Barbarians At The Library Gates

The burning of books has a long history. That it no reason why we should add to it.

If you want to get Burning of the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack from the National Library you may have to hurry. It is in the overseas nonfiction section; many books of which are being thrown out. One hopes that at least some of the librarians intelligently read this book before they dispose of it. Written by Richard Ovenden, director of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, it tells of numerous disgraceful episodes in human history when libraries were wholly or partially destroyed.

Some instances involved accidents or collateral damage from war. Sometimes there were barbarians who did not know what they were doing. Sometimes the barbarians knowingly destroyed a library, In 1812 the British deliberately burned the US Library of Congress because they thought that would reduce the effectiveness of the American government. Sometimes the destruction was for ideological reasons as when the Nazis destroyed Jewish libraries or when Christians in Sarajevo purged Moslem texts.

The exact reason that our National Library is disposing of its overseas collection may be one of the above – like ideological reasons purifying New Zealand culture from overseas contamination or perhaps trying to limit the effectiveness of a thinking government. The NL spent $20,000 on a publicity campaign which, it says, did not get its message across. Sometimes the message is so unconvincing that dollars cant get rid of the smell.

Ovenden’s book may give one reasonable parallel. The Great Library of Alexandria declined gradually over the course of several centuries. Part of its collection had been accidentally burned by Julius Caesar in 48BCE, but it is unclear how much was actually destroyed. The Library survived for another three centuries. Its demise involved both the purging of intellectuals and underfunding. Sound familiar?

Many public agencies have suffered from underfunding, but the National Library’s (and Archives New Zealand’s) difficulties have been compounded by its odd place in the government system. It operates as a division of the Department of Internal Affairs, which is a collection of miscellaneous activities. The DIA seems to think that centres of knowledge are a bit like a registries for birth, deaths and marriages or the passport office.

(There is a claim that the National Library lacks storage space or that it is very expensive. That cannot be entirely true because parts of its building have been used by the DIA for other purposes. One was a passport office which many people thought was an insult to the integrity of the National Library and to knowledge.)

One hesitates to mention, because a mad generic manager is likely to seize on the idea, but suppose Te Papa, the national museum and art gallery, was under the DIA. Presumably the department would have insisted on purging all of Te Papa’s overseas-sourced artefacts and works – they are very costly to store, you know.

Instead, Te Papa is a separate crown entity under the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, which values books in a way that the DIA does not, as an integral part of knowledge, culture and heritage – as an integral part of a civilised society.

A curious feature of the story is that our librarians seem to have shown little resistance to the purges; the main resistance having come from the literate, appalled at the cavalier approach to the storage of knowledge. Ovenden gives no example of librarians ‘burning books’. When the Nazis were destroying the Jewish collections in Vilna (Latvia) they had to rely on Jewish librarians who did their best to subvert the exercise. Perhaps one day some of our librarians will tell similar stories.

The consequence of it all is that it sets an uncomfortable precedent. I am not suggesting that schools and public libraries will start burning books, but they may be tempted to disconnect their users from overseas publications and thinking. The National Library claims to want to promote literacy but it is not setting a good example. My Mum was a librarian – Hillmorton High School named its library after her – who took the view that it did not matter what her students read; the task was getting them reading and they will move on to more substantial works.

It is not an accident that the National Library started in the Department of Education as the Country Library Service in 1937. (It became the National Library Service in 1945.) Nor is it an accident that the last effective minister of libraries, Marian Hobbs, had previously been a headmistress. (She was very effectively supported by Helen Clark, who was Minister of Culture and Heritage, and Michael Cullen, Minister of Finance.) She strengthened the independence of the NL but the following National Government compromised that independence by putting it into the department of registries and miscellaneous affairs (not, you notice, the Ministry of Education or Minister of Culture and Heritage).

Since then, ministers have been cyphers following the DIA advice. The last, Tracey Martin, an NZF minister in the Ardern-Peters Government, more concerned to kowtow to the DIA than to lead it – a common feature of the rump of ministers – authorised the disposal of the overseas collection, despite infringing the spirit of the Hobbs National Library Act. (The new minister, Jan Tinetti, was also a headmistress.)

Still, there has been some progress. The disposed books are not going to be burned but pulped. Those concerned with climate change will be so pleased – except that books of interest to them are to be pulped too.