Collecting for a society’s memory: national and state libraries in culturally diverse societies
National and state libraries are repositories of a society’s former and current experiences, creative endeavours and intellectual currents. Today, they collect tomorrow’s heritage. They allow future generations to remember their pasts. “Build the nation’s memory” is the first strategic priority in the National Library of Australia’s 2017–2018 corporate plan. Major libraries elsewhere in the world have similar mandates. Provincial or state libraries play comparable roles, scaled to their jurisdictions. The State Library of Victoria, for example, aims to “build a comprehensive collection about Victoria and the people of Victoria”.
In societies in which a large proportion of the population was not born in their country of residence, a “nation’s memory” is arguably not contained within the geopolitical borders of the nation-state. Migrants contribute their own histories and memories to the nation’s history and memory, reshaping the contours of that history and the collections that document it.
The requirement to build collections that reflect the cultural and linguistic diversity of societies presents significant challenges for national and state libraries, particularly in settler-colonial countries of immigration such as Canada and Australia, but also in multicultural countries such as Argentina and South Africa, The Netherlands and Singapore. At the same time, the emphasis on an adequate representation of cultural, religious and linguistic minorities within a singular notion of ‘the nation’ has remained politically contentious. The online environment widens the possibility of collecting and making available information resources relating to a society’s diverse history and heritage. However, such practices raise complex questions about cultural identity and agency, as well as institutional capacity and the equally complex issues of equity and access to online resources.