Dr Jonathan Lee, scholar of the Near East, writes about the National Library’s book culling

I am a British-born scholar and New Zealand citizen specializing in the social history of Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Indo-Iranian borderlands and in Islam and Muslim-Christian relations. My doctorate in Religious Studies is from the University of Leeds and I am a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and of the British Institute of Persian Studies.

I am among those dismayed at the widespread and apparently indiscriminate cull of over half a million books by the National Library of New Zealand. Looking through the National Library lists, among the works purged are dozens of standard texts on Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Muslim-Christian relations. Also culled are first editions of early European exploration of the Middle East, Iran and Central Asia as well as standards works on the history, cultures and archaeology of these regions. Many of the books are rare, first editions and/or out-of-print. Yet apparently the National Library regards such works to be of little or no value, either culturally or monetarily, to the nation.

Among the standard works on Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations are studies by Arberry; Kenneth Cragg; Spencer Trimmingham; Goldziher; M. Watt; Margaret Smith, G. Parrinder; Bernard Lewis and A. Mingana, to name but a few. Several important Arabic and Persian texts (some in translation) have been purged, as have key reference works such as E.J. Brill’s Encyclopedia of Islam: a work to which New Zealand scholars have contributed. Other works culled include major archaeological reports by Mortimer Wheeler, Ernst Herzfelt and Aurel Stein along with Louis Dupree’s foundational study of Afghanistan. A rare first edition of the book by the founder of the Salvation Army In Darkest England and the Way Out had also been thrown out. The list goes on and on. . .

If this is not bad enough the Library has produced a series of pathetic excuses to justify the cull. And while admittedly a percentage of the works removed are peripheral, the library has thrown out the baby with the bath water.

When it comes to the study of world religions, the cultures and histories of the Middle East, Central Asia and India, New Zealand libraries and universities are poorly resourced to say the least. The Library’s purge has left our nation even more resource impoverished at a time when the country is welcoming hundreds of migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan and India. Clearly no thought has been given to their future educational or cultural needs. Such works, though, would also have been an important resource for academics and university students, MPs, policy analysts, diplomats, teachers, church leaders, aid agencies and social and medical workers.

The claim by the National Library that ‘experts’ were consulted about the cull is clearly disingenuous spin, given the extent of key works that have been unceremoniously dumped. Rather the cull demonstrates a significant and worrying lack of expertise and specialists in the National Library and its failure to consulate with academic authorities and specialist cultural organisations.

To justify the cull on the basis of lack of space also has little rationale. Had there been the will, the Library could have sought additional capacity. Like the British Library, it could have established an overflow repository say in Dunedin or Christchurch, though Auckland or Hamilton would have also benefited from such resources being locally-based given their growing multi-cultural populations. The Library could have established specialist reference collections in university cities, and all for relatively small outlay in government spending terms.

Scholars like myself, who had considered gifting their archives to the nation, will now doubtless seriously reconsider such plans. Even were the Library interested in acquiring an archive such as mine (unlikely, given that it does not fall within the National Library’s blinkered and chauvinistic collection policy), it will probably end up in the hands of rare books dealers who will make substantial profits from the on-sale. As a result, the National Library has shot itself in the foot and New Zealand will be the poorer both culturally and intellectually.

Jonathan L. Lee

Mahurangi area, Greater Auckland



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