Flogging the family silver: almost a year to the day, the National Library dumped 57,000 books at a sale in Trentham, on November 14, 2020. Photo by Chris Bourke

The campaign against the culling of 400,000 books heats up

ReadingRoom stands with the protest against the National Library’s determined attempts to cull over 400,000 books. Well, not physically stands, because lockdowns and borders etc; but we are there in spirit when an organised event protesting the library’s decision will be held on Thursday evening, at St Peters in Wellington, to voice an increasingly urgent concern that the library has lost its goddamned mind in its efforts to get rid of a priceless collection.

A lobby group called Writers Against NZ National Library Disposals are staging a protest at the St Peters church in Willis St tomorrow night at 7pm. Ten readers – including Dame Fiona Kidman, a beacon of good sense and fair play in New Zealand literature – will address a real and livestream audience about their objections to the long-running attempt by the library to dump a staggering number of books.

ReadingRoom stands with that lobby group. So does the New Zealand Society of Authors, and even the Publishers Association of New Zealand, which almost never expresses so much as a resemblance of an opinion. The concern is real, and pressing: December 1 is the nominal deadline before the library packs up and ships out an estimated 400,000 titles to the Internet Archive warehouses in Manila.

It feels like penny-pinching philistinism. It looks like penny-pinching philistinism. It smells like penny-pinching philistinism…..Wellington author Kidman, who will join the onstage protest in Wellington, said to me in an interview this week: “It’s indicative of the penny-pinching that’s going on, and badly directed funding. A plan to rehouse the books should have started years ago. I mean, for God’s sake – the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which oversees the National Library, is more about horse racing, isn’t it. When you look at the things that the ministry covers, the National Library isn’t a good fit….Somewhere, somebody’s not listening.”

A lobby group called Book Guardians Aotearoa formed last year to protest the library book cull but it kind of got nowhere and it didn’t seem that anybody in the ministry was listening. The lack of any visible progress has led to the formation of the rather more peppy Writers Against NZ National Library Disposals, steered by Bill Direen, an author best known as a genius songwriter. He said, “We seek to save the New Zealand international collection at the National Library, so the collection (over 400,000 books) can be cared for and properly curated here in New Zealand.”

But one of the key reasons the Library wants to get rid of the books is the cost: it claims $100m is needed to actually store the books. A hundred million! How in the hell did they arrive at that figure? Direen said, “This is not as expensive as claimed. Hard to Find in Dunedin manages 300,000 books on two floors of a building. There is a quiet,efficient atmosphere there, and if you ask for a book you have it in your hands within five minutes.”

In essence, he said the lobby group’s objective was this: “We ask that the process already begun be slowed down so the situation may be carefully reviewed. This will allow for informed evaluation of the full international collection.”

Good luck with that. The library seems impatient to dump the books and when you take even a cursory look at the inventory, you think: yeah fair enough, actually. Example: Detergents: a glossary of terms used in the detergents industry, by Gerhard Carrière, published 1960. And: Holidaying in Canada on the Ottawa River, by Rupert  Broadfoot, published 1941. Also: Practical points in penicillin treatment, by George Beaumont, published 1947…Who needs this stuff? Get rid of it! It’s obsolete, no one wants it. But then a book like this, on the National Library list of discarded books, pops up: The resonance of dust: Essays on holocaust literature, by Edward Alexander, published 1979.  The 400,000 books earmarked to leave New Zealand include innumerable other valuable books.

“Loud and sustained public outcry is the only option left now”

Karen de Lore from Writers Against NZ National Library Disposals gives a nifty precis of what’s led to the Thursday protest. She said, “Two years ago the National Library announced a plan to rid itself of most of its Overseas Published Collection. These books have been collected over more than a hundred years and include some rare and first edition books. It will be impossible to replace some of them. It sent 57,000 to a Rotary book sale in Trentham (most went to a private secondhand dealer)…It has entered into a contract with an American company, Internet Archive, to gift that company the remaining 420,000 books. The details of that contract have been kept secret…That company is currently the defendant in a lawsuit brought against it in the USA by four major publishers alleging breach of copyright. Who knows what will happen if it loses the lawsuit.

“Book Guardians Aotearoa has done sterling work researching and writing about the issue, unravelling and disproving the PR spin, and trying to get politicians to intervene and stop this nonsense, all to no avail. The minister remains intransigent…Currently the National Library website says it is packing the books so they can go into containers to be shipped to Manila where Internet Archive will digitise them with cheap labour. From there they will go to California. Given the pressures on international shipping it is hard to know when this will happen….So this group has been formed to try another way of effecting change. Loud and sustained public outcry is the only option left now.”

“One can only assume that the Ministry of Internal Affairs is dragging this out so the books can be offshore before all arguments against their disposal can be considered”

A strand of that outcry will be heard at St Peters on Thursday night. Wellington author Chris Bourke will be among the speakers. He said, “The campaign to stop the disposal of the overseas books continues, and seems to be in a good phase at the moment. The Library’s idea to give the books away to the Internet Archive in the US sent up immediate red flags about those who know about the Internet Archive. Apart from being lousy to use for research, it faces constant lawsuits from the publishers and authors’ societies, who see the rights to material they own and created, being trampled on. Authors’ groups from around the world are now alarmed and speaking out that their rights are being ignored by a New Zealand government entity, which is signed up to many international trade agreements.   

“The key point remains: the Library has done all this without consulting researchers, those who use the library.

“The Book Guardians Aotearoa group was established by people from different backgrounds who agree on one main point: the books need to be kept by the Library. The BGA is one of several organisations – as well individuals – who have made many OIA requests to find out the Library’s reasoning. The OIA responses take months to arrive and are heavily redacted, and one can only assume that the Library and the Ministry of Internal Affairs is dragging this out so the books can be offshore before all arguments against their disposal can be considered.

“It’s a mistake to think of these books as only of being interest to academics, or that university libraries are some kind of substitute. The National Library’s overseas collection covers the gamut – from academic books which universities may no longer hold because those courses no longer attract students, and hence income – to popular culture, popular fiction, accessible books on religion, history, beautiful art books…Where are the thousands of books that went to the Trentham jumble sale last November, but weren’t sold? The Library said at the time that once they left its premises for the Lions, they no longer owned them. Not our problem. In their briefing to the incoming minister they said they may have gone to a secondhand book dealing. Pontius Pilate speaks.”

Where is the Minister of Internal Affairs, Jan Tinetti, in all this? Nowhere, really; no one has heard a word from her about the massacre at the National Library. What’s she doing tomorrow night? Does she have anything better to do than head along to St Peters in Willis St, and hear 10 readers express their frustration and anger about a policy which is an insult to the very principle of a national collection of books? What are your social plans on Thursday, Minister Tinetti? What are your thoughts? How do you stand with the dumping of books which ought to remain in the civilised democracy where they were first bought? Do you even know what the hell is happening on your watch? The event runs from 7pm-9m, at 211 Willis St.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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