writes Christine Dann

“We’re making more room for New Zealand – especially Maori and Pacific – authors” was one of the larger porkies concocted by the Department of Internal Affairs PR flakes and the firm they contracted to spin the disposal of most of the National Library’s (NL) Overseas Published Collection (OPC) (which has over 600,000 books) at the end of 2019. (Although there are several other contenders – see Lies, damned lies and public relations.)

Just what a crock that line is became painfully apparent to me personally when in the course of research into political history (my speciality) I came across a reference (in an essay published on-line in July 2021) to a book called Social Science and the Ignoble Savage by Ronald L. Meek, first published by Cambridge University Press in 1976 and reissued by C.U.P. in 2011.

In looking up the book I discovered to my surprise that Meek was a New Zealander. He was born in Wellington in 1917 and studied law and economics at Victoria University. He was a brilliant student, who graduated with a Masters in Law in 1939, and was awarded a fellowship to Cambridge University. However, World War II intervened and he was not able to take up graduate studies in Cambridge until 1946, when he was 29 years old. He became a lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Glasgow before finishing his Ph.D. from Cambridge, and from 1963 until his premature death in 1978 he was the Tyler Professor of Economics at the University of Leicester.

Meek was the author, co-author or editor of fifteen or more books, all of which were (you guessed it) published in that mythical place called ‘overseas’. Since he was an economist those of his books which were purchased by the National Library were catalogued with the other social science books in the 300s. Books from the National Library’s 300s section were among the 57,000 dumped into  the charity booksale  at Trentham race course in November 2020. (See The Last Leg at Trentham: selling the nation’s books in the Lions/Rotary book sale)

It seems that Social Science and the Ignoble Savage was one of them, as it appears on a National Library list of OPC books for disposal. So do other titles by Meek which were formerly in the National Library. When one looks up Meek in the NL catalogue today, only five of the fourteen titles listed on Meek’s Wikipedia page are still in the library (which has nineteen items listed in its catalogue). They are all in the Alexander Turnbull Library, which means they can only be accessed by going to Wellington in person and reading them at the library. If they had remained in the National Library, they could have been borrowed via interloan with a public or university library anywhere in New Zealand.

When one looks up books by Meek in the NL catalogue, under Social Science and the Ignoble Savage – and several other Meek titles also listed as once held by the NL – instead of a regular catalogue entry this mysterious message appears: “Unfortunately we don’t own this item or would like a better copy. If you have a copy please contact us at Acquisitions@dia.govt.nz” WTF?! is going on here? The National Library has thrown out this book – it is recorded on a disposal list – and it is now asking people who have a copy to give it them. What sort of a way is that to run a library?

I don’t have a copy – I wanted to borrow the library copy. It would cost me $51:97 to buy the 2011 reissued version from the on-line book store Book Depository, and that’s a lot of money for an independent scholar with no academic salary or other funding sources. Isn’t that why civic and national libraries were invented? To create a common pool for all to share, thereby saving money and enhancing learning and scholarship opportunities for all?

On the afternoon of Sunday July 25 I wrote to Acquisitions at the address provided and let them know where they could get this book, and how much it would cost, and told them that “I am an independent writer and researcher and have no access to university libraries. I need the NL to collect and own books like this to do my work.” At two minutes after 8 am on the morning of Monday July 26, I received a response from Acquisitions which was a copy of an email sent to someone else in the system saying “Would you like to purchase for ATL? and respond to Christine.”

As of Friday July 30 I am still waiting for a response – and I am afraid that these poor librarians are about to discover (if they do not already know) that management threw out this book along with other titles by this New Zealand author. Also that it did this not only against the wishes of New Zealanders who might want to use this book and many, many others in the OPC, but also in total ignorance of the fact the author was a New Zealander. Such ignorance is not surprising, because the NL does not have the staff to do a proper assessment of all the books in the OPC for the national origins of their authors, or whether they have a substantial amount of material about New Zealand. Book Guardians Aotearoa has even heard that those librarians who could do this work have been forbidden from doing it, and we know that our offers to provide experts to assist with assessing the books for their contribution to New Zealand’s baskets of knowledge have been rebuffed, as have those of academics who have made similar offers.

Which is not to say that being a New Zealander or being published in New Zealand are valid criteria for collecting or retaining a book in the National Library in any case. The quality and significance of the content should be the only criteria applied – the nationality of the author and the place of publication are completely irrelevant. Obviously when it comes to a category as broad as social sciences most of the best work will be produced by non New Zealanders and published outside New Zealand. Meek’s work is in fact the exception which proves this rule. By deliberately refusing to take expert advice on which books should be retained and why, the Department of Internal Affairs, (which is responsible for the NL), is thereby also responsible for a deliberate dumbing-down of New Zealand.

But is the nation’s loss someone’s private gain? Maybe. Having heard on the grapevine that secondhand bookseller Hard to Find had taken all the books left over from the Trentham sale (c. 30,000 or so) I wondered if Meek’s books had ended up there. On the front page of Hard to Find’s website I read “In all, we currently stock in the vicinity of 500,000 titles… just remember if you don’t see it in our online listing we may still have it in the shop” (neither of the shops list their current combined stock of approx 140,000 books online). This made me pause to think – if a secondhand book dealer can find a place to store half a million books – why is the National Library claiming that it does not have the capacity to do so, and making up pathetic excuses for not doing so?

Only one of Meek’s books is currently listed in Hard to Find’s on-line catalogue. It is Matrices and Society by Meek and Ian Bradley, in a Penguin edition published in 1989. The one the NL used to own (and now, “unfortunately”, does not) was published by Princeton University Press in 1986, so it’s not that one, then. If Social Science and the Ignoble Savage does turn up on-line (instead of in Hard to Find’s Auckland and Dunedin shops, neither of which are near me, and neither of which have their books in the on-line catalogue) would I buy it, and how much would it cost me? Matrices and Society is going for $14, and to that must be added $12.00 postage. $26:00 then, versus a library interloan which would have cost me $10.

I suppose we should be grateful that Hard to Find has bought as many books as it has – at least it keeps them in New Zealand and accessible (albeit at a higher price, and in a restricted, private way) to New Zealanders. Which is arguably better than the National Library’s latest mad scheme to ship the rest of the OPC offshore to be digitised (badly) by an organisation currently being sued for large scale copyright infringements. (See NZ authors beware!) But Book Guardians Aotearoa was set up to keep the books in the National Library, and make them more easily accessible to all New Zealanders. Almost every week we come up with a new example (like the one above) of the disinformation and muddling being perpetrated by the Department of Internal Affairs in their unwelcome and hamfisted efforts to dispose of the books in the OPC. This just reinforces our view that keeping them is the only democratic, cost-effective, ethical and intellectually sound thing to do.

Postscript

The catalogue note under the missing Meek books is not the only strange statement to appear under books which are listed both in the catalogue and in the voluminous disposal lists prepared by the NL. Searching the catalogue against the lists sometimes returns the message : “To check availability email: NLRequestPrinting@dia.govt.nz”  under some books. BGA does not know what this means.

There also appears to be little rhyme or reason as to which books got the toss to Trentham, and which have been retained. Books on civil rights and other American political issues have all gone (at a time when these could hardly be more salient), whereas books on doing business with the Baltic states (hardly a national priority) have been retained.

BGA will keep checking the books on the disposal lists against the catalogue as time allows to see if we can discern any rational patterns, but so far all we can see are the irrational and confused results of doing something which should never have been done in the first place, and doing it badly.

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