One for the books (Rosemary McLeod)

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1 January 1970

Reading Time: 3 minutes

With the National Library culling its catalogue, Rosemary wonders what will become of the banished tomes.

Years ago, I bought an old, illustrated book from our General Assembly Library in Melbourne, of all places, puzzled at what a book with such a fancy library stamp was doing there.

That’s what we do with old books our taxes paid for, I realised. We delete them. Quietly.

A book on peasant costumes in France from the 1930s had no world-shattering reason to exist, and I have no special reason to own it, but I enjoy looking at a disappearing tradition in dress captured in colour by a skilful illustrator. Illustrated books can do that. A computer screen doesn’t get near it.

The library at Parliament was once put together by librarians as a way of gently broadening the minds of politicians who had no internet, social media or TV to amuse them, I like to think, and had to resort to books. More stimulating than drinking in Bellamy’s – and a less slurred level of conversation.

Currently they’re in the process of dumping 600,000 books from the National Library because they’re not about New Zealand, or nobody has looked at them for ages. This makes me nervous. How many illustrated images of traditional costume may be involved? Who has the power of life and death over an old book that might become much in demand in the future, when people change their way of looking at things? Why must books die and be replaced by the horrors, and bland ugliness, of reading on a screen?

The trouble began when librarians became “information officers” or “information providers”. Books were reduced at that point to being mere cold information. Accordingly, the library is making a “gift” of 60,000 books from its overseas published collections to Internet Archive for digitisation, available to all New Zealanders (and whoever) at that point. Physical copies – the real books – will be kept somewhere in that company’s storehouse, possibly deep in the earth where armies of orcs guard them from mould. Or maybe let them rot.

Physical copies will be kept somewhere in that company’s storehouse, possibly deep in the earth where armies of orcs guard them from mould. Or maybe let them rot

The books have “served their purpose and are no longer needed”, the library assures us, much as a magnate trading in his old wife prepares to marry a chit of a girl younger than his daughter. Old wives like me wince at the thought.

Internet Archive is based in San Francisco. It’s a non-profit business holding 30 million books. So far.

I worry about the National Library. It has an ugly building, near Parliament, seemingly designed to withstand an assault by a tank battalion in the event of revolution. It holds many artworks, along with books, that as far as I know few ordinary people ever get to see.

I once saw a stunning exhibition there of portraits of Māori women in the 19th century. The original glass plates – early negatives – were of such a high quality that the photographs could be magnified to life size in all their detail, and the women, dressed in clothes and ornaments of both Māori and Pākehā culture, looked stunning. Whenever I mention it, nobody seems to have seen it. I suspect that’s true of more of its exhibitions, which is a shame but understandable – the fortress-like facade of the place is enough to put you off.

I’m sure the library keeps hold of books connected to New Zealand and the Pacific, which is only right, but we’re part of a larger world and influenced

by whatever happens there. People emigrate here, or arrive as refugees, from many different places and cultures. The collection should, and probably does, reflect that too.

Open an old book, however weird or silly its title, however torn its cover may be, and you almost always learn something. If we shouldn’t judge books by their covers, as the old saying says, how much worse could it be to dump them?

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