Message to a distracted Auckland Council: Stop vandalising our libraries’ book collections


love your library

New Zealanders from across the political spectrum are cheering the success of Eleanor Catton at the Man Booker awards yesterday.  What an achievement, and I’m really looking forward to reading The Luminaries as soon as I have a moment away from the 100,000 word doctoral thesis I’m trying to complete at the moment.

Yet while we might delight in her success  and that of others who have ‘made it’ on the world literary scene, how much respect do we really offer the value of books and reading back here at home – or at least in Auckland?

I’ve only recently learned that Auckland’s library system, the largest in the country with 55 libraries, is dumping books from its collections at an unprecedented rate.

The libraries’ new ‘Te Kauroa – Future Directions’ plan for 2013-2023 has five focus areas:

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  • The digital library – to be the ‘area of most significant growth over the next 10 years’.
  • Library spaces – ‘vibrant, accessible and open for learning and inspiration”
  • Children and young people – ‘every child a reader’
  • Customer and community connection – ‘activate library spaces with innovative programmes and events’
  • Heritage and research – ‘capture, share, celebrate, create & store the new stories of a diverse Auckland community’.

Now most of this is great stuff – but what about the books?  The plan’s summary barely mentions them, the key straplines omit them altogether.  The prioritisation of the digital world is really scary in the context of a plan which appears to relegate the maintenance and development of collections of hard copy books to near-invisibility.

I don’t believe we live in a world where online access  now or into the indefinite future is a given.  Supplies of electricity to power all these devices – much less institutional networks – may not always be as secure as they are at present.

And right now, many people can only connect to the net via public facilities.   You only have to look at the queues at Auckland’s central library computers to see how inadequate they are.  And guess who misses out the most on digital access  – you’ve got it – those who can’t afford it, and their children.

Neil Gaiman has a wonderful article in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming.  I’m with him when he says:

I do not believe all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark.  Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs.  And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else.    Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, there will always be a place for them.  They belong in libraries …

I’m sure our librarians will be doing their utmost to preserve what they can while the dumping continues, but it must be heartbreaking for them to see historic texts and novels disappear in a kind of literary cleansing operation.

Libraries are a resource that should be there for all of us. Not all researchers can access a university’s online databases.  Avid readers of all ages need a wide selection to keep them going, not a limited run of whatever was on last month’s bestseller list.  And what’s the point of developing a wonderful heritage collection for the present and future if we chuck out the past while we’re at it?

In England, more and more communities are taking direct action to save their local libraries and their contents.  For example, in this north London suburb, local citizens and members of Occupy joined together to successfully battle a library closure with direct action tactics  – although they now face criticism for playing into the hands of the neoliberal agenda by helping cut council costs.

Anti-cuts campaigners are now frequently taking nonviolent direct action to keep threatened libraries open, and there are growing numbers of community owned libraries.

I realise that the new and returned Auckland mayor and councillors have other things on their mind at present than the future of our cities’ books and libraries.

However, once our council is back at  work again, I’d make a plea that they revisit their strategic ten year plan, open up a new and very public consultation process and stop vandalising our cities’ collections of what should lie at the heart of any library – its books.


  1. I do not work for Auckland Libraries, but as a librarian I can assure you that a careful deselection and disposal process is a routine feature of library management. Auckland Libraries’ Collection Development Policy is online. Section 6.5 outlines the principles behind deselection and disposal and refers to management policies for individual collections (although I couldn’t find those online).

    Basically, when it comes to general material, librarians consider frequency of use and the currency of the information at hand and whether better use of limited space can be made. They also consider whether copies would be available through inter-library loan if researchers need that material. Often material is placed on “disposal lists”, provided to other libraries in New Zealand to see if other institutions want disposed items.

    Services to children and young adults of the kind Neil Gaiman outlined in his article are always going to be a key part of public library services. But “bulky” collections such as back-issues of newspapers, for example, may often end up disposed or in offsite storage when more compact resources such as microfilm, databases (which have the added benefit of searching) and Papers Past are available.

    Librarians are as protective as anyone when it comes to ensuring citizens’ rights of access to information and we bristle under any threats to cuts in service. But we are also professionals. Most professional library staff coming through in the past decade hold either bachelors’ or masters’ degrees in information management. And we treat our collections with the utmost care.

