It is a considerable honour to be invited to give the second Keith Murdoch oration, and a pleasure to do this in the presence of Dame Elisabeth and members of the family. The inaugural Lecturer was, of course, Rupert Murdoch, who argued strongly for the central importance of higher education, science and innovation for Australia’s future. That message, which is as important now as when he spoke in 2001, is one that I’ve also tried to push. His advocacy from a position of real influence was very welcome.
This evening, I will hit some of those same buttons but, in order to avoid feeling like a parrot, will change the emphasis a little and talk more about information and knowledge. This is a vast and complex subject, so I will focus my thoughts on different types of libraries, both ancient and modern. Some parts of this will be more familiar than others.
The basic character of a society is reflected in the strength and relevance of its major public institutions. The fact that we are here this evening is a measure of our regard for one such great resource, the State Library of Victoria. All of us can take both pride and pleasure in the recent restoration of the magnificent glass-domed reading room, part of a $190 million program that began in 1990 and is due to be completed by 2007.
The libraries and museums of the nation hold, and provide access to, the archives and collections that tell us about what we are and where we have come from. The information that they preserve, whether it is the relics of life forms that are now extinct or all the copies of every major newspaper (extant or not), is available to be mined by future generations of researchers and historians. They are the traditional repositories of human wisdom and knowledge.
This Library is now 150 years old. The collection when the founding Chairman of Trustees, the jurist Redmond Barry, appointed Augustus Tulk as the first librarian comprised less than 4000 volumes. The current count is somewhere around five million, including 100,000 maps, 22,500 sound recordings, 670,000 pictorial items and 6500 linear metres of manuscripts.
The idea of the Library as an institution of public education and record would have been as familiar to Sir Redmond as it is to us. He died in 1880, the year that the first telephone exchange opened in Melbourne. Even if he had been Methuselah-like and lived till 1980, he would still have been a little bemused by the idea of an annual budget that includes 12.5 per cent for the acquisition of electronic resources.
Though Sir Redmond would have been fully aware of photographs, telegrams, the typewriter and the flatbed/cylinder printing press, he would never have encountered a photocopier, ridden in an automobile, seen a computer or sat through his latest reincarnation as the hanging judge in a Ned Kelly movie. What would he have made of terms like 'search engine' and 'Google'?
We now talk of librarians as information specialists. Libraries are no longer looked at as collections of books, prints and papers, though this remains an important function. The idea that the library is a portal to physically remote databases and information systems is both revolutionary if we talk about our world as it was 30 years ago, and totally familiar if we consider the realities of today. All the major newspapers now have weekly information technology supplements. This Library received over two million online visits last year.
If I am writing a research paper, I access the biomedical literature from my home or office computer via the free, PubMed database of the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, USA. When I made a somewhat late start as a research immunologist more than 30 years ago, I was familiar with everything worthwhile that was going on in the broad field of cellular immunity. This covered lymphocyte differentiation, the role of the thymus, transplantation, auto-immunity, and my own specific area of infectious disease.
The expansion of possibilities resulting from the very recent revolution in molecular medicine has now made the spectrum of scientific reporting in these areas so vast, and so complex, that I am hard pressed to keep up with what is happening in my sub-field of viral immunity. I no longer command a detailed understanding of all the technologies relevant to my research, and must rely on the insights and contributions of highly specialized collaborators.
Biology has always been complex, but it is only now that we can access much of that complexity. The question of how we select, analyse and integrate information to provide solid generalisations and useful knowledge may be the major challenge of our time. There are some very exciting developments. Let me give you an example that draws on three different types of databases, or libraries.
Much of the past 16 years of my life has been spent at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. I still have a small research effort there, though I now spend most of my time at the University of Melbourne. St Jude already networks with the cancer programs at Melbourne’s Children’s Hospital via the international Children’s Oncology Group, and we are building other connections.
The mandate given to St Jude just over 40 years ago by its founder, the actor Danny Thomas, was to find solutions for catastrophic diseases of kids. The motto is: 'that no child should die before its time', a goal that is still far from being realised. Two initiatives taken right at the beginning have had enormous, recent impact.
The first was to put equal emphasis on the development of investigative clinical programs and basic science. The result is a cadre of top scientists who win major awards, while St Jude physicians can have 70 to 80 per cent protected time to spend in the laboratory. We would love to reproduce the latter in Melbourne for our brightest medical minds, but the resources just aren’t there.
The other inspired decision was to start a physical library of every cancer from every child who was ever treated at St Jude. The hospital basement houses row upon row of deep freezes containing these tumour tissues. Back in 1962, nobody quite knew how this library might be read, but it was kept for the future at considerable expense.
