Keynote – Gwenda Thomas, University of Melbourne

21 Mar 2019
09:30 - 10:30
Henry Wellcome Auditorium

Keynote – Gwenda Thomas, University of Melbourne

Are libraries neutral spaces – or places for “The Perfect Cultural Storm”

This paper reflects on how the covering of an artwork in a South African university library during the social activism campaigns compromised the principles of artistic freedom.  Over a period of four  years,  circumstances precipitated  into a “Perfect Storm”  that pitched the principle of “library as neutral space” into crisis when the previous Vice-Chancellor issued a written instruction to the University Librarian to perform an act of censorship, in the name of cultural transformation, to arrange for coverings to be placed back on the Sarah Baartman sculpture.

The former University Librarian who, when confronted by “The Perfect Storm” precipitated at the highest executive level of authority in the university, took steps to uphold the library as a neutral space by invoking the university’s value statement and national library association’s code of ethics.

This paper considers:

  • How might librarians defend the principle of neutral space in post-colonial landscapes where socio-political, economic and cultural transformation imperatives collide in times of contestation and disruption
  • How might librarians respond when the “complexity of events” collides with the “value systems underpinning them” and expose “differences” that that compromise freedom of expression and moral rights of the artist (1)
  • How might the University Librarian respond in a context where the university executive is perceived to fail in upholding and defending the library as a neutral space.


  1. Rachel Kent – curator and essayist for the exhibition David Goldblatt: Photographs 1948-2018 (