  2. While I disagree with your seeming anti-technology perspective (I own a kindle, and it is as much a pleasure to use and read from as a “real book”), I agree with you wholeheartedly that it is the place of libraries to collect, preserve and provide hard copies, because, as you said, they will be unaffected by unforeseen electronic malfunctions. I think the best solution is that of both worlds; internet-based electronic storage of texts to keep undamaged (by fire, vandalism, age or theft), and physical copies to keep as assurances, the gold counterweight to paper money, if you will. Libraries should certainly have physical copies, but maybe it should also be in their retinue to archive their texts electronically as well.

    • I have Kindles on my tablet, pones and laptops. They are handy and convenient, but will never replace a good solid paper book!

  3. I wholeheartedly support the aim to return Libraries to their communities. Just don’t expect to rely on a never ending pot of money supplied by rates to support them and manage them on their own.

  4. I am the Manager of Libraries and Information at Auckland Council. It’s great to see the endorsement of the importance of public libraries.
    There are in fact 6 focus areas in Te Kauroa, our long term direction. The one not mentioned in Sue’s blog is Collections, which is all about building sustainable and customer driven collections, and safeguarding open access to a broad and deep range of library materials. Te Kauroa also emphasises the importance of reading and reader development, and making available both print and digital formats so that readers have choice. Te Kauroa is available in full, summary and accessible versions on the Library website:
    Auckland Libraries is adding more items to collections than it withdraws. We are not dumping books. Books and reading are still the main reason that customers use libraries.

  5. Libraries are a resource that should be there for all of us. Not all researchers can access a university’s online databases.

    As someone with a bit of expertise in university libraries, I’d just like to point out the news there is almost all good from the point of view of the general public. My library’s print collections remain available to the general public (to use within the library, at least) and are as big as they’ve ever been. We also provide guest access to a massive and expensive online research database, something we couldn’t provide even a few years ago.

  6. Pete and Allison’s answers say it all. I worked at ACL for 2 years and Te Aka Matua (Te Papa research library) for 1 year, and the only reason we ever took books out of the collection was to make room for more. If we could have kept everything, we would have. (Well, I’d have happily tossed a few John Grishams and so on, but you know what I mean.) Digital technology in libraries is not a bad thing. Libraries aren’t just about books – They’re about information, how to access it and disseminate it, how to ask the right questions so that you get the right answers. They’re a place for communities to share and explore culture. They host community learning programmes. And as for the books… What you see on the shelves in the public space in the Lorne St Library, for example, is far from the total collection. There is a VERY stocked basement full of books, sheet music, cds, UN records, copies of local and national government documents… And a ton more. Head downstairs to Archives and there’s even more. Te Aka Matua, sadly no longer open to the public (it was a marvelous place to spend a year) kept thousands of items at other locations, and I was personally responsible for the dispersion of unwanted books to other libraries via the disposals lists Pete mentioned in his post above. Also at ACL we often sent old books to the prisons, where they became a part of the collections there. The sheer amount of information is too voluminous to physically hold on to 100% of it. Culling is inevitable. The practice of sharing information, however, is anything but dwindling – Libraries are in a better position than ever to do their jobs.

  7. Kia ora to all of you passionate library people who have commented on this post.

    First of all, to Alison – I do owe you (& others) an apology as I had missed the ‘collections’ section of the ‘Te Kauroa’ summary from which I was working. However, my reading (of the short version) only serves to confirm my concern that digital will increasingly take precedence over print.

    To those of you who think I”m anti-technology in this – not at all. I love using my kindle too, and even more enjoy being able to access the academic resources of the world online in a way that was unimaginable in my original student life. I also realise the critical role libraries must play in adapting and using the best of the online world & ICT to improve collections, access etc. In fact, if you ask Turnbull, they’ll tell you I was the first MP to allow them to take a grab of all my electronic communications, including personal ones, at the time I left Parliament, despite the natural fears anyone in that position might have about such an acquisition.

    Re deaccessioning books – I’ve worked in a library too, and know that of course this is a regular & necessary part of the job. What I was responding to in this post was learning that within at least some parts of the Auckland library system this has accelerated in a way that some see as positively vandalistic…thus my fear that the focus on digital in the strategic plan is part of the reason for this strategy.

    I realise it is most unlikely that any librarians will come out to support what I’m saying. I understand why – but I think it is a pity that internal cultures prevent others from having any opportunity to genuinely debate and engage on matters which actually do affect a much wider community than those employed within a system and those who manage and govern them.

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