Who made the business case for throwing out most of the National Library’s books? Nobody. There is no such good case, but Book Guardians Aotearoa has outlined the case for keeping them. Read on…

Three years ago the former Minister of Internal Affairs, Tracey Martin, signed off on the National Librarian’s proposal to get rid of most of the books in the National Library which were/are published overseas – over 600,000 books.

Ms Martin recently left the party she represented in Parliament (New Zealand First). Maybe this was and maybe it wasn’t related to the Labour Party in government giving her the (well-remunerated) job of chairing the Strong Public Media Business Case Governance Group tasked with making the business case for a new public media entity to replace TVNZ and RNZ. Given her previous record of cavalier disdain for public property and the public interest, as evidenced by her willingness to throw out most of the nation’s books, Book Guardians Aotearoa is apprehensive about how well this media mash-up is going to end. So are some RNZ insiders, as outlined in If the RNZ totara falls, is anyone listening?

Frankly, BGA thinks it is wierd and inappropriate that government feels it necessary or desirable to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money hiring the likes of Martin (who has zero experience in broadcasting) to make a ‘business’ case for public good broadcasting. In our opinion, public broadcasting is a self-evident good, and as necessary to national wellbeing as public health care and (dare we say it?) housing. That being the case, the government should be investing in more public broadcasting and broadcasters, and not trying to shrink the sector further or find inevitably conflicted commercial ‘investors’.

But putting that reservation aside for the moment, and going with the neoliberal flow, we note that the previous government, as well as not deeming it necessary to consult with National Library users about the fate of the books, also did not think it necessary to make a business case for getting rid of them. Perhaps this is because business cases weren’t as trendy back then, or perhaps it is because books aren’t in the big money league like media. Or – maybe it was because it is just not possible to make a good one.

A good business case for keeping the public’s property in books would show that

  • the books are wanted and needed by present and future users
  • the books are not otherwise accessible in New Zealand
  • the books are not available digitally
  • paper books are cheaper and more durable than digital versions
  • some of the books are rare and/or economically valuable editions which should not be de-accessioned (if not wanted by users) until their value has been established and is able to be realised, thus helping to fund the library.

The National Library did not try to establish any kind of business case before recommending to the Minister that the books get the boot. After she signed off on it, and the public started to hear about it and voice their opposition, the NL hired a PR company to pull the wool over the public’s eyes, and pretend that there are no good economic or cultural reasons for keeping the books. BGA is mystified as to why successive National Librarians have gone along with the Department of Internal Affairs bosses’ programme of cuts to library funding and status, and have spent public money on PR companies instead of books and library staff, but we sure as hell know how they have done it.

Taking each of the points above, it is easy to show the madness in their methods:

1. The books are wanted and needed by present and future users.

The NL/DIA has never consulted with users – the people who actually want and need the books. Not even with easy-to-find users, such as former and current National Library and Alexander Turnbull Library Fellows, or with organisations which represent the interests of current and future users, such as the New Zealand Society of Authors Te Puni Kaituhi o Aotearoa and the Professional Historians’ Association of New Zealand/Aotearoa. The only ‘consultations’ were with other libraries and library organisations. These are not theend users of the collections, which are needed by New Zealand writers and researchers to create original works which they could not create without easy access to collections of source materials.

2 The books are not otherwise accessible in New Zealand

Many of the books in the Overseas Published Collection are the only copies in New Zealand. Public libraries are not required to keep large specialist collections, and university libraries are not required to provide public access. Section 7 of the National Library Act 2003 states that

“ The purpose of the National Library is to enrich the cultural and economic life of New Zealand and its interchanges with other nations by, as appropriate,—

  • (a) collecting, preserving, and protecting documents, particularly those relating to New Zealand, and making them accessible for all the people of New Zealand, in a manner consistent with their status as documentary heritage and taonga;”

If a book is not held by the National Library and made accessible by it, there are no other libraries in New Zealand which are legally required to perform this function. So books which leave the NL are lost to the potential enrichment of New Zealand’s cultural and economic life – forever.

3 The books are not available digitally

The NL has admitted that only an estimated quarter of the books which it plans to throw out currently exist in digital form, and due to copyright restrictions plus the huge labour and storage costs involved in digitising books and storing them on line, the remaining three quarters never will be. So if the 475,000 non-digitised volumes are thrown out they also become inaccessible to the New Zealand public – forever.

4 Paper books are cheaper and more durable than digital versions

Despite the hype by companies with billion dollar interests in selling digital hardware and software (which identified educational institutions and libraries as soft targets for their wares in the 1980s, and have kept up the pressure ever since ), using billion-dollar ‘philanthropic’ foundations as their Trojan horses, digital information sources are not superior to books when it comes to price, and certainly not when it comes to durability. The two are related, because a $10 e-book requires expensive hardware and software, regularly upgraded, to be able to use it – and then the company which owns the technology may just decide to pull the plug on it and it’s gone forever – as Microsoft did recently for its e-books. Too bad that you paid good money for them, and didn’t read the fine print on your purchase. A seller of real books will never come to your home shelves and re-possess the books you bought. Or to your local library shelves – but Amazon has been there, done that, and is still getting away with it. All this tech company daylight robbery means that a $50 hardback version of the same book, which will last one hundred years or more and is always available to its purchaser and to borrowers, is a much better deal.

5 Some of the books are rare and/or economically valuable editions which should not be de-accessioned (if not wanted by users) until their value has been established and is able to be realised, thus helping to fund the library.

BGA has not had the person power to check every book on the chuck-out lists (tens of thousands of books on dozens of lists!) but we do know books and where and how to find their market value. We have identified a number of rare books, and first editions of less rare books by authors who went on to be famous, which have market values of over US$1000 – some as high as US$8000. The NL has made no effort whatsoever to identify these books and make the sensible decision to realise the return on the public’s investment if (after proper consultation with users) it is decided that a cheaper edition of the same book will do as well, and the difference can be put to buying more books that are really needed.

Such rare and valuable books were among the 50,000 which were sent to the $2 shop aka the Lions/Rotary charity book sale at Trentham in November 2020. Very few people who know books and their true value were able to attend that sale, of course. One who does wrote to BGA “There were many, many gems amongst those disposed of. One book I purchased was a small print run of 250 worldwide of which only 120 were available for sale.”

How did an ex-minister, who did not require her department to look at the economic value of the books in her (dubious) care i.e. make a business case for disposing of them, get put in charge of making a business case for mashing up public media? BGA hopes that said public media will start asking this question very loudly indeed, and conveying the views of those who speak up for the public interest in books and broadcasting.

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