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The National Library is Diminishing Our Intellectual Heritage

by Michael Pringle

The National Library of New Zealand is proceeding with removing about 600,000 books from its Overseas Published Collections. It is doing so in the misguided belief that these books are not important to New Zealanders and get little use. In fact, neither of these claims are true, as the library’s own statistics reveal.

The Library claims that its consultation – which was mostly with other libraries – showed support for the National Library to focus on New Zealand and Pacific material.1 Of course our National Library, as all national libraries do, must focus on collecting as much as possible of what is created in our own country. In fact, it is the Library’s statutory mission. Nobody is contesting this. But that does not mean that the Library has a mandate to discard all its other holdings.

What is of interest and value to New Zealanders embraces a huge range of subjects; in fact, we are as much involved in the world as people anywhere. And perhaps our need is even greater due to our relative isolation. As our migrant population grows, they need to learn about their own cultural histories.

The National Library’s impressive collection of fiction and non-fiction titles is arguably the richest and most valuable collection of such material in a New Zealand public library. The National Library claims that some of the titles are obtainable in other libraries, but not all of those libraries are accessible to the public. The overseas collection has been built up and paid for by the people of New Zealand, and some of the books are very valuable, both in monetary terms and certainly in an intellectual and intrinsic sense. A government department has no licence to dispose of valuable public property by giving it away for free, as the National Library is doing, giving away titles to other libraries that request them and then onto Rotary and Lions for free.

The Library is offering books for free to other libraries around New Zealand in a staged process. Lists of available titles as they are released are available on their website www. natlib.govt.nz. But there is no guarantee, and the Library admits that it does not have this information, that these other libraries will retain the books or make them available to readers now or in the future. It is not known whether these libraries will catalogue the books or make them available for interloan. Only a small percentage of the books are being taken by libraries; the rest are going out to charity book fairs where some will pass into private ownership and be lost to the public forever. The fate of the books that are not sold is up to the charities.

The National Library began a public relations campaign in December last year to persuade us that the books were all useless and irrelevant, old computer manuals and books about Rumanian psychology. Staff even appeared in the news media repeating this line. A PR company was hired, and the taxpayers forked out $23,000 to pay for this campaign which included the making of a video which boasted of this “really cool project”.

The Library claims that it needs to “free up the space to grow the New Zealand collections”. But the quantity of publishing in New Zealand is very small; in 2019 only 2662 books were published in New Zealand. Of course the library adds magazines and newspapers to its collections every year as well as electronic and other items, but it has plenty of storage for these as the library building was closed for several years for a major rebuild and refurbishment only in 2012, when storage space was extensively added to.2 Much of the space in the current building is poorly used, with a vast and empty entrance foyer in an area that formerly housed an impressive Reference collection. It is entirely unnecessary to discard one important collection in order to make room for another.

The reality, as always, is that it is about the money. As detailed analysis by accounting professor Don Gilling has shown, ever since the National and Turnbull libraries were forced into the Department of Internal Affairs in 2010, the DIA has been starving them of funding. The merger was justified by the then Key government largely on cost saving grounds. But as Gilling has shown, since then funding for the National Library has declined by 9% and overheads for the library have increased by 25.7%, and now account for 52% of the total National Library budget.

It is a well-worn spin tactic to create excitement about something new and shiny (“making space to grow our New Zealand collection!”) to distract attention from something destructive going on elsewhere.

An Official Information Act request3 revealed that far from being little used and irrelevant, as the Library also claims, the collection is in fact well used, and its use has been growing. In 2019, 40% of all National Library interloans were from the Overseas Published Collection, amounting to 2,228 books. Issues to the Wellington reading room were 1,272 books. This is a total of 3500 books, an increase from the total 3167 books from the collection that were used in 2017.

To dispense with this collection is no more than a minor cost-saving, but the loss to scholarship and research – both academic and private – in New Zealand is immense.

The cuts in National and Turnbull library real funding have led to a serious decline in service delivery and in staff numbers.4 As the Overseas Published Collection is used extensively by the Turnbull staff in the course of filling reference inquiries, the loss of this collection will mean that those reference inquiries will be harder to complete, there will be a huge drop in book issues and interloans, and therefore even more staff will go. A further retraction in services, and the giving away of a huge proportion of its collections, is not the answer to the Library’s funding woes.

We simply cannot allow such a serious assault on our cultural and intellectual fabric to go unchallenged. All New Zealanders are asked to come to the defence of our book heritage and appeal to the Minister of Internal Affairs to defend all of our national library collections.

Save our book heritage! Join the Facebook group, Stop the Archives & National Library Cuts, or email stopthelibraryandarchivecuts@gmail.com for more information.

  1. https://natlib.govt.nz/about-us/strategy-and-policy/collections-policy/overseas-published-collection-management#what-we-are-doing-with-the-overseas-published-collections 

  2. https://natlib.govt.nz/about-us/media/reopening-molesworth-street 

  3. Official Information Act request reply to M Pringle, 30 June 2020 

  4. http://wellington.scoop.co.nz/?p=114388 

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