Now it has paid off. Being a hospital that does not charge, treats every child on research protocols and brings former patients back for up to 20 years of follow-up, St Jude also has another massive library, or database, that records the history all the treatments and all the long-term clinical outcomes. Cancer is, of course, a genetic disease, reflecting both inherited characteristics and mutational change.
The opportunity to use these 40-year old cancer libraries opened up very quickly as a result of the massive, international effort in genomics that led (from 2001) to the development of universally available libraries containing every segment of human DNA. St Jude scientists dug out all the samples of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) from the deep freezes, and then used these new DNA libraries to probe which genes were being read out and which were either changed or abnormally expressed.
The molecular findings and patient records were next analysed to give a new understanding of why some forms of ALL are readily treated while others are not. Insights from this genetic analysis have established better criteria for determining drug dose, while showing why some forms of the cancer have been completely refractory to a particular therapy. What we are talking about here is the beginning of individualized, rational evidence-based cancer treatment.
All the genes of interest in ALL can be arrayed on a small chip, which can be quickly 'interrogated' using genetic material taken from a few leukemic cells. When a new patient comes in, this molecular profile is determined very rapidly and the information is used to assign an appropriate course of therapy. Apart from the improvement in cost and clinical outcome, insights are also being generated into other genetic mechanisms that might be targeted by new 'designer' drugs.
What happened here is thus that three different types of libraries, or archives, were brought together using the new science of informatics, which is based in statistics and advances in computing. Particularly important were gene identification techniques that depend on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), the same technology that has been used to convict the perpetrators of many unsolved rape cases. Similar tumour libraries are now being established in many cities that have strong medical research communities.
A major library that is already in place here is the database of paediatric genetic diseases at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. Australia has a National Brain Library of samples from the full range of degenerative and acute neurological conditions. The Victorian Government is looking at a request to support a Melbourne tissue bank that will cover a range of adult cancers.
The intricacies of how to use information drawn from such a wide community base are currently being worked out using a locally resourced molecular medicine informatics model initiated with State funds via the Bio21 network. A challenge that is in the process of being resolved is how to protect patient privacy while at the same time allowing access to the necessary clinical records and tumour samples. Here we also draw on the insights of health care workers and lawyers.
If they were lost for some reason, the types of libraries that were used in the pediatric ALL study could be recreated in, say, an interval of 10 years or so. This would go much more quickly for high incidence adult cancers, like those of the breast and colon. The progressive definition of genomic libraries for everything from rice, to the malaria parasite, the fruit fly, the Tamar Wallaby and humans is something that can always be done again, though at considerable financial cost. The power of these libraries, both for future scientific advances and for understanding how life forms evolved is incomparable.
Other great libraries are enduring and always there. The geological and astronomical archives of the earth and the cosmos are available for us to search at the limits of our imagination, insight and technologies. The fossil record, the bones of our ancestors, the cave paintings, the statues, the hieroglyphs and the ancient buildings that give visual testimony to the history of human creativity continue to be discovered and unearthed. It is essential that we protect these natural and man-made archives, whether in museums or in field sites.
We have recently heard a great deal about the extraordinarily valuable environmental database provided by ice cores from the frozen regions. This library of climate change and atmospheric gas levels will slowly disappear as the process of global warming continues. It is important that each of us does what we can to support leaders who promote conservation initiatives aimed at slowing, or reversing, this trend.
Like the genetic archive that is lost with the extinction of vulnerable life forms, libraries that deal with our social and political development are both readily corrupted and potentially irreplaceable. The only protection against the model that history belongs to those who write it, or pay for it to be written, is that we retain as much of the primary record as possible, together with the full spectrum of contemporary analysis and opinion about the events in question.
We must continue to insist on freedom of information and, even if sensitive records are subject to black-out periods of up to 50 years for security or personal reasons, it is essential to ensure that such databases be maintained with full integrity. The aphorism that: 'those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it' applies equally to those who are unable to access the necessary records. Destroy the information base and, in the end, we all lose.
This has happened in the past. The fate of the Great Library of Alexandria is an enduring mystery of the ancient world. Started during the reign of Ptolemy II in the 3rd century BC the Library, at its peak, is considered to have housed somewhere between 400,000 and 700,000 different items. Visitors to Alexandria were required to hand over any scrolls or books that they were carrying for copying. The Library is thought to have held Aristotle’s private archive.
From all accounts, this was the most comprehensive assembly of human collective wisdom to that time. Its destruction is an enduring tragedy that still resonates today, particularly as it covered the time leading up to, and perhaps including, the early phases of Christianity. It may be a naive hope, but could the discourse between science and religion be more rationally framed if we still had access to these independent accounts of thinking and events over those crucial years?
