The National Library is about to hock off 57,000 books for $2 each at a glorified garage sale

Steve Braunias, ReadingRoom literary editor: About 57,000 books hauled out of the Overseas Collection at Wellington’s National Library are about to be hocked off at a flat rate of $2 per book at a Lions and Rotary sale at the Trentham race course in the Hutt Valley.

A policy to napalm the national collection has earmarked over 600,000 books for disposal. The latest batch of 57,000 titles – all non-fiction – will be sold at Trentham on November 14. It’s an act that many – including Helen Clark, former attorney general Chris Finlayson, and others who have formed the protest group Book Guardians Aotearoa – regard as outrageous vandalism. Lions and Rotary, however, are “excited” at the prospect of the sale. “The lighting is good,” its newsletter says of the venue, “with most of the room in carpet.”  Any books left over will be sold for about $1 the following day.

There is an argument in favour of the disposal and an argument against.


David Reeves, director of collections at Auckland War Memorial Museum: There have been strong concerns raised about the National Library’s programme of removing large numbers of books from its collection. 

The programme began in 2014 when the Library revised its collection policy with the understanding that no library in the world can adequately collect and care for everything. The policy was adopted in 2015 after wide consultation with interest groups, the information sector, and particularly librarians. It meant that works published overseas would no longer be collected in physical form, in preference for accessing information through online databases and electronic versions held elsewhere.

This was judged to be a cost-effective approach which would ensure the collection could be kept up to date and provide most users with the information they need in a timely fashion. There were some important exceptions to this general direction of travel – publications about New Zealand and the Pacific, children’s literature, family history resources etc would still be collected because of their high demand and obvious utility.

For the 600,000 books being assessed for removal from the National Library’s collection, selection criteria have been carefully established in accordance with the published selection policies.

So practically how does this work?

To start with, the heritage collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library, the schools support collections, family history, music, anything acquired by legal deposit, and anything published in the last 20 years is not in contention. They don’t even make it onto the list for possible disposal. These things remain the core business of our National Library.

Before books are finally removed, a physical check is made of the individual copies to see if there is any special attribute which might warrant retention – e.g. being a donation, having research notes added.

There are literally tens of thousands of books in the wide range of categories which were collected by the Library when access to overseas material could only be provided by holding physical copies in New Zealand. The published lists of these are available for viewing on the Library’s website. Here’s a random (very random) selection:

* Trademark problems and how to avoid them by Sidney A Diamond, Sidney (1973)

* Nutrition and dietetics for nurses by Mary E Beck (1965)

* The new advertising; the great campaigns from Avis to Volkswagen by  Robert Glatzer (1970)

* Art career guide: a guidance handbook for art students, teachers, vocational counselors, and job hunters by Donald Holden (1967)

* Ornamental shrubs and trees: their selection and pruning by Arthur J Sweet (1935)

* The complete Wales: a survey of the main holiday areas and places of interest (1966)

* Insect pests of livestock, poultry, and pets, and their control by Rudolph Seiden (1964)

While these titles and their content might be of passing historical interest to a few, it would be hard to argue that they are vital for addressing contemporary issues in New Zealand.

Should they really be a priority for spending taxpayers funds on good quality storage and access systems? Researchers interested in the history of these topics are able to seek them via the ever-growing global network of library content.

There is an understandable philosophical concern that by holding onto New Zealand material there is an insular, inward-looking approach being taken. But New Zealand is a small country and we need to think of the library resources held nationally as a whole. The collections are not just paper-based publications (held anywhere in the country) but include the databases able to track and locate material for users all over the world.  And the system includes librarians and their skills.

The training, judgement and passion of our librarians is key to success in navigating our changed and evolving world. A high-functioning library system is still serving noble aims; it is complex and adaptable, and should serve a diverse range of users.  

Technology has changed the availability of information and the relative value we place on different methods of access for over 1000 years. We entrust librarians with evolving that access, making beneficial use of technology and being responsive to the changing needs communities of users. The books we most value are in safe hands and availability of other information sources is made possible with the assistance of people who care about access on our behalf.


Military historian Chris Pugsley: Take a walk with me into the National Library in Wellington. The only books on display on the ground floor are in the shop, which is a mixture of arts and crafts, with a small selection of books for sale. Beyond that is the immensely popular Home Café which expands out into an equally popular meeting place. Straight ahead of the entrance on the far side of the foyer is the Treaty of Waitangi Exhibition. No treasures of the National Library on display but artefacts taken from their rightful home in Archives New Zealand. It’s clearly all a question of relative clout: an arrangement between the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the National Librarian with the principal archivist seemingly reduced to a lower-ranked functionary.

I remember a delighted National Archivist, Ray Grover, walking me round when they were first displayed in their tailormade home in Archives pointing out the range of documents that were on display that allowed one to see the Treaty in all its forms and context. The Library displays them more like trophy stag heads in terms of status with less exciting documents, once on display, remaining at Archives. What does that tell us about a National Library that forsakes the treasures on its hidden bookshelves, to display something it does not own? A ground floor with no books – an entire space given over to coffee, meeting rooms, and public areas places to meet and have a chat. Recently the earthquake-forced closure of the Wellington Central Library has seen one of its pop-up-libraries intrude into this meeting space and remind us that this is indeed a library, even if the books you see are not its own.

Let’s go upstairs. This is the Alexander Turnbull Library. There are some small display cases and a limited selection of books. That’s it: everything else is locked away. Visit the National Library of New Zealand and see some of the Treaty documents, have a coffee, meet someone for a chat, and, due to the misfortune of an earthquake, you can look at and touch some books from another library – almost as many as the limited selection on display in the Alexander Turnbull upstairs.

