By Book Guardians Executive Officers Christine Dann and Michael Pringle

The National Library (NL) began a process of consultation on its current draft removal and disposals policy in April, which concluded on May 12. Book Guardians Aotearoa (BGA) was invited to meet with the Director of Content Services, Mark Crookston, to discuss the policy. Four representatives from BGA met with Mr Crookston by Zoom on April 28. The meeting lasted nearly ninety minutes.

It would be fair to say that BGA found it a frustrating experience. It seems that Mr Crookston has no more understanding of why New Zealand should continue to maintain and enhance a national research library which is accessible by all New Zealanders, wherever they live and whatever their research interests, than the other National Library and Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) managers we have had contact with over the past four years. The ones who made the poor decision in 2019 to dispose of over 600,000 books in the current general collection, and provided spurious reasons for doing so which BGA has debunked elsewhere on this website.

The other DIA representative at the meeting, the NL’s ‘Principle Advisor Stakeholder Engagement’, Helen Heath, was and is a supporter of that decision. She said nothing during the meeting. This made a nice change from the rude things she has said about BGA in general, and one of our members in particular, on social media. However, we still wonder what exactly her role is when it comes to making policy decisions which affect the library-using public, which are not made with and for that public, as happened in 2019.

At the meeting BGA expressed our concerns about the draft policy, and the others we hold regarding the purpose and functions of a genuine national library, and the circumstances and methods which are relevant to making decisions on what collections of books are for, and how they should be curated. We were encouraged by Mr Crookston to put in written feedback as well, so we produced the document below, and sent it to him (cc Helen Heath) on May 12.  We are publishing it here for your information, and in the interests of full transparency in government decision-making. If you want to use any of the points in it to make your views known to the DIA, and/or to the public via letters to the editor or other means, and/or to the policiticans with decision-making powers over the NL, please do so.

Further feedback on the National Library of New Zealand’s draft removals and collections policy by Book Guardians Aotearoa

May 2023

Book Guardians Aotearoa (BGA) thanks the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) for the opportunity to have a meeting (on 28.4.23) with the National Library’s (NL) Director of Content Services, Mark Crookston, to give feedback on the the NL’s draft removals and collections policy. Mr Crookston encouraged us to provide written feedback as well, and this is what is given below. We have tried to cover our three main areas of concern as succinctly as possible.

1          Purpose of the National Library

BGA’s view, based on both our usage of the National Library (NL) over the past few decades, and on our understanding of the NLNZ Act 2003, is that the purpose of the NL is to be the nation’s primary research library. This means that in addition to holding unique national collections it makes otherwise unprocurable resources in a range of disciplines available to readers throughout the country. It is the only such library in New Zealand for non-academics whose work and study involves accessing books and other documents in order to write books, articles, papers, theses, web pages and any other written formats which rely on research. It is also used by academics whose university libraries have not bought, or can not or will not buy, the books they require. The library also serves the public in general, which would otherwise not have access to the range and depth of knowledge which a national library can and should provide. 

BGA  is concerned that restricting the NL’s collection and creation of knowledge services to a so-called Research collection housed in the Alexander Turnbull Library means that these books can not be loaned directly, or interloaned, but can only be accessed by those with the means to travel to and stay in Wellington, and use the library during opening hours. In our view this constitutes a gross restriction of such service. This applies particularly to books which are not published in New Zealand (i.e. the vast majority of the books in the General collections) as while New Zealand-published books can be accessed in other New Zealand libraries, these books are mostly not available to New Zealanders in other libraries. The net effect of this restriction will be making  further undesirable contributions to increasing inequality in NZ, and degrading New Zealand’s knowledge and culture creation capacities.

If this restriction in public access is accompanied by the removal of most of the books already collected (and paid for by the public) over the past sixty years; and a collections policy which does not include covering the full range of subjects of interest and use to NZ researchers and writers (most of whom do not hold academic positions), and to the NZ public in general, then in BGA’s view the NL will be acting ultra vires its Act,  the purpose of which, stated in S.3 of the Act.  “is to provide for the preservation, protection, development, and accessibility, as appropriate, for all the people of New Zealand, of the collections of the National Library (which includes the Alexander Turnbull Library) in a manner consistent with their status as documentary heritage and taonga and, to this end, to—(a) maintain and enhance the National Library”

This purpose clearly states that all the collections in the NL in 2003 were and are to be regarded as

 “documentary heritage and taonga” and that the NL collections should be both maintained and enhanced.

