Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Lisa on national library book culls

As I noted in last week’s Monday Musings, Bill (The Australian Legend) has organised a few Monday Musings guests posts for me. Of course, given we comment closely on each other’s posts, he turned to Lisa (ANZLitLovers) for the second one. Bill did suggest an idea to Lisa, in case she needed it, but she found another topic to inspire her. It is a highly relevant one to me as a retired national institution librarian/archivist, so I was more than happy with her suggestion.
Thanks so much again to Bill and Lisa for helping me out and for offering some wonderful new content for Monday Musings.  Read on … and do let us know what you think …

Lisa’s post

Last year, when in New Zealand for the Auckland Writers’ Festival, I visited the Auckland Art Gallery, and was disappointed to find its ’Historic European’ Gallery closed.  From the postcards on sale in the shop we could see that they had some very interesting pieces, so we were a bit disappointed. But at the time we just thought this meant they had stopped collecting European art.  However, from a recent visit to their website, it’s clear that European art has been sidelined.  If you want to see New Zealand and Pacific art, this gallery is the place to go.  But if on the other hand you are a Kiwi student of art history, or merely curious about New Zealand’s international collection as we were…

I thought of this when I came across a more radical policy underway in the New Zealand National Library. In October last year the library announced that they are going to ‘rehome’ 600,000 books to make room for New Zealand and Pacific material, in line with their 2015 Collections Policy.

Yes, that’s right, 600,000 books!

Behind the scenes, libraries have all kinds of policies that affect their acquisitions and deaccessions procedures.  These rarely attract much interest from the public, except for the issue of censorship, or ‘self-censorship’ of certain types of books. (As, for example, when a school library unofficially responds to complaints from religious minorities by not lending books featuring magic such as the Harry Potter series).

Acquisitions and deaccession policies reflect a variety of complex issues which change over time.  No collection is static, and space for underutilised materials is always a problem.

The New Zealand library’s Rachel Esson (Director of Content Services) explains their decision like this:

The overseas published collection is not one single collection but is made up of an assortment of books acquired from a range of sources, some were purchased and some donated to us having been weeded from other libraries. These books were collected to support the library system, to provide access to information that other libraries might not hold. However, around 80% of them have not been issued for 20-30 years which means most of these books are not being used and that means that the library system is telling us that it doesn’t need these books anymore.

To be clear, they are keeping some overseas published books and will continue to purchase more for their collections in focussed areas, which include: library and information science; music; reference works; children’s literature; family history, and print disabilities.

But the removal of 600,000 books is needed to make room for New Zealand and Pacific Materials:

The National Library acquires between 80,000 – 90,000 electronic and print publications a year that consist of New Zealand, Pacific and overseas material.

That makes sense to me, because New Zealand is a wealthy nation and is in a position to be a centre of excellence for the literature of Pacific Island nations which may not have the resources to do it themselves.

But as I know from my own experience as a teacher-librarian, undertaking a cull of underutilised books can be a fraught exercise, because there is always someone who, for sentimental or research reasons, needs that battered copy of a text that seems past its use-by date.  At the same time there will always be people who want to cut a swathe through the entire collection to rid it of books that offend them for one reason or another.  In the feminist Seventies, for instance, there was alarm about the preponderance of male central characters in library collections of children’s literature, and that’s still a problem today.  So is the paucity of characters reflecting Australia’s multiculturalism, its Indigenous past and present, and its LGBTIQ and disabled communities…

The philosophy of inclusion is comparatively new and it keeps changing.  Difficult decisions have to be made around those innocuous words ‘as well as’, ‘instead of’ and ‘proportion’ because these decisions have implication for space, storage, display and especially funding.

For most libraries, the decision to acquire or get rid of a book to make space for others is a decision for the local community and the users.  However, in the case of a national or state library, the rules are different.  They have a statutory obligation, i.e. enshrined in law as ‘deposit legislation’, to acquire and retain the books they have for the benefit of the nation.  According to New Zealand writer and reviewer David Larson, in a lively critique for The Spinoff the relevant Minister has to sign off on the disposal of these 600,000 books.  Amongst other concerns he is alarmed about the process for retention and selection.  There’s more to it than whether the books have been issued within a certain time frame…

The consultation process, Larson says, appears not to have adequate expertise to identify which books are needed for research purposes, and offering them to other New Zealand libraries which have no obligation to keep them is a concern.  Then there are books that are published overseas, but written by New Zealanders:

New Zealanders are, famously, a nation of part-time expats: any number of Kiwis have contributed to this field or that by publishing books while living overseas. So if the goal is to keep “anything that is New Zealand and Pacific related”, that will require identifying a huge corpus of often obscure books published offshore.

Likewise, there are many overseas-published books by non-New Zealanders which touch on New Zealand or Pacific interests, often in ways obvious only to specialists.