It’s as if the National Library and its hierarchy does not like and are embarrassed by books. Space is clearly available. The building is home to Nga Tāonga Sound and Vision and other government agencies – and to make even more room the National Librarian has commenced a programme to deaccession (throw out) 600,000 books from the Overseas Collections.

The list is available on the library’s website. The more I studied it, the more I thought that these de-accessioning librarians clearly do not read. Why else would they work so assiduously to gather their papers and writings for the Turnbull while the National is chucking out their books? Books did not arrive at the National Library by chance. They were selected for a purpose and to give a context to our history, culture and our lives: a doorway to a much wider world.


I have a lifelong love affair with libraries and librarians. Growing up, I haunted my local library: Greymouth, the Carnegie Library in Thames, the brilliant Thames High School Library, and then the shock of Xavier College: a high school without a library. My home became the Canterbury Public Library and in my upper sixth year, I would clock into school at morning break so that I was seen to be seen. I then spent the rest of each school day in the public library, working my way through the classics: Scott’s Waverly novels, Dickens, the Brontes, some of Trollope, Kipling, Stevenson, Twain, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Arnold, Manley Hopkins, and Rilke. No real plan or purpose: just reading with delight.

Joining the New Zealand Army, the Bridges Library at the Royal Military College Duntroon was another delight. Overawed that there were 128 volumes of the History of the War of Rebellion: the official records of the American Civil War. Finding books gifted and signed by Florence Nightingale among the stacks. Then the Waiouru Camp Library, the Kippenberger Library at the Army Museum, the Staff College Library at Camberley, and through all my military career and after, the Central Defence Library in Wellington: now no more.

Heaven for 12 years was the library at RMA Sandhurst. I camped in the library for a week when I applied for a lectureship. I asked at the time what would the library do for me if I got the job. Andrew Orgill the Librarian replied, “We will get any book you want”, and they did. For each project, Andrew would do a print out of all their holdings on the particular topic, including books in print but not in the library, and books not in print, but available on the various booklists, and ask me to tick the ones I needed. It was if I had died and found myself in paradise.

When I left the Army to write full-time, we chose Wellington because of three things: Archives New Zealand, The National Library of New Zealand, including the Alexander Turnbull, and the Defence Library. Thinking about it, I should also add the Wellington Library and its silver palm trees, but that grew with the delight of the easy accessibility to the books on the New Zealand floor and the ability to sit and work among them.

Fast forward to 2020: the Defence Library is no more but lives in boxes in Trentham and National Archives stutters along on a part time accessibility basis, Wellington Library exists in a series of pop-up libraries all over the city, and the National Library has locked away its books and transformed itself to the best café and meeting spot on Molesworth Street – and is full-steam ahead, intent on de-accessioning 600,000 of its Overseas Books collections. Sad days indeed.


Keith Douglas’s Alamein to ZemZem is among the books earmarked to be thrown out, along, I guess, with his poetry. Three times a year I walked cadets along the hedge in Normandy where he was killed, without mentioning his name but remembering his words. His tank was in support of the New Zealanders at Alamein and when wounded he ended up in a New Zealand Dressing Station. No doubt to distract him, a New Zealand doctor, while picking pieces of shrapnel out of Douglas’s flesh, muttered that: “A New Zealander is someone who wears braces, wears false teeth, and calls his best friend a bastard.”

My copy is much battered and originally came from the Cromwell Public Library. It is firmly stamped in red: ‘DISCARD’. It is a far better and more honest word than ‘De-accession.’ Why should our National Library DISCARD 600,000 books and what will be next to go in 10 or 20 years? Will we continue to shrink? We will, of course, have to change the definition of Librarian, from one who loves books to one who de-accession books, or better still, DISCARDs books.

How should a National Librarian look back on their period in charge? “With the best of intentions, I discarded 600,000 books and deliberately saved space and money at the cost of closing the window for future generations of New Zealanders to the world of books and the worlds that they open?” Is that too harsh? What is happening now can never be undone.

Going through the Australian collections on the list, I see Osmar White is out. Feilding-born, his parents went to Sydney when he was two. An official correspondent in the New Guinea Campaign, his too honest and critical writings captured in his classic Green Armour led to him losing favour with the Australian High Command. He finished the war reporting on the American forces in Europe which led to his other classic Conquerer’s Road. I have both: each required reading for these campaigns. But no room for New Zealand-born White.

No room also for Douglas Stewart and his appreciation of Kenneth Slessor, A Man of Sydney. This must be just ignorance or has this Eltham-born New Zealander and author of Springtime in Taranaki damned himself by becoming an expatriate? This is where distinctions on who is in and who is out really gets a little crazy. Have a look at the scruffy New Zealand soldier who stands in bronze on the Devonport and Masterton war memorials. The model is of Joe Lynch and was sculpted by his brother Frank. Born in Sydney, the family moved to New Zealand and lived in Ponsonby, where their father was a stonemason. Father and son both served in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force: Frank on Gallipoli and Joe on the Western Front. After the war both headed for Sydney where they were absorbed into a group of artists and writers which included numerous Kiwis. Joe Lynch was drowned one night after falling from a Sydney ferry on his way to a party at George Finey’s house. It was said that the beer bottles in his coat pockets weighed him down.

These 660,000 volumes which the National Librarian has chosen to dispense with were selected at some point and some time to provide a context and give us an awareness of something important in the wider world. When I look at the lists it is seems that for so many of these volumes that importance remains. We as a nation will be the poorer for their loss.

Chris Pugsley is a New Zealand military historian who has written some 20 books and lives in hope of seeing books from the National Library collection on its ground floor.

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