The National Library spin on sending its books to Manila, dissected:

Part 1: poor process

“Minister, have we got a deal for you!” is the general tone of the National Library’s (NL) Aide Memoire (AM) to the Minister of Internal Affairs, Jan Tinetti, on 26 July 2021. It is entitled ‘Internet Archive digitisation of the Overseas Publication Collection’. You can read the whole document here – Briefing to the Minister on the Internet Archive digitisation. Part 1 of Book Guardian Aotearoa’s (BGA) guide to it follows.

Where to start? There is a lot which is misleading, misinformed, or both in the Aide Memoire, but the key points about the process to note are these:

1          New Zealanders will lose physical access to the books forever …

The AM advises the Minister that the NL is planning to have all 600,000 books in containers by the end of 2021, and that they will then be shipped to Manila for digitisation, which (given the state of global shipping in general and the ports in New Zealand and the Philippines in particular) is not expected to happen for several months. After digitisation (and who knows when that will happen, with the Philippines currently second only to Indonesia for death and infection rates from Covid-19 in South-East Asia) the books then sit around for however long it takes them to be shipped to the Internet Archive’s (IA) storage facilities in California. Once there, their new owner is free to do what he likes with them, including selling them through the online secondhand bookstore he operates. But the National Library assures the Minister that New Zealanders will (eventually) have ‘access’ to the books because the IA has agreed to make digitised versions of the books publicly available through its Open Library Service “after two years” of transfer from our National Library.

What (else) could possibly go wrong? See below.

2          … and IF there is digital access, it will be delayed and legally doubtful …

Fact: as already documented by BGA (see Paper vs pixels. Why digitising the National Library’s books would be wrong in so many ways) the practice of the IA of digitising books which are still in copyright, without any of the payments therefore due to authors and publishers being made, is currently the subject of a major law suit in a US federal court of the Southern District of New York state. The case will likely be heard in the first part of 2022, and if it finds for the plaintiffs (four of the largest English language publishing companies in the world) where does that leave the IA’s Open Library – and the New Zealand government’s deal with it? 

BGA is so concerned about the legal jeopardy New Zealand could be placed in if this happens that we have written to the Attorney-General, the Hon David Parker, setting out our concerns. So have the New Zealand Society of Authors, the Publishers Association of New Zealand, and Copyright Licensing New Zealand. These organisations and BGA are adamant that the deal is wrong in principle and in practice. We are also certain that it would never have happened if the NL had engaged in proper consultation with the New Zealanders most affected by the disposal decision in the first place. The bad deal with the IA is just the latest in a series of failures of the NL (and its bosses in the Department of Internal Affairs) to consult with the relevant members of the public and their organisations. We are not impressed with the National Library misinforming the Minister in the Aide Memoire about the nature and extent of what they deem to be ‘consultation’, as documented next.

3          … and the National Library ruled out getting advice on better options for the books …

Fact: the only ‘consultation’ the NL did with regard to the initial disposal of the overseas public collection (OPC) (signed off by the Minister of Internal Affairs in December 2018), was with other libraries and librarians’ organisations. Given what a small and self-referential group of people this is (it includes the Library and Information Advisory Commission, whose members are appointed by the Minister of Internal Affairs and include the National Librarian) (see Who takes care of the (book) caretakers?), it is not surprising that there was agreement among these parties as to why and how the books should go.

Although there are organisations representing authors, professional historians (academic and independent), economists and many others making regular use of the NL collections to do their research and writing, none (zero, nada) of these were consulted about the initial decision, nor about the IA deal. Deputations of scholars and writers to the NL to put their case received the brush-off; all correspondence to the Minister and the National Librarian by writers and scholars giving reasons why the books must and should be retained have been similarly dismissed.

The National Library even has the gall to tell the Minister that it hopes that its August 12 meeting with New Zealand Society of Authors, the Publishers Association of New Zealand, and Copyright Licensing New Zealand “…will be the catalyst for further collaboration between the NL and other government agencies to work with publishers, researchers and authors…” The truth, as advised to BGA by those representing NZSA, PANZ and CLNZ at that meeting, is that they were appalled at the dismissive and rude behaviour of the DIA staff present, who freely admitted that they had not consulted with those most affected by the IA deal in advance, and that they did not see this as a problem to be addressed. 

The writers and publishers organisations therefore wrote to the Attorney-General expressing their concerns, since the NL was clearly not interested in taking them seriously.

4          … but worked on manufacturing consent instead …

In the Aide Memoire the National Library tells the Minister that there ‘has been strong support from partner organisations and the media’. It then lists the professional librarians associations plus an internet company and two internet societies as providing this support. The Minister (let alone the public) are unlikely to know that there is a revolving door between the personnel at the head of the professional librarians associations and the top positions at the NL. BGA has watched this game of well-paid musical chairs for the past three years, and find that it perfectly illustrates our point – those who stand to be detrimentally affected by the decision were not consulted, but only those who stood to gain from the deal, be it the assumed convenience of getting rid of the books, or even any profit that could be derived from providing digital services. 

The NL then has the chutzpah to claim that “public commentary on platforms such as TVNZ, Radio NZ and Stuff has been broadly in support of the agreement”, when (as exposed by BGA in How many government spin doctors does it take to kill a national taonga?) the DIA spin doctors laboured long and hard to come up with a communications plan and follow throughs on the IA deal, which included friendly exchanges the people at the three media outlets mentioned (which are the only ones which seem to have taken any interest).

5 … while fudging the numbers.

Facts: the NL has consistently fudged both the library user numbers and the value of the overseas published collections in its advice to the minister.  With regard to user numbers, it is meaningless to derive user numbers from books which are physically borrowed (in person or by interloan) rather than used in the library itself. It is also disingenuous (to say the least) not to tell the Minister that interloan rates declined in the 1990s, when charges for interloaning were introduced, but are still healthy. There is approximately the same demand for overseas and New Zealand books. Thus, to take the OPC borrowing rates in isolation, without comparison with the borrowing rates of the rest of the NL’s collections, is to invite suspicion that this is a jack-up. Why would the borrowing rates of New Zealand books be any higher? Can the NL prove that they are? BGA suspects that if borrowing rates are used as the main criterion for keeping or not keeping the books in the NL, most of the New Zealand books would also be due for the chop.

With regard to the value of the OPC, the NL advised the minister that it was NIL. Yes – 600,000 books paid for with taxpayers’ money and still wanted, needed and used by current and future generations – worth nothing. BGA knows that there was no assessment done of the OPC for genuinely valuable books. In fact, we were sneeringly told that the NL was not a secondhand bookstore when we queried why rare first editions of notable authors, now worth thousands of dollars, were not being sold at their true price to recoup their value for the taxpayer, but were instead being given away for free.

In addition to the misinformation put out by the NL on matters of fact (canvassed above) there is also an ignorance of the true value of the library’s collections to those using them, and to New Zealand as a whole. BGA will address these matters in Part 2: creating value.

…”and so the pirates captured New Zealand’s national library books, and they were never seen again…”

Image credit: Photo by Karen Zhang on Unsplash

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