetrate their own times at least, sailing father than Ulysses even dreamed of, like ships on the seas. It is the author's part to call into being their cargoes and passengers, - living thoughts and rich bales of study and jeweled ideas."

Here in this new Hocken will be stored books, most certainly, and so much else as well; other records of the past, telling the same stories. For Dr Thomas Hocken, along with Alexander Turnbull, and Sir George Grey, was a great early-New Zealand literary collector - a collector not only of books, but of pamphlets, manuscripts, maps, paintings, newspapers, artefacts. That these men should have put together the collections they did, here in what were then the outer reaches of the literary and artistic world, demonstrates how dedicated and effective they were in pursuing their private passions. But what does them the greatest - and the most lasting - honour, is that they donated their remarkable collections to the New Zealanders who were to come after them. And because of their passion to assemble, to bring together in coherent collections, so much about indigenous and early colonial life here, and so much that still represents the best of the old world as well, New Zealand and New Zealanders today are much the richer. Our debt to them should never be forgotten.

But of course, any collection can be a dead thing, a lifeless stockpile, if it is not nurtured, added to, or if it should become inaccessible. Yet the three great libraries of New Zealand's early history are still very much alive, and thanks to the marvels of technology, increasingly available to all who wish to consult them, in the Turnbull Library in Wellington; Sir George Grey's collection now in Auckland; and here in Dunedin, Thomas Morland Hocken's collection in this Library that bears his name. One wonders whether the memory of George Grey might be happier if his collection were housed in a building bearing his name. Certainly the name of Hocken will long be commemorated for his remarkable collection, and his magnificent gift to the people of New Zealand.

Reading the information package that was sent to me, I was struck by the extent to which the original gift has been augmented and expanded: a hundred-fold in fact. I am sure that Hocken's eclectic mind would rejoice to know that the collection now includes the latest in popular music recordings as well as one of the largest and finest collections of early and contemporary New Zealand art. This new building is indeed a treasure house, and one that belongs to all New Zealanders.

That this is so is a tribute to both the citizens of Otago and to the University of Otago. This city has been the cradle of much of our nation's own culture. The people of this city and province have, in the traditions of true scholarship, been generous and imaginative in augmenting the collection and in their financial support for it. The University has taken very much to heart the truth that if the function of the university is to promote understanding - of science, of art, of life - then a library, preferably a great library, a repository of much that has ever been known, will be the centre around which it revolves. As Kierkegaard said: "Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards."

Of course, it's not always so readily apparent these days, that libraries are the great and essential public institutions that they really are. There are several reasons for this: one is that they cost so much, not just to found, not only to add to, but also to maintain. In these days when cost so easily distorts value, there is always a danger that libraries will be seen as liabilities rather than the enormous assets they truly are.

But perhaps the greater contemporary lack of appreciation of the importance of libraries is the belief that as sources of information, they are being superseded by more modern technologies, such as the Internet, for example, or CD ROMs. And to a degree, this might, I suppose, even be true.

Because information, rather than knowledge, is the 'buzz' word these days. This is "the information age." Everybody wants information, and more than ever before, anybody and everybody can get it. In fact, we're inundated with it. It comes in books and magazines, in newspapers and bulletins, on television and radio, and most lately, on the Internet. But so very, very much of it is superficial, often slanted, without context, and therefore without any great meaning. And in this information age, we and our new media often lack the space or the time to discriminate between what is useful and what is not; to be selective, and discerning; to develop our own insights. This surely shows up the great distinction between mere access to information, and the ability to put it to full use.

One of the great dangers of the information age then, is that the media become the only message. The most important lesson in this is, surely, that we all have to learn to think, and think for ourselves, and what's more, to think our way through, and past, the mere appearance of things. And what better place to learn such skills can there be than a great library? And that is so whether one comes in person to look at the book or document itself, or whether one uses technology to search for or retrieve the text. It's important that there is a primary source, that can never be wholly replaced by the secondary, often so-fleeting a source that a screen offers.

Perhaps this makes a comment by Samuel Butler, made long ago, particularly appropriate this morning, especially considering the former use of the Hocken's new home was as a dairy factory. "The public," said Samuel Butler, "buys its opinions as it buys its milk, on the principle that it is cheaper to do this than keep a cow. So it is, but the milk is more likely to be watered."

So, computers are wonderful tools, and the Internet is a marvellous resource. But either, or both, will never, can never, replace books. The screen is at best a transient image, while books' properties better permit contemplation - some becoming friends for life, all of them allowing readers to more readily, more fully, evaluate the content and flavour of their words and illustrations. There are, in short, inherent strengths in the technology of ink on paper, that will, I believe, never be wholly supplanted by the technologies of binary code and the World Wide Web.

Earlier this year, I came across an announcement headed "Technological Breakthrough in Information Retrieval." The announcement itself went something like: "Announcing the new Basic Open-standard Organised Knowledge device; acronym B-O-O-K; commonly called BOOK. BOOK is a revolutionary breakthrough in technology: no wires, no electric circuits, no batteries to be connected or switched on. So accessible even a child can use it. Just lift its cover and the device is operational. Portable, durable and affordable, the BOOK is being hailed as the information retrieval technology of the future." I am sure it will remain so.

Because this Library belongs to all New Zealanders, and because I see myself here today as representing them, may I add my thanks and congratulations to all who have made this day possible. There are several organisations besides the University that contributed talent, money or equipment - the donors, the architects, the builders, the movers, the Friends.

All those who in so many ways have helped bring this project to fruition must surely be feeling well satisfied with what they have achieved. The nation is in your debt.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is both an honour and a pleasure, for me now to declare this new home for The Hocken Library, officially open.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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