By Dolores Janiewski, Associate Professor, School of History, Victoria University of Wellington

Of Red Herrings, Insularity & Induced Amnesia

If George Orwell were still alive, he’d welcome the inclusion of Nineteen Eighty- Four among those pre-2000 books published overseas that are being removed from the National Library.  Based upon the arguments used to justify the disposal by the National Library and its supporters, Orwell would think that it was no longer a safe location for his discussion of ‘doublethink’ and ‘Newspeak’. In an essay about politics and language, Orwell criticised the use of ‘euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness’ to obscure the gap between ‘one’s real and one’s declared aims.’ For those who have read the descriptions of the ‘rehoming’ process on the National Library website, listened to the claims about freeing up space, or read how mass book removal will contribute to the building of New Zealand national identity, Orwell’s analysis seems both prescient and trenchant.

TV news has taken viewers on short visits to crowded shelves while a smiling librarian promises that digitalization will make all the books available sometime in the future. This promise somehow means the books must all be discarded before that future arrives. The promise of making information accessible is uttered by the same smiling lips. There is no acknowledgement of the knowledge contained in the 575,000 books destined for new ‘homes’ like that contained in the 50,000 already dispatched to a book fair. We are not told what we have lost.

In the view of the policy’s defenders, New Zealanders’ sense of national identity is so fragile that it cannot withstand the presence of ‘foreign’ books in the National Library. New Zealanders do not need to read Orwell, Kipling or books about Islam. Gandhi is on the unwanted list along with books about apartheid, environmentalism, civil liberties, African Americans, rugby, cricket, and the Impressionists. Books in more than 50 languages must go because New Zealanders only need to read English and Te Reo. The National Library’s self-declared mission is to provide books published in New Zealand and the Pacific that tell us only what we tell ourselves. Its policy assumes that we must choose a national identity based upon insularity to become ourselves. The logic would make John Donne weep if he were still alive. The National Library has forgotten his admonition about the need to become ‘involved in mankind’. It has abandoned its mission to enhance our knowledge of all the peoples who live here and the others who live outside our shores.

As Ray Bradbury once asked: ‘Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.’ Removing books is a form of induced amnesia or historical euthanasia according to Bradbury. Contrary to what the National Library has claimed, we cannot build an identity based upon discarding the volumes that discuss our ancestral pasts or our diverse heritages and cultures.

As to red herrings, these are the use of crowded library shelves and pictures of old computer manuals to illustrate the books as unwanted, obsolete and disposable. This belies the fact that space is available should there be a will to find it. Contrary to the insinuation that they have nothing to offer us, books contain value as sources of knowledge but also as material objects that New Zealanders have read. Some of them are first editions but all of them document the interests of generations of readers. They constitute tangible evidence of our intellectual formation and evolving sense of our place in the world. Books remind us that what we think did not only emerge here and protect us against emulating a chauvinistic American president by advocating Aotearoa First.

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