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July 01st 2011 print

Michael Wilding

The Great Purge of Our Libraries

When I was an undergraduate my tutor used to look through the lecture list to see what was worth attending. “Oh, no, he’s no good. Oh, no, you wouldn’t get much out of that. No, I don’t think you’d want to waste time there,” he would say, adding, “I think you’d best just go along to the library.”

For years I felt that, awful as they have become, universities still provided a base for literature, history, knowledge. Continuities were transmitted. History was preserved. Even when the teaching faltered the library was there. The books provided their own record. And now they are being thrown out.

The destruction of libraries currently under way marks a new era of thought control. It is a widespread phenomenon in the developed world, and Australia is dutifully conforming.

This process has been going on for over thirty years. As far back as the 1970s a Midwestern American state legislator wanted to get rid of all books that hadn’t been checked out in the previous two years. Fifteen years ago the purge of multiple copies from the University of Sydney library, and the burial of books as landfill from the University of Western Sydney library, provided me with material when I was writing Academia Nuts:

Outside the library row upon row of trestle tables with row upon row of books culled from the shelves, a light drizzle falling on them, dampening their bindings, staining their pages. This was not a land of book burning, this was the free world, here books were just thrown out and damped down and sold for a dollar apiece. The books remained on sale for a week and then they disappeared … They were taken out in skips and dumped as landfill on a reclamation site … The librarian issued a statement. These were all books surplus to requirements.

“Notice,” said Pawley, “she carefully doesn’t even say they were duplicates. Maybe they weren’t duplicates. Just surplus to requirements. It could mean anything.”

“Could be any of us,” said Dr Bee.

Another statement followed. The books were full of mildew and silverfish and posed a threat to the other holdings. Nobody worried too much. The age of the book was past. This was the time the university hired a public relations image team to give it market identity. They redesigned the crest. At vast expense. The logo they called it now. It used to feature an open book supported by various unlikely animals. The public relations firm deleted the book and placed the unlikely animals in politically correct embrace.

But that was only the beginning of what is now a major campaign of destruction. On March 8, 2011, Yuko Narushima reported in the Sydney Morning Herald that the library of the University of New South Wales had issued

an internal document listing thousands of titles due to be pulled from shelves. The 138-page “weeding” list includes encyclopaedias, dictionaries, books in foreign languages and texts on psychology, politics and morality.

The policy, which until recently required librarians to remove 50,000 volumes each year, does not allow the last Australian copy of any book to be discarded. But it has opened an ideological row about the function of modern libraries as more research material becomes accessible online.

Already, thousands of books have been dumped in skips in the library basement … most shocking was the disposal of a collection of newspapers from the 1850s and 1860s.

Two months later, on May 12, the Herald reported on University of Sydney policy:

One of Australia’s most prestigious university libraries is to get rid of 30 staff and remove 500,000 books and journals.

In a fiery question-and-answer session yesterday, John Shipp, the librarian at Fisher Library at Sydney University, told staff and students of plans to reduce the main stack by almost half.

The cull is part of a redevelopment funded by the federal government.

The growth of e-journals and digital books meant some hard copies were no longer needed on shelves, which he said were built higher and closer together than safety and building standards permitted.

The award-winning library has 48 kilometres of shelf space and needed to relocate 19, Mr Shipp said. “There’s a bursting point that we’ve reached,” he said.

Items not borrowed for five years would be targeted but nothing would be moved to storage or discarded without consultation with academics. As much as 58 per cent of monographs had not been used in five years and talks were under way to find a storage site, he said.

Fisher Library at the University of Sydney is the foremost English-language library in the southern hemisphere and South-East Asia. The very rationale of such an institution is that, as a copyright library with a lengthy history, its holdings are large, far larger than most university libraries in the UK or USA. It is in the nature of such a library that it holds books that have not been borrowed for five years, or ten years, or thirty years. That is why scholars have traditionally used it, because books are there, and on the shelves. The stacks are open to borrowers, unlike the state libraries. You can go amongst them and browse and discover things not listed in bibliographies or discovered by search engines.

All those scholars who have actually done any original work themselves will tell you of the extraordinary significance of serendipity, of just coming across a book on the shelves of whose existence they were unaware, of catching sight of a title that was unknown but that might have some relevance to the search in hand. Significant discoveries of esoteric facts, arcane parallels, unexpected contexts have recurrently been made in this way. And the discoveries are usually of forgotten books, books from obscure presses or remote places, that have not been noted in the scholarly mainstream, books that have probably not been looked at for fifty years. But this is what is meant by library resources. Not the obvious or modish or famous or infamous, but the unknown or forgotten.

The University of NSW library claims that it “does not allow the last Australian copy of any book to be discarded”. The assumption being that as long as one copy of a book is listed somewhere in an Australian library, the UNSW copy can be disposed of. But though a copy of a book may be listed in a library catalogue, it is not necessarily retrievable. Every time I use the University of Sydney library I find two or three books shelved in the wrong location, hidden by someone who wants to consult them later, or accidentally misplaced. “A book misplaced is a book lost,” a librarian once told me. When I was researching The Paraguayan Experiment in the Mitchell Library in the 1980s, whole boxes of the materials I was using went missing, and turned up only five years later, after the book was published. To assume that if “one copy of a book is listed somewhere” it can be retrieved and consulted is unsound practice. 

