The long campaign against the National Library’s decision to dump 400,000 books seems to be fizzling out

St Peter’s Anglican church in Willis St, Wellington, seats about 300 people, or 100-150 with social distancing. It was the venue on Thursday night for a public protest against the National Library’s ongoing attempt to pack up and get rid of over 400,000 books. I previewed the protest event at ReadingRoom. Ten authors duly showed up to speak from the stage and give their two cents worth on why they objected to the National Library’s decision, and the event attracted…68 souls. This is the way a protest movement ends: not with a bang, but a fizzer.

The removal of the 400,000 books seems to be something of a fait accompli. The deadline for objections is December 1. From there, the books will be sent out to Manila, one of the bases of the Internet Archive, which has taken the books to its bosom with the intent of digitising them and making them available online. Author Chris Bourke, who joined Thursday night’s protest: “The Internet Archive is an abomination to researchers.” But the deal is seen by the National Library as a very good thing indeed and that it ought to be celebrated, not condemned. Many agree and there are sound reasons for viewing it as a positive development.

My story on Wednesday drew angry comments on social media from three dissenters who scorned the protest, and declared that the Internet Archive deal was a triumph. One of them was an ex-bookseller who she said she was “annoyed” by the story, and that the protestors had the “wrong end of the stick”; she declined to point out the right end of the stick. The other two dissenters were credible. I asked them for comment.

This, from Mike Dickison, Digital Discovery Librarian, Westland District Library: “The Internet Archive is a fantastic US-based non-profit; as well as archiving the entire internet, they’ve digitised and made available the collections of numerous libraries. Here in Hokitika we’re able to lend out ebooks on West Coast history, only because they’re out-of-copyright works that the Internet Archive digitised for us for free. Having the National Library’s overseas collection online, instead of sitting in a reading room in Wellington, will actually make it accessible to West Coasters, and other New Zealanders who can’t afford a flight to Wellington or a stack of interloan charges.”

“Rather than being locked up in a store taking time and perseverance to access, these materials will freely accessible to all those with internet access.”

There was a longer response from Anne Goulding, Professor of Library and Information Management at Victoria University of Wellington. Her comments, in large part: “Deaccessioning or weeding in libraries is an essential element of collection management and development and is a careful process. Librarians use their knowledge, institutional priorities, and professional skills and tools to decide which materials are no longer appropriate for their collections. Deaccessioning is not undertaken lightly and I think some of the language around the NL’s decisions has been unhelpful, e.g. ‘cull’. As far as I can tell, the NL’s process has been systematic and careful and there has been extensive consultation with other libraries both here and overseas and interested parties, demonstrating a willingness to work and engage with those protesting the decision.

“As noted in one of my Twitter posts, there are benefits to the decision to donate volumes to the Internet Archive including a democratisation of their content – rather than being locked up in a store taking time and perseverance to access, these materials will freely accessible to all those with internet access.”

Following digitisation, the books will be transferred to Internet Archive’s physical archive facility in California for long-term storage and preservation. The archive’s founder Brewster Kahle has said, “This is a real opportunity to preserve the books and make them available for digital learners all over the world to borrow online. In this way, the National Library of New Zealand is contributing to the world’s digital future at a time it is most needed.”

But the Internet Archive, based in San Francisco, are widely vilified as copyright pirates. When the deal was announced in July, many leading figures hit the roof. Publishers Association president Graeme Cosslett said, “We are stunned the National Library would partner with internet pirates that damage New Zealand literature on a daily basis. On the day of the National Library’s announcement, works by Janet Frame, Patricia Grace, Keri Hulme, Witi Ihimaera, Albert Wendt and many other leading authors were being illegally distributed by the Internet Archive. This partnership needs to cease.”

Although the New Zealand Society of Authors, the Publishers Association of New Zealand and Copyright Licensing oppose the Internet Archive deal, several other New Zealand organisations, including Internet New Zealand, Museums Aotearoa, the New Zealand Open Source Society and Tohatoha Aotearoa Commons, have backed the National Library’s plan. They say the initiative will help ensure future access for New Zealanders to a greater range of publications.

National Librarian, Rachel Esson, has seen the deal as an excellent solution of what to do with storing the library’s massive overseas collection (OPC). In a letter to the Publishers Association, Esson wrote, “We did not take this decision lightly; it was done after much consideration to find the best solution for these specific books in difficult circumstances…We believe the donation to the Internet Archive should allay…concerns.”

