Brian Easton writes about the Disposing of Our Heritage.
The National Library is still disposing of books from the nation’s heritage.
The Department of Internal Affairs juggernaut rolls on. Its briefing to the incoming minister says that its roles include ‘holding the nation and the Government’s memory through the National Library of New Zealand and Archives New Zealand’. You may wonder why that is not the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. Wellington gossip is that the DIA retains its imperial ambitions to reabsorb the MCH.
Holding? It shows no shame over the decision to dispose of up to 625,000 books from the National Library. They belong to the ‘overseas collection’ – books published overseas. The Library says the aim is to retain those with a New Zealand connection. Have they the expertise to decide and, in any case, what do we mean by books having a New Zealand connection?
Consider Ronald Meek, an outstanding scholar of classical economics (which developed at about the time of Beethoven). Most of his books were published overseas. Ron was born in New Zealand and spent the first thirty years of his life here, actively participating in politics and the arts as demonstrated by his appearance in various books written about the period. He was married for a short time to activist Rona Bailey who left a file on him in the Alexander Turnbull Library. (There is no proposal to deaccession any of its material, but the juggernaut may have longer term ambitions.)
Among his New Zealand writings was Maori Problems Today with its pioneering Marxist analysis written in 1943 when Maori issues were not prominent in Pakeha thinking. It would be an interesting exercise to link that work to Meek’s later writing, but you can’t in New Zealand if we dispose of all his overseas published books. It was reported that Meek’s volumes were being sold (at $2 each, thus was he valued) at a Trentham book sale which was disposing of 57,000 items.
(An example of Ron’s satirical writings is at the end of this Listener column.)
Yet to focus on Meek and what to do with works of the diaspora published overseas (and even of New Zealand residents who were unwise enough to publish elsewhere*) is to miss the central point. The Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen, also a respected philosopher with the mana to speak on behalf of all Indians, said that ‘Beethoven was an Indian’ emphasising that the world does not have artistic and intellectual boundaries.
If Beethoven is an Indian, he must also be a New Zealander. (Are they disposing books about Beethoven?) However, you cannot draw a line below the great totara and the rest of the bush. So every decent book in the National Library’s overseas collection is by a kind of New Zealander. It makes no sense to throw out all these New Zealand works.
A nice illustration of the absurdity of the disposal is that when the librarians went through the parts of the overseas collection which they knew something about, they decided to keep most, illustrating the value of the works in their areas of expertise. Presumably, had they expertise in other areas they would have retained the same proportion. Those who went to the Trentham sale were appalled to see books in their areas of expertise being flogged off. (As an aside, this episode shattered youthful illusions. In my adolescence I was impressed by my librarians’ command of a wide range of areas.)
You may be wondering how much old books matter. I am haunted by Keynes’ comment that practical men and women, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct intellectual. (I have made some minor elaborations.) It is, oh so, true in economics. Virtually all our current ‘practical’ public commentary depends on economic theories which are out of date.
Keynes is back in fashion, as frontier economists are scouring his works to understand what is going on today. (Of course, they are interpreting him in the light of recent developments in thinking.) I wonder if his General Theory is among the National Library’s deaccessions. (Keynes went back to classical economists for some ideas; Sen is expert on Adam Smith.)
Once upon a time, libraries were the trusted depositories of ideas. The National Library seems to have abandoned that purpose, reflecting New Zealand’s withdrawal into the world of small-minded isolation with a limited vision of our heritage.
Not just libraries. I am not entirely opposed to removing Latin from the NCEA curriculum; when they did the same for Greek in University Scholarship, the chairman of the UGC pointed out there were three professors of Greek but only two students sitting the examination. But I am greatly disappointed that the proposal did not lead to a serious discussion of how Classical Studies is to be integrated into the New Zealand educational system. It is a part of our foundations.
They are not exclusively European. And while Maori is another strand, the foundations are much wider. Sen (his forename, Amartya meaning ‘immortal or heavenly’, was given to him by Tagore, the great Indian poet who is also a Nobel Laureate) convinced me of the significance of classical Indian texts such as the Bhagavad Gita. Even if there were no Indians living in New Zealand – we would be the poorer for it – those texts are a part of the world literature which we must be open to. (The word ‘juggernaut’ comes from Indian literature.)
What is to be done? On the particular issue, it depends upon our politicians. In 2000 Minister Marion Hobbs told the National Library to desist from its deaccession policy. More recently, Minister Tracey Martin rubber-stamped the library’s latest proposal. What the new Minister, Jan Tinetti, will do remains to be seen. As an ex-teacher, like Hobbs, she must understand the central role of books. (Martin was a credit controller – different kinds of books.)
Even so, there remains the bigger challenge. How are we to fight off the small-minded isolationists by remaining open to the world while evolving a distinctive New Zealand culture as Norman Kirk argued? It is a whole of New Zealand challenge, not a matter for a single politician, although a bit of leadership would be valued. One critical step would be to shift the National to under the Ministry of Culture and Heritage who favour kaitiakitanga/stewardship rather than disposal of it.
There is an Orwellian dimension to the deaccession policy (which presumably applies to George Orwell’s works). It is described as ‘rehoming’. Some books will be ‘rehomed’ as pulp. I take it that book burning is ruled out because of global warming. Books on climate change will be rehomed.
* Including, presumably, the works of James Flynn, one of our outstanding scholars who has just died. Salut Jim!