Dr John Vallance joined the State Library of New South Wales a year ago, following a prestigious career in academia and teaching. He told us about what led him to become the State Librarian.
What led you to the State Library of New South Wales?
I was born and grew up in Sydney. As a child I was interested in reading, chemistry and electronics. Then music, and my first paid job was as a harpsichordist and organist with early music groups in Sydney. I studied classics and archaeology at Sydney University, and when I realised that I would never be good enough at music to make it a career, I went to Cambridge to further my studies in classics. I did a PhD in ancient Greek philosophy and medicine at St John’s College Cambridge, before taking a Fellowship at Gonville and Caius College where I taught for eight years before returning to Sydney. An interest in the university admissions process led to an interest in school teaching, and between 1999 and 2017 I was Headmaster of Sydney Grammar School.
Libraries have been a constant throughout my life and between 2008 and 2016 I served on the Library Council of NSW, and for part of that time as a Trustee of the State Library of NSW Foundation. A strong interest in the visual arts (I was a non-executive director of the National Art School between 2013 and 2017) and music (I remain on the board of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra) ensure that a wide range of enthusiasms is nourished effectively. The position of NSW State Librarian in many ways represents a perfect opportunity to bring all these interests together, in the context of stewardship of a much-loved public institution that exists for the benefit of absolutely everyone.
What attracted you to library?
The fact that it is a simply amazing place.
What is the most challenging thing about leading a library in the digital age?
I’d say not allowing the ‘digital revolution’ to blind us to our other obligations. Digital technology does not represent a simple, binary choice to be privileged over traditional, physical formats. The digital becomes yet another string to libraries’ bow. It remains the case that the most cost effective, long lasting and energy efficient form of data storage is paper. At the SLNSW we fear that in a matter of a year or two the cost of digital storage will overtake the cost of physical storage. So the challenge of leading a library in the digital age centres on questions of judgement and balance, and making sure that the medium does not itself become the message unless we want it to.
Where do you see the library in five years?
On Macquarie Street in Sydney, with improved collection storage and access systems, and improved, practical and productive links to the nearly four hundred libraries across the state which are parts of our immediate family. (P.S., I know that’s not what you meant…)
What is your favourite item in the collection?
Depends when you ask me. At the moment it is a painting by Roland Wakelin of a picnic at the Rocks done in the early 1950s. Next week there will be a new favourite.