It’s a happy ending; it’s the right end of the stick. Or is it?


A brief background: a review of the OPC was conducted in 1999, when the National Library first sought to remove books. It sold 32,000 to a second-hand dealer and was poised to get rid of more until a change of government (Helen Clark’s Labour) put a halt to it. In 2000, the Low Use Collection was formed, to house three-quarters of the OPC books in Rugby House in Wellington, and a quarter in Wairere House, the former premises of the police computer centre in Whanganui. There they remained, and were barely ever used: in 1989, 15 per cent of the OPC was issued to the public, but that figure dropped to 5.3 per cent in 1998, and by 2019, it was down to 0.56%.

Some of the rhetoric coming from the new lobby group has hardly helped its cause or established its credibility

At which point you can see why the library wanted to do something about all this dead stock. No one wanted them; they gathered dust, they took up room; and in 2018, the Ministry of Internal Affairs declared that Wairere House was no longer fit for purpose. It prompted another review, with the same result as the review in 1999 – the decision to get rid of, or deaccession, or cull, hundreds of thousands of books. Some 57,000 were almost immediately carted off to a Lions and Rotary charity sale in Trentham last year. The dumping was heavily criticised, and a lobby group, Book Guardians Aotearoa (BGA), was formed to combat what they saw as an act of sheer vandalism. Among their tactics was to question the legality of the removal of the books. Former attorney general Chris Finlayson put his fine legal mind to work on behalf of BGA, but the tactic got nowhere: it was found that due and proper ministerial process had been observed. In part, the failure of BGA led to the formation of another, noisier lobby group, Writers Against NZ National Library Disposals, which staged last week’s protest event. Their intent is to retain the books in New Zealand.

Some of the rhetoric coming from the new lobby group has hardly helped its cause or established its credibility. When November 11 was announced as the date for the protest event in Wellington, chief lobbyist Bill Direen wrote, “That’s the date my grandfather (1915-18) and 84,000 survivors learned they would be going home [from World War I]. Psychologically battered, they returned to try to integrate, and build a better world. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the devastating experiences of soldiers in both wars enkindled the acquisition of collections like the ones we still own, in the National Library.” No, not a mere exaggeration; more of a blatant and absurd exaggeration. No one died for the acquisition of a book to be stacked in a room no one ever entered.

Considered to be junk: three of the National Library’s collection of books deemed surplus to requirements, and dumped at the charity sale in Trentham last year. Photo: Chris Bourke

In any case the library’s decision to rid itself of books in the OPC seems like an overwhelmingly good idea when you actually look at the list of the books destined for Manila. As I wrote in my story on Wednesday, they include 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…Junk; obsolete; at least in some respects the Internet Archive are surely doing New Zealand a massive favour by taking the 400,000 books off our hands, free of charge.

Still, they could have stayed in New Zealand. Warwick Jordan of Hard to Find second-hand bookstores made a cash offer for the whole lot. He said to me this week, “We geared up to take all of the National Library books in anticipation of buying the lot – for that we allowed 10,000 sq feet for storing them boxed along with some shelving and sorting areas.”

All well and good, but what’s the point of it? As Rachel Esson said, in a letter to the Publishers Association, “When the project first began mid-2018 it appeared likely that books remaining at the end of the review process would face secure destruction. We are pleased to have secured the future of these titles, even if they are rarely accessed and used. Our other option was to donate to booksellers – both selling or destroying would mean lost access for researchers.”

I emailed Warwick Jordan at Hard to Find, “Internet Archive can make the stock widely available to however many people, wanting it for research; at Hard to Find, a book would only go to one private buyer. So isn’t it better they are going to Manila?”

He replied, “Manila will not scan them all, I don’t believe it for a moment. There’s a good chance the actual books will be sold off overseas or dumped in Manila landfall after whatever scanning does take place…The books could have stayed available in NZ and circulated here.”