The eagerness with which books are being culled threatens the original rationale of libraries. Culling is bureaucratic-speak for killing, removing, obliterating, censoring. To remove books into depositories removes access, prevents serendipitous discoveries, censors knowledge. And the shift from deposit to destruction is one that can all too easily and silently be made. Various grounds are given for culling. None of them is valid. The point of library holdings is that they must be value-free. A judgment on the worth of a book is irrelevant. A collection of books deemed worthless can provide valuable evidence for historians, sociologists, psychologists of a society’s values. The historian of cultural decline may well find crucial evidence in a collection of trashy fiction, venal journalism or bureaucratic reports.

To remove a book because it has not been borrowed for five years is absurd. Just because books aren’t borrowed doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have been borrowed. Courses are often taught badly and the students are not told to read anything. What happens in another year when the courses have a better teacher and the students are told to read something and the books are out of print and can’t be ordered again?

Moreover, many books are consulted in the library, but not borrowed. Books are heavy objects. Who wants to lug a pile of them home in order to check on one fact, one reference? Borrowing libraries are used in the same way as the great state libraries that do not allow borrowing. Works are consulted on site. That is why desks and chairs are traditionally provided in the stacks.

But in our brave new world, uncontrolled access to information has been deemed problematic. The shift of books to deposit libraries is an extension of the surveillance society. Put away anything politically incorrect or reactionary, or radical or progressive, depending on the current political agenda, and make it hard to find. Not actually destroyed, just deposited. The significance of that is that deposit libraries and special collections with restricted access all record application, entry, use and duration. Unlike the old open-shelf system. But just like the internet. Everything you consult will be duly recorded. And may be used in evidence against you.

Defenders of the system will say, what is the problem if you have nothing to hide? But governments change, agendas shift, one decade’s hallowed values become a criminal offence in the next. And to look at something now deemed unacceptable is all too readily construed as showing a commitment to the forbidden values.

It is argued that books are technologically obsolete, that everything is available on the internet. But not everything is available on the internet. Google’s attempt to digitise the world’s out-of-print books has been halted by the US courts. Its attempt to digitise the world’s newspapers, begun in 2008, was closed down in May 2011.

Moreover, there are problems with what is available. Project Gutenberg was an admirable attempt to digitise out-of-copyright and often out-of-print books: but the process was done by enthusiastic amateurs, and the texts are often badly corrupted and inaccurately transcribed. Similar work of digitisation has been carried on by various libraries in Australia—but again, errors abound. All too often I have had to search out a printed book to check, and correct, a faulty internet text. One of the valuable features of the traditional scholarly library is that it preserved variant texts, revised editions, and differing American, British and Australian editions. Textual editing is a contentious business, and even authorised scholarly texts are not necessarily the best editions for every purpose. The preservation of the proliferation of variant texts by the traditional great libraries is not something that is being systematically done for the internet. 

The current purge of libraries has its similarities with that other great period of destruction in sixteenth-century England, when the cathedral and monastic libraries were systematically purged. Then as now it was argued there were problems of space. But what was thrown out was material relating to the newly prohibited Roman Catholic faith, and to what were deemed monkish, magical and pagan manuscripts.

Then as now was a period of technological revolution. Printed books were superseding manuscripts and the argument was that the old technology of manuscripts was out of date, elitist, restrictive. Everything was now becoming available in the new medium of print, it was claimed. It wasn’t, of course. And some of it never was.

John Bale described in 1549 how purchasers of the former monasteries disposed of the library holdings:

some to serve their jakes [that is, as toilet paper], some to scour their candlesticks, and some to rub their boots. Some they sold to the grocers and soap sellers, and some they sent overseas to the bookbinders, not in small number, but at times whole ships full to the wondering of foreign nations.

The expanding printing industry used vellum manuscripts for the inner binding strips of books. That ensured that most manuscripts did not survive, so if you wanted information you had to buy books. Commercial gain combined neatly with ideological purging.

And how secure are on-line resources? In Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell postulated a future in which books were revised and rewritten to accord with the current requirements of the state. It is much easier to revise a digitised text than to reprint a whole edition of a book. The vulnerability of a handful of digital records to the control of the state or to the intrusions of hackers is not something that can easily be dismissed. What if a concerted cyber attack brought the whole system down? Or a significant part of it, irreparably? The lack of back-up in contemporary high-tech systems has already been demonstrated; a volcano in Iceland can disrupt the entire world’s air traffic. A tsunami in Japan can halt vehicle production globally.

Printed books in due course did supersede manuscripts. But scholars still consult those manuscripts that survived. It is argued now that scholars and students prefer to research online. Some do, some don’t. Books and online resources offer different approaches, different experiences, different results. Ideally, access to both should be provided. And easily could be.

Michael Wilding is Emeritus Professor of English and Australian Literature at the University of Sydney. His latest novels are Superfluous Men and The Prisoner of Mount Warning (Arcadia/Press On).