As Book Guardians Aotearoa found out when it met with the Minister of Internal Affairs on March 24, it seems that this Labour Party minister intends to continue to carry out the policy signed off by her New Zealand First Party predecessor in the role – the ‘secure destruction’ of most of the books in the National Library’s Overseas Public Collections. (‘Secure destruction’ is a euphemism for pulping the books.)

Efforts to ‘re-home’ the books (a euphemism for privatising their ownership) have proved a dismal failure. No ordinary mortal has time to go through the tens of thousands of books on the lists provided to find the ones they could use, and a one-off charity book sale of 57,000 books at Trentham in November 2020 was a big flop. (The National Library is currently refusing to say how much of a flop, or where the unsold books are now. BGA knows that most of them didn’t sell, even at $2 a book.)

The books which may therefore be destroyed include those which provide insights into the life and growth of the New Zealand labour movement from the nineteenth century onwards, and when they go the ability of future labour historians to tell important New Zealand stories will be severely damaged -perhaps forever.

The Labour History Project explained how and why this is already happening in a letter to the Minister sent in late April, and why it is therefore essential that the book disposal ends immediately. Read on…

Kia ora Ms Tinetti,

I am writing to you in your capacity as Minister of Internal Affairs. I write on behalf of the Labour History Project, of which I am an executive committee member. (https://www.facebook.com/labourhistoryproject/)

We are an organisation of union members, historians and others interested in the history of New Zealand’s working class and New Zealand working class movements. We recognise that the history of New Zealand workers and workers’ movements is a part of transnational labour history.

We wish to express our strong objection to the National Library of New Zealand’s ongoing book cull, its policy of removing overseas books from the library.

The National Library has argued that the books being removed are available on the internet and that therefore hard copies do not need to be kept. We are deeply sceptical of the validity of this argument. In the everchanging world of the internet, there is no guarantee that books currently available on a particular platform will continue to be available in the future. Reliance on the internet places access to books into the hands of whoever controls a particular website. There is no guarantee of continued free access for research.

The National Library has also claimed that it would make the first offer of culled books to libraries and collections around New Zealand. This appears to be a hollow claim, as last November we saw thousands of valuable former National Library books being “rehomed” for $2 each at the Lions book sale in Trentham.

The National Library has stated that the books being removed have not been used for years. I can personally list five National Library books on Australian, American and Canadian labour history, that I used in research over the last ten years, including three that I used in 2019. All of these books were removed from the library. I would note that three of these books were saved from the cull after I wrote a letter of complaint – the other two books were sold off for $2 each at Trentham. I would also note that before removing the books, the library did not consult me, or any other reader, regarding the value of these books or whether we would need to use them again.

The National Library has emphasised that the books culled supposedly have no relevance to the culture and history of Aotearoa/New Zealand. If I return again to the five culled books on Australian, American and Canadian labour history, mentioned above. I consulted all of these books to gain a greater understanding of the early twentieth-century New Zealand labour movement, through comparing it with similar movements in Australia, the USA and Canada. I also consulted these books to learn about the lives of significant figures in the New Zealand labour movement who had lived for a time in Australia, the USA, or Canada.

As thousands of books have been removed from the library, we have no way of knowing how many other overseas works of value and relevance to New Zealand have been thrown out in the process.

New Zealand has been a part of a transglobal world since the earliest days of Pākehā contact, while the tangata whenua are also part of a pan-Pacific Polynesian culture. To suggest that books on overseas subjects are somehow irrelevant ignores the transglobal, transnational world we live in. This is particularly so when it comes to the history of working people and working-class movements.

The Labour History Project believes that the cull of overseas books from the National Library is a setback for the study of labour history and in fact for the study of New Zealand history in general. We believe this misguided policy has more to do with the underfunding of the library, creating a shortage of storage space, than it does to any well thought out policy. We ask you to put a stop to the book cull and preserve collections of books that will continue to be of value to New Zealanders in the future, as we consider our place in the wider world.

Ngā mihi

Peter

Peter Clayworth BA(hons) PhD (Otago)

Historian

Executive Committee member, Labour History Project

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