Larsen stresses that many of these books are destined not for rehoming, but for destruction, but his article met with a droll riposte from librarian Rebecca Hastie, in a piece also for The Spinoff, ‘Weed in the Dead of Night, a Librarian shares the secrets of book culling’.

To see why it might matter that New Zealand could lose its only copy of a text that’s being offered for ‘rehoming’, I took a look just in the ‘A’ section of the Fiction List (downloaded from here).  For a start, the library is also offloading everything that Jessica Anderson and Thea Astley wrote, so Australian Literature isn’t a priority area for retention.  Too bad if a Kiwi wants to do a PhD in the comparative literature of our two countries.  There were titles I’d love to read by Kingsley Amis, Joan Aiken, Louisa May Alcott, Isaac Asimov, and Margaret Atwood.  Even Jane Austen has to go.  Top of the Bs was a stack of titles by Isaac Babel, which, along with three by Leonid Andreyev, mean that someone in a previous era understood the important of dissident Soviet literature (which is surely still a subject for scholarly attention.)

Lest you think that this is only an issue for this particular library in New Zealand, this week Inside Story is carrying an article called ‘Asia Illiteracy’ about a new collection development policy at the National Library of Australia, which is about to sideline its collections of Southeast and Northeast Asian material:

For almost seven decades, the National Library of Australia has been building one of the world’s most extensive collections of Southeast and Northeast Asian material. The legacy of accumulated investment and collecting by specialist curators, its store of Asian newspapers and periodicals, books, government documents and other rare materials is among the great treasure troves of Asian studies, and the most extensive Asia collection in the Southern Hemisphere. Researchers visit from around the world, and the collection is a foundation stone of decades of effort to build sustained and deep knowledge of Asia at Australian universities.

Now, much of this is to be abandoned. In a new “collection development policy” — the document which lays out what and how the library will collect — the library has dramatically downgraded its emphasis on overseas collecting. It has removed key Asian countries from its list of priorities; it has closed its Asian Collections Room; it has cancelled subscriptions to hundreds of Asian periodicals.


The new collection development policy makes it clear that the library is turning inward, sharpening the focus on Australian materials. Thankfully, the Asia-Pacific will remain the priority in overseas collecting, but the scope of the reduction leaves only part of the previous Asia strategy intact. Countries that have been a major focus for decades — notably Japan and Korea, and also all the countries of mainland Southeast Asia — have been dropped altogether from the list of priority countries for collecting. 

The catalyst for the New Zealand decision seems to have been the need to deal with a collection in a flood-prone storage facility which is too expensive to replace, while the NLA’s decision, according to Inside Story is forced on them by relentless funding cuts.

It’s always a matter of money…

27 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Lisa on national library book culls

  1. Thanks Lisa for this really apposite post. It’s an issue I’ve lived with in my career, and can remember some controversies when the NFSA deselected overseas LPs in particular. It’s tricky for national collecting institutions, isn’t it, because their prime mandate is national culture and when money is tight, what do you do. On the other hand, there are overseas influences on our national culture, on who we are, so it’s a fine line these poor institutions have to tread.

    • The other issue that’s relevant, it seems to me, is specific to Australia and New Zealand because of our isolated geographical position. Quite apart from COVID_19 wrecking everyone’s travel plans, there are always going to be people who can’t travel to see overseas collections for one reason or another. The NGV in Melbourne is the best place in Australasia to see European art, and even anti-colonialists need to know what it is, before they can criticise it. (I myself have an ‘as well as’ philosophy, not ‘instead of’.)
      But Kiwi children won’t get to see any of it to make up their own minds, unless they come across the ditch.
      The NZ Art Gallery’s position that you can look at their European collection online is disingenuous. Reproductions in books and digitised images are not the same, and any art-lover knows it. And it’s just the same with books: a digital edition or a reprint that you can buy or borrow from some other library is not the same thing either. Reading my mother’s set of Austen’s novels is quite different to reading some tawdry movie tie-in edition. I know this to my cost this week when I paid $70 for a copy of Stella Bowen’s Drawn from Life, without realising that the one thing I really wanted it for i.e. the reproductions of her magnificent portraits in the Virago edition, are not included in the edition I bought.
      So I think the NZ Library’s cull ought to be undertaken with great care and not in what appears to be an ideological rush.

  2. Fascinating post! Even when my local library has its annual (?) book sale, I always wonder how they decide what goes! Oddly, one of the books on my shelf – Lost Lives, a record of all the lives lost during The Troubles in Northern Ireland – I acquired second-hand after it was decommissioned from a library in Wisconsin. It was a steal at the time (and bought after I visited Belfast) and it’s now approx US$800 a copy, given its scarcity (no, not selling mine!).

