Dr Helen Heath hits back at a critic of the National Library’s decision to discard more than 600,000 books.

Just because a librarian decided decades ago to purchase a book doesn’t mean it needs to be kept forever. It’s surprising that Professor Dolores Janiewski, who argued her case in Newsroom, thinks it’s right to spend millions of taxpayer dollars storing books that are not being borrowed just in case a handful of people might want to borrow them one day.

Outrage at the National Library’s decision to discard more than 600,000 books from its overseas collections might be better directed at impending local government budget cuts on libraries. Public libraries serve some of the most vulnerable people in our country. They make knowledge affordable and accessible. The most vulnerable people in our communities rely on their public libraries to gain internet access, job hunt and study – support that many more people will seek as the post-Covid recession deepens.

The National Library’s overseas published books aren’t unique and are available via interloan from libraries in New Zealand or overseas. Most of these books have not been issued for 20-30 years.  These books were never actually able to be borrowed directly from the National Library; they could only be looked at in the reading room by people who could physically access the building in Wellington. Otherwise they had to be obtained by interloan (incurring a charge).

Any library, including the National Library, does not have to keep everything just in case’, they have access to robust international networks to obtain books and information when people request it. Professor Janiewski will be able to borrow any books she requires for free via her university library using interloan.

Holding this largely unused collection is a huge cost to the taxpayer. The library interloan system networks all sorts of libraries around the world, including national libraries from other countries, with their own collections that New Zealanders can borrow from. Independent researchers (and the general public) are able to keep sourcing more eclectic and historic titles through this method. Anyone can join their local public library and request any book.

If you’re a researcher affiliated with a university it may be even easier to interloan eclectic and historic titles through your university library. It’s usually free unless you’ve requested an urgent interloan. If you’re an independent researcher, you may want to think about paying to be affiliated to a tertiary institution. You should definitely be claiming any interloan costs as a business expense.

I’m an alumnus of Victoria University of Wellington, so I can become an alumni member of their library. With that, I can get access to selected online resources and am able to borrow from their print collections for a fee of $100 per annum. That’s the average cost of three-four new books or six-seven interloans. If you’re serious about research, this is a good option and can also be claimed as a business expense.

Back in March I looked at a random selection of books that will be removed from the National Library and followed the process of accessing them via my local public library interloan service. I enlisted the help of Kat Cuttriss, chair of Public Libraries of New Zealand, to see what the experience is like. It was very straightforward.

Of course research is vital to our nation, nobody is questioning or preventing that. I spent years doing research for my own postgraduate qualifications,and  I’m an author and a passionate advocate for books. Professor Janiewski frames this weeding in an emotive and selective manner. It doesn’t tell the whole story. It definitely doesn’t tell the story of the average New Zealand reader.

Librarians help the elderly learn how to use internet banking. They make sure Oranga Tamariki kids can keep connected and not have so many gaps in their learning. Public, school and tertiary libraries support literacy and play an essential role in improving digital inclusion for work and study, information, and social interaction. Libraries play an essential role in supporting New Zealanders to find and make use of accurate information which is essential in reducing the harms of ‘fake news’.

These are our priorities. These are the stories worth sharing and fighting for.

The National Library of New Zealand has reviewed the Overseas Published Collection in a very open and transparent process. It has made the collection lists (drawn from their catalogues) publicly available so that libraries and individuals can request or ask for specific items to be retained. LIANZA made it clear in October 2019 that it stood by the decision of the National Library of New Zealand to make taonga from Aotearoa and the Pacific the main focus of their collection. The National Library does not only hold New Zealand books and it is not the only library in New Zealand. However, it’s the only library in the world that is mandated to collect and preserve New Zealand and Pacific content.

The government servants making decisions about the Overseas Published Collection are qualified, expert and experienced librarians who take their jobs seriously and have reviewed the lists to ensure that books are retained that reflect collection strengths and research interests. The library is still retaining and still purchasing overseas published books in areas that strengthen the library’s collection.

Librarians value books and they know New Zealanders do too. They are the kaitiaki of our memories. Libraries need to keep the right collections for New Zealanders.

Dr Helen Heath is the Communications Advisor for the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA). LIANZA was founded in 1910 and is the national organisation supporting institutions...

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