What happened in ancient Alexandria? Was the collection incinerated during Julius Caesar’s invasion of 47 to 48 BC, or was it finally destroyed as part of the suppression of non-religious pursuits under Flavius Theodosius in the 4th century? Another story has it that the remaining books were burned to heat bath-houses in the 7th century, a process that provided genuine savings to the owners for some six months and could be regarded as an early form of economic rationalism. This would, incidentally, have the Library continuing at some level for almost 1000 years, into the era of the founding of the Islamic world.
Insofar as it is possible, the Great Library of Alexandria has recently been recreated as the Bibliotheca Academia Alexandrinae. I was delighted by the invitation to be one of the founding members. As with the original library, it is outward looking, ecumenical and comprehensive, and is already being visited by 750,000 people a year.
The initiative has had the strong support of President and Mrs Mubarak of Egypt and international organizations like UNESCO, with substantial funds also coming from the Arab countries in the region. In the words of the Director General, the Egyptian diplomat Ismail Seregeldin: 'I want it to be true to the spirit of the old Library of Alexandria—a vibrant intellectual centre, a meeting place for civilizations.' Surely we can all identify with such ideas!
Though much of Australia’s history has emphasised tax-payer funded support for public institutions, it is the case that major philanthropists elsewhere focussed on the building and funding of open-access libraries. Between 1881 and 1917 the Scots-born steel tycoon, Andrew Carnegie gave over $US56 million dollars to start more than 2500 libraries, including four in Australia.
Carnegie’s commitment to general literacy and 'improvement' can be thought to reflect the emphasis on public good that began with the Scottish Education Act of 1696. This led to the northern enlightenment of the 18th century, when the philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith proposed economic theories that resonate today. By the 19th century, Scotland boasted the best-educated society in Europe. It was also resource poor and suffered from lack of opportunity.
As Dr Johnson would have it: 'the noblest prospect which a Scotsman ever sees is the high road that leads him to England.' How do we ensure that the contemporary equivalent for bright young Australians isn’t a one-way ticket on a Boeing 747 flying to London or Los Angeles! There are now almost one million Australians living outside this country, and the number is increasing. Unlike 18th century Scotland, our country is rich in natural resources. What is our excuse if we fail to use this wealth to boost education, innovation and opportunity?
Like Carnegie, many 19th century Scots went much further a-field than England. The Scottish diaspora included Keith Murdoch’s parents, the Rev Patrick John and his wife Annie Brown who emigrated from Aberdeenshire to Melbourne. The dour, grey, granite city of Aberdeen has traditionally supplied many of Scotland’s toughest leaders. Sir Keith’s gritty integrity as a young journalist in 'telling truth to power' about the Gallipoli campaign could be considered to reflect an essentially Aberdonian character!
Bill Gates might be considered the contemporary equivalent of Andrew Carnegie. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has donated more than $US250 million to put computers in every library in the United States. The program started with the poorest areas in the American south, operating from the perception that many would never have the resources to purchase a home computer.
As we consider the role of the large, institutional library in the contemporary world, two ideas come to the fore. The first is the thought that the library is a portal, a gateway, to the world of information and knowledge. At the moment, any of us can walk through the front door of this Library, sign-up for a password, and login to a spectrum of diverse databases via one of the library computers. Some of these resources can already be accessed from a home computer, or from a terminal in a branch library anywhere in the state, and many more will soon be available. Other databases are being generated within the Library itself as it proceeds to digitise key elements of the collection.
The second idea is that the Library will assume even greater significance as a key resource for the life-long acquisition of insight and knowledge. Structured learning that requires a formal qualification is still likely to remain the province of educational institutions like Colleges and Universities, some of which are operating increasingly via web-based mechanisms and distance learning.
Public libraries will both support this type of pedagogy, and open greater access to information for self-directed learning. As a great deal of the information on the web is both protagonist and unedited, the role of the librarian as a guide, advisor and information specialist will become even more important than it is now. Librarians are both the guardians of the record, and key figures among the keepers of the gates to knowledge.
Accessing information via a computer can be incredibly immediate and effective, but it is also the case that unexpected connections and novel ideas often come from the simple process of leafing through a book or research journal. The printed word continues to be enormously important. How many of us really operate paper-less offices?
Could any gentle pleasure top the gratification of reading a finely bound book in the great, glass-domed reading room of this Library, or equal the subtle sensuality of strolling by a collection of prints and paintings in the Keith Murdoch Gallery?
If you come to this Library any day of the year you are likely to see masses of young people, in the reading rooms after school or participating in organized, school-based programs. Can a thoughtful and curious child have any better experience than the discovery that there are such places? Each of us can help to ensure that this opportunity is a continuing legacy for young Australians, of all backgrounds and economic circumstances.
Transcript of the Keith Murdoch Oration, State Library of Victoria, Thursday 4 November, 2004