Providing sound advice to the nation’s library

Three years ago the former Minister of Internal Affairs, Tracy Martin, made a decision which since then has been causing nothing but trouble for the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA), the National Library (NL) and – much more importantly – for the researchers, writers, scholars and citizens of New Zealand. When Minister Martin signed off on the recommendation of the former National Librarian to dispose of all of the books in the NL’s Overseas Published Collection (OPC), she effectively signed a death warrant for a unique and special public access research collection which contains books not otherwise held in New Zealand libraries, and/or not available to members of the public (via interloan), wherever they may live.

These unique features of the OPC mean that its value as a public access research collection has been recognised both by its users and by the librarians collecting and curating it for the past half century. The amended National Library Act of 2003 was intended, in part, to ensure its continuity. Government personnel and their priorities may change, but one thing does not change – the need of New Zealanders for a national library which provides services to all citizens which no other institution provides. 

It is because this need is real and very much alive, and many voices have spoken up against the disposal, that the OPC has not yet gone to the dump, and attempts to dispose of it by other means have failed in whole or in part. Book Guardians Aotearoa (BGA) was therefore pleased to read in the  “Latest OPC Update from Te Pouhuaki National Librarian”, (31 October 2022) that

“… the National Library is about to start the process of developing a new policy for removing and disposing of collection items. This will sit alongside other important policies that guide our activities.” Also that We will continue to collect overseas published books where they support the functions of the National Library. We are committed to working with researchers and with other libraries to ensure rich collections of research materials are accessible for New Zealanders now and in the future.”

This sounds great, and one reading of it could be that the NL has realised that it was a mistake to even consider throwing out the rich national resource which is the OPC, and is now committed to curating and adding to it in ways which meet the major purpose of a national library, which is to serve the needs of its users.

But is the NL really changing its practice? Has it learned that its proper role is not telling the public what library management thinks the NL ought to provide? Has it learned what its real role is? Namely, to properly ascertain the legitimate and reasonable needs of the users, and (within available resources and using professional judgement) to provide them.

In this regard, BGA doubts that the NL really intends to change its ways, and seriously consider the needs of present and future users before making any major changes to existing collections. Our doubts seem to be justified by the extremely weak mechanism which the NL is putting in place to govern a removal and disposals policy only.

The mechanism as proposed is “… to first form an advisory group to provide advice and input into a draft removal and disposal policy. Then, we will invite stakeholders to be involved in conversations about this initial draft in the new year.”

Who will be on the advisory group? Who does the NL define as ‘stakeholders’ who will receive invitations to be ‘involved in conversations’? Why is the advisory group’s purpose restricted to advice on developing a removal and disposal policy only? BGA has advice to give to the NL on who its advisors should be, and what their role should be, and our views are contained in the open letter to the National Librarian, below. We encourage you to write your own letter/email to the National Librarian with your views on the matter, and copy it to the Minister of Internal Affairs. You are also encouraged to share it with your friends, professional associations, and any others who may be interested, along with this article and the open letter, and encourage them to take action too. 

The National Library and its collections and services are a national taonga, and we need everyone who recognises this truth to get involved in conserving and enhancing the nation’s treasure.

An Open Letter to the National Librarian


Providing sound advice to the nation’s library

27 November 2022

Tena koe, Ms Esson

On behalf of Book Guardians Aotearoa (BGA) we welcome your recent announcement of the establishment of an Advisory Group to develop a new policy on the removal and disposal of items in the National Library’s Public Access Research Collection (PARC) which is available to the public by interloan, as well as at the Library.

We are writing this letter to encourage you to think about the greater value which such a group would have if it were given a wider brief, and were truly representative of the range of public interest in and expertise on the items in the collection. Our recommendations are below.

1          Purpose and composition of a National Library Public Access Research Collection       Advisory Group

We recommend that the National Library (NL) establishes a permanent advisory group which includes representation of those who have an interest in and expertise on the uses of the Public Access Research Collection (PARC), and are therefore able to advise the NL on current and future uses and content of the collection. This would include what must be retained, what should be collected, what may be removed, and best forms of disposal.

To ensure that the NL establishes the best possible PARC advisory group, we recommend that it consults with those most able to provide the expert advice it seeks, including professional associations for historians, writers, musicians, artists, scientists and others, and takes their recommendations for appropriate members.

2          Resourcing the Advisory Group

Upon establishment, it is essential that the PARC advisory group has access to all the information and advice that has been made available to the National Librarian since the decision was made to dispose of the entire OPC. This must include the contributions from those opposing the decision, which includes civil society groups such as BGA, professional organisations such as the NZ Society of Authors, concerned individuals, legal experts, and international organisations representing authors and publishers. This information should be provided in its original form(s), and in full. This information is essential if the advisory group is to understand the range of public views on the purpose of the NL in general, and of the PARC in particular, and to factor these realities into the advice it provides.

3          Decision-making criteria for the Advisory Group

As recommended in (1) above, BGA believes that the role of the PARC advisory group needs to be expanded to include advising on the review of sections of the PARC, and that its advice must include advice on retention (and criteria for retention) as well as criteria for removal/disposal.

Further, when considering any title for retention, attention should be paid not only to the “percentage” of New Zealand-related content but also the importance of the work to scholarship in the relevant discipline, and its enduring value. Only subject experts are able to make such a determination and therefore any considered review must include a careful analysis of the books by such experts. There must never again be any repeat of shelf-by-shelf disposal.

4          Recognition of the importance of the interloan service

BGA considers that the retention of a comprehensive NL research collection to support inter-library loans is crucial. There is no other New Zealand library which can perform this function. The NL already has a unique and comprehensive research collection and it is not a good use of public money or assets to dispose of it and deny the public access to the books they need. This point needs to be taken very seriously by members of the PARC Advisory Group. They need to be aware that books transferred into the ATL collections cannot be interloaned, meaning researchers have to come to Wellington to consult them. By contrast, the PARC is and should be available by interloan anywhere in New Zealand, and hence much more useful to the majority of New Zealanders.

5          Storage planning

BGA recommends that the NL (and the government ministers responsible for it) recognise that if there is to be a national Public Access Research Collection that is worthy of the name, measures must be taken to ensure that it is properly stored. This will mean that as the collection grows over time, so must the necessary storage.  The PARC advisory group should take this expanding storage provision as a given, and providing proper storage should not be a factor in its decision-making regarding what to retain and what to dispose of.

Nga mihi

Dr Christine Dann

for Book Guardians Aotearoa

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