  3. Very sad news. Sometimes I wonder what will remain from our times to the future generations.

    I find it disturbing, this approach centred around national literature. It doesn’t mean anything. I’d rather read a good Russian book than a bad French one. Where does it stop?

    • Fair questions and concern Emma. The critical point, though, about national libraries is their role in documenting the nation’s output, good and bad. They are less about what you might prefer to read – which your public library is all about – and more about national heritage and research. You can’t borrow books from national libraries – usually – just read them onsite in reading rooms. (Unless they are digihsed of course)

  4. Money is not right. We, Australia and New Zealand, are wealthy. Libraries, universities, public broadcasters are on tight budgets only because politicians choose to choke them into irrelevance. In these institutions, in our hospitals and schools, in all our public places, the consequences of four decades of “small government” are coming home to roost. I wonder when us frogs will finally realise that we have been boiled.

  5. Fascinating post.

    This is so unfortunate. Too bad that money and space is limited. I am sure that they are going to lose or destroy lots of worthwhile books.

  6. I understand the remit would be to collect/preserve/make available the cultural output of the specific country but why does that have to be at the expense of material from other cultures? Can’t they do both? In pushing a nationalist agenda in a sense they are denying people the opportunity to become exposed to worlds outside their own. Pretty insular…

    • Hi Karen. I completely take your point. I will say, though, that the major libraries (national, state and academic) in nations like ours tend to do some sort of cooperative collecting – sometimes with formal policies (we once had one in Australia called the Distributed National Collection), sometimes less formal. The idea is that between them the libraries make sure they cover the gamut of literary/written culture. With digitisation, it’s becoming much easier I’d say to provide access to broad-based collections, while ensuring the national output is preserved. As Bill said, though, if libraries were allocated more money, there would be less need to make these hard decisions. I am part of a national collecting organisation friends’ group which regularly advocates for more money and resources for our (and like) organisations.

    • BTW, I think many people do not understand the work of librarians and the tasks they do, the philosophies, practices and policies they work to and tweak. Many people just think we buy books and lend them out. Librarianship is so so so much more with a strong philosophical and ethical base about collection, management, preservation and access.

      • Yes, I definitely think that’s true. It is more complicated than most people think. But I agree with Karen that we need to be wary of creeping nationalism and identity politicis… it’s casting its destructive swathe across Europe and the USA so there’s no reason it wouldn’t start have undue influence here too.

        • Agree… but I think this issue is not really about that. Most librarians I know would not be right wing nationalists. As you know a fundamental principle of (western, anyhow) librarianship is freedom of information. These national librarians will be pointing people to other sources of the material they are deselecting, I believe anyhow!

        • What’s the process for developing policy, Sue? Is there a committee with community members, or is at all people from within the organisation?

        • Good question Lisa. It varies greatly, from being a small team in the organisation to an all organisation thing to consultation with stakeholders to broad-based consultation. Many many years ago I was involved in the development of the NFSA’s policy – I’m talking 1990s – and we did external consultation. There may even have been focus groups though I may be wrong. You don’t do this level of policy revision often as its resource intensive.

          This is what the NLA’s policy (2016) says about the issue we have been discussing in its introduction:

          “The Library must balance its mandate to ensure treasured materials are preserved for the Australian people in the long-term with the need for efficient allocation of resources, including minimising duplication of both storage and digitisation processes where material is already widely available. In affirming the Library’s ongoing stewardship role, the new policy approach also underlines the importance of collaboration between institutions to develop secure, efficient and accessible collections for Australians.”

          It doesn’t though say how it developed this policy, which some policy intros do. However policies for the big organisations are available on-line and open to comment.

          Academic libraries will usually involve librarians and academics, and sometimes students, in policy formation.

        • Thanks for this, Sue… of course what makes it all more manageable is the way libraries have access to each other’s collections (e.g. here in Victoria we can all use Z-portal to find out what’s where). I suppose the danger may be that assumptions get made about who’s got what…
          I don’t know if it’s still the case, but when I was studying I discovered that our municipal libraries all specialise in something, and I was just lucky that one within easy distance specialised in classics which my own local library didn’t have, though back then I had to visit in person to search their catalogue. I’m also within cooee of two libraries that have good collections of French Lit (in French). I must ask if they still do this next time I’m at the library in person:)

        • Interlibrary Loans has been a fundamental part of librarianship for as long as I have known them, but of course with computers, providing this service has become so much easier. In the past libraries would ring/fax etc other libraries to find out if they held a book a client wanted. Librarians would get to know which libraries might be more likely to hold which sorts of books.

          Sometimes across groups of libraries – particularly municipalities with multiple libraries – different libraries do specialise like you found. Seems sensible to me, but I think it depends very much on local library networks and what they think is the best way of managing their resources, and perhaps whether some specialities are logical for some locations. I have lost touch with library thinking now that I’m not doing the post-retirement contract work I did with Charles Sturt University.

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