Since 2011, when the NL was placed under the management of the Department of Internal Affairs, it has developed collection policies which in BGA’s views are not consistent with its legal obligation to enhance its collections. In particular, the decision made in 2019 to dispose of most of the books in the NL, held in the Overseas Published Collection (OPC), was contrary to the purpose of the NL as stated in S.3 of its Act. The DIA management (which includes the National Librarian) has since attempted to justify this decision with arguments which have been shown to be false.* In any case, if the NL is legally obliged to maintain and enhance its collections, what should this look like?

2          Collections of the NL

According to the Act (S. 9) “The functions of the National Librarian, in achieving the purpose of the National Library, are—(a)

to develop and maintain national collections of documents, including a comprehensive collection of documents relating to New Zealand and the people of New Zealand”

The 2019 decision by the then Minister of Internal Affairs, on the advice of DIA managers with no national library experience, to dispose of most of the OPC, without any proper consultation with the users of the NL collections and the public in general, is in BGA’s view not consistent with this section of the Act. Nor, as far as BGA is aware, was the draft decision referred to Crown Law to advise on its compliance with the letter and the intention of the 2003 Act.

As part of the current consultation on removal and disposal we therefore draw DIA management’s attention to the words including, comprehensive and relating and urge the DIA to consider what they mean. In BGA’s understanding most of the books and other documents in the NL were collected (in whatever collection they may have been officially allocated to) to meet the requirements of a comprehensive collection – across the whole library – of books and other documents relating to New Zealand and New Zealanders. Only an extremely narrow interpretation of both these terms could justify the removal of books not published in NZ or created by New Zealanders. Given that many significant NZ writers, historians, scientists and others have been published and are being published outside NZ, and given that New Zealanders now include people with diverse and multiple cultures, heritages and interests, there can be no rational justification for restricting the the NL’s collections only to works generated by New Zealanders in NZ, or to prioritise collecting Maori and Pacific works (which we agree with) to the exclusion of works relating to the culture, heritage and interests of all other New Zealanders (which we strongly disagree with, as per our opposition to the disposal of the OPC).

BGA is also concerned that the policy as currently drafted would permit the loss of New Zealand published books from the general collection. Since the legal deposit system requires two copies of every New Zealand published book to be deposited, in our view one of those books should always be available for interloaning as well as for use in the library, and if it becomes damaged, lost or stolen it should be replaced with a purchased copy.

The other, non-New Zealand published books in the general research collections are not so easily replaced, and a certain amount of ‘natural’ attrition is unavoidable and acceptable as part of normal library business. What is not acceptable, however, is removing books without proper consideration by subject experts of their current and likely future value to scholars and researchers. If the NL is to comply with its purposes and functions under its Act, then retaining, maintaining and enhancing its general research collections is not an ‘optional extra’ – it is a central purpose and function of the linrary and needs to be taken seriously.

The draft policy is also deficient with regard to the legal protection currently in place for removal of items from the Alexander Turnbull Library (ATL). The 2003 Act is clear that the ATL is not subject to S.9(3) of the Act allowing the Minister in charge of the NL to consent to removal of documents. It is specifically exempt from this provision. It would require an amendment to the Act to allow items to be removed from ATL.

3          Functions of the NL

In BGA’s experience the NL has become increasingly dysfunctional since it was placed into the Department of Internal Affairs. DIA is a multi-faceted department which deals mainly with administrative matters in and its minister and senior managers need have no particular interest or experience in matters relating to national culture and education. This mis-match of interests has led not only to the decision to dispose of the OPC, but to other downgradings of the library’s services and capacities.

In our in-person consultation on April 28 we gave several examples of current dysfunctionality on a day-to-day basis, such as items disappearing from the catalogue, and/or collections which are supposed to be permanent. We could provide plenty more. Users of the NL in the past two decades have also provided written accounts of their problems with using the library, which date from the change of management in 2011.

BGA has no power to return the NL to its former stand-alone status, and/or to make it responsible to a much more appropriate minister (such as Arts, Culture and Heritage). All we can say is that if the NL wants to become more rather than less functional from the perspective of the users and the public which fund it, then librarians – not managers – need to spend a lot more time talking to those users about their needs and wants, and how they have been using and want to keep using the library to create new knowledge for the diversity of cultures and interests which now exist in NZ.  This would have the benefit of helping those librarians maintain and enhance comprehensive collections – as per the Act – which meet the diverse needs of the nation. It would provide advice both on what is worth keeping in the existing collections, and what should be acquired to keep the collections relevant to new developments in all spheres.

By taking such an inclusive and collaborative approach, the library would be getting real-time information on both the quality and quantity of its services – and what could be more democratic -and functional – than that? 


Christine Dann and Michael Pringle, for Book Guardians Aotearoa

12 May 2023

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