The jettisoned 400,000 books are by authors such as Emily Dickinson, Andy Warhol, Plato, Whitman, Frank Lloyd Wright, William Blake, Leonard Cohen and Simone de Beauvoir

Well, not exactly circulated; most would surely have stayed in boxes, as staff picked out the likely sellers. But this is the thing. There are a lot of books in the collection that would have sold, and for very good prices, on account of the fact there are a lot of books in the collection which are really good. The jettisoned 400,000 are not exclusively made of titles about detergents. There are some priceless books in the OPC. Authors include Emily Dickinson, Andy Warhol (including a rare catalogue of his show at the Tate Gallery in London in 1971), Plato, Whitman, Frank Lloyd Wright (drawings, essays, his autobiography), Roger McGough, Dylan Thomas, Simone de Beauvoir, William Blake (30 books, going back to 1925),  Leonard Cohen, James Baldwin, John Lennon (first editions of his two books In His Own Write, and A Spaniard in the Works), Pound, Flaubert, and Hundertwasser.

Wait a minute – Hundertwasser? The Hundertwasser, the crazy Austrian genius who emigrated here in 1973, and is most famous in New Zealand for creating the toilet block made of bottles in Kawakawa, and who will be honoured when the Hundertwasser Art Centre  opens in Whangarei in December? Yes, same one; and he’s not the only New Zealand author on the list of supposedly overseas books earmarked to leave the country. The titles also include The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot, by …CK Stead, not only a New Zealand author, not only living, but also a former National Library Poet Laureate. (And an opponent of the – oh let’s call it what it is – cull. “Barbarism,” was the word Stead used of the National Library’s decision, in aligning himself with the protests). A word here on Stead’s 1964 book. Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Laureate, acknowledged The New Poetic taught him how to read Eliot and influenced his poetry in a major way. In fact the book has significantly influenced the way Eliot is read and understood in universities.

Critics of the cull point to these examples when they claim the library’s selection process has been sloppy and disdainful. Christine Dann from BGA wrote in July, “BGA will keep checking the books on the disposal lists as time allows to see if we can discern any rational patterns, but so far all we can see are the irrational and confused results of doing something which should never have been done in the first place, and doing it badly.”

No one is saying – or ought be saying – that all the books should be preserved in aspic, or that some aren’t worth dumping. At least tens of thousands are taking up room for no good reason. Huzzah to the Internet Archive for taking them, and allowing access to sealed-off books. But will they really digitise every single book among the 400,000? Criticism of the exodus of the 400,000 books is directed at National Library and Internal Affairs management who are in favour of the wholesale disposal, throwing out the good (the priceless, the rare, the historically significant) with the bad. (Anne Goulding: “I have to say that I am not intimately familiar with the content of the collection being donated to the Internet Archive…”) According to BGA, the National Library has turned down the offers of many experts to help with the selection process, saying that their in-house people know what they’re doing. Librarians are among the smartest and best-read people in New Zealand publishing and no doubt National Library staff include some of the best in the business. But the weeding process itself was surely flawed. Did anyone know what they were doing when they added Hundertwasser, CK Stead, Andy Warhol, Simone de Beauvoir etc etc to the junk pile? 

The clock is ticking. December 1, and the ship bound for Manila, looms. Hard to see how the books will be saved or that a decision will be made to bring in outside expertise to ensure that a truly rigorous, sensitive, and intelligent selection process will be undertaken, to sort out the Steads, the Hundertwassers, etc from the useless books about detergents. The horse is bolting. Labour doesn’t care. (Unlike Helen Clark’s Labour-led government in 1999, which halted the cull and saved the day, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led government has only hastened the process). National? Don’t even go there. I spoke with a senior figure at the Green Party on Friday. They said they would look into it. You never know. One thing they said gave cause for optimism. “This,” they said, of the 400,000 cull, “is stupid.”

Agreed. I have always viewed the disposal as an act of vandalism, that the selection process has been poorly conducted. It stretches back to 1999 across three generations of National Librarians (Christopher Blake, Bill Macnaught, Rachel Esson), all who have tried their best to dump precious books alongside unwanted books. The disgrace looks set to reach its end game. Bill Direen’s lobby group is collecting signatures to present a petition to parliament that asks the House to halt the shipment. As of today (Monday), it’s attracted just over 500 signatories. A respectable figure but is it too little, too late? Direen sent an email to a database of supporters on Saturday, linking to the petition, and signed off, “Sadly, but hopefully.” Sad, yeah; but the situation now seems hopeless.

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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