Libraries under threat

A decade ago, Central Queensland University began a process of expansion. Like a number of regional universities, it began opening campuses in other cities beyond its Rockhampton base. When it opened a campus on the Gold Coast, David Myers moved the editorial offices of CQU Press there. I used to visit him, as we planned a series of anthologies of new writing. He showed me round the campus – the first university campus we had ever encountered without a library. We thought it was a bizarre aberration. We had no idea this was the way of the future.

The destruction of the libraries of the English speaking world has been underway for a quarter of a century. It dates from the Reagan-Thatcher regime of the 1980s, the introduction of economic rationalism and the payback for the student activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Most of the anti-war and anti-segregation protests came, it was believed, from students enrolled in English, History, Philosophy, and other subjects grouped under ‘Arts’ or ‘Humanities’. These departments were cut back in size. They lost three quarters of their teaching staff and saw a comparable reduction in student numbers. Australia dutifully followed these American and British initiatives.

The 1980s rejection of all values other than making money began a shift to an increasingly vocational model for universities. The huge expansion in Education, Computer and Business Studies had its flow on effect on the Arts. These vocational subjects, together with Science and Economics, are not generally concerned with the historical record. Their focus is primarily on current practice and theories. And so when libraries began purging their shelves of books, they were unconcerned.

The Arts and Humanities, reduced in numbers, no longer had much influence on university policy. With the gradual erosion of tenure and shift to an employment model of short term contracts – another policy of the Thatcher-Reagan reaction – the remaining academics in those areas seem to have been silenced. In 2011, I wrote a piece for Quadrant about the destructive changes to Fisher library at the University of Sydney. Paul Comrie-Thompson interviewed me at length on ABC radio. A number of retired academics and librarians from around Australia contacted me with details of further library disasters, and I have drawn on their information in this article. But at Sydney University there was almost total silence.

In 1993, a small press in London called Zoilus published a novel, The Surleighwick Effect by Charles H. Cutting. The author’s name was a pseudonym, concealing the identity of a distinguished scholar who had been outraged by two library scandals in Britain. In order to fill the hole in its finances, the John Rylands library in Manchester had begun selling off very rare books, some of them overseas. It was a betrayal of the library’s function and attracted some press notice. Then the University of Birmingham closed down its Shakespeare Institute library, shifted some of the books to another, smaller, Institute building in Stratford-upon-Avon, and disposed of the rest.

These events form the basis of The Surleighwick Effect. The librarian of the University of Surleighwick

was a very modern librarian, so he was not interested in books … Dr Pratt envisaged a time, not far off now, when all the books in the world would have been optically scanned and stored on a computer. The scholar who wished to read a book would then simply sit at a terminal, dial the computer, and the book and page he wished to read would appear on a screen before him. Hence libraries would cease to be repositories of books, and would instead become buildings housing vast banks of terminals. His own doctoral thesis in library science had been devoted to this very theme; and since appointment at Surleighwick, Dr Pratt had endeavored so far as possible to remove books into store, and replace them by computer terminals.

Pratt’s ambition is to make Surleighwick ‘the first university library in the country with no actual books of its own. What a saving that would be in university staff!’ To achieve this aim, books which had not been borrowed for more than 25 years are removed from the shelves and into storage.

But that was over two decades ago. Last year, the University of Sydney’s Fisher library targeted and removed books not borrowed in the last five years. The aim was to remove 500 000 books and journals from open shelf access. In a similar move, the University of New South Wales library required the removal of 50 000 volumes a year. Yuko Narushima reported in the Sydney Morning Herald that ‘most shocking was the disposal of a collection of newspapers from the 1850s and 1860s’.

Books may not have been borrowed for a number of reasons. They may well have been consulted in the library. That is the point of having them on open access. Courses on which they might have featured may have been badly taught; hopefully, in the future there might be better teaching and they would be required again. This month, I went into Fisher Library looking for the works of two major nineteenth century novelists, Benjamin Disraeli and William Makepeace Thackeray. In each case, the collected edition of their works had been relegated to the deposit library and only odd individual volumes of two or three of their novels were on the shelves. The collected works of Maupassant, Flaubert, Hugo, Balzac, Stendhal, de Sade, Hesse, Strindberg and Lessing were all there. There were twenty copies of Dracula. There were shelves of Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell. Presumably the teaching of nineteenth century English literature had been going on for the last five years, or longer, without any mention of those major writers in English, a worrying enough thought. But had the librarians let these collected editions remain, perhaps the occasional curious undergraduate or postgraduate or even an academic might have found occasion to open a volume and maybe even borrow it.

The five year rule has become international practice. Teresa Burns, an academic in the USA, told me how she had been making a point of systematically borrowing books in her subject that had not been borrowed in the previous five years, just to ensure they remained in the library. She now regretted doing this, she confessed, since books culled from the library had routinely been put on a table with the sign ‘free books’, from which she was able to pick up some rare and amazing and invaluable titles. She could now have been the private owner of the really rare ones had she not been impelled by a public spirited scholar’s concern for the preservation and sharing of knowledge.

Allegedly, books and journals removed from the shelves are placed into a deposit store somewhere or other. Many academics are sceptical of the truth of this claim. They remember the great scandal at the University of Western Sydney when skip loads of books deemed duplicates, silver-fish infested and surplus to requirements were thrown out and used for landfill. The claim by the University of Sydney librarian that books and journals removed from shelves would go into deposit is untrue.

Recently, I went to consult the journal Notes and Queries, that weird and wonderful publication in which scholars and antiquaries and obsessives share their findings. I published a dozen or so notes there over the years: ‘Samuel Butler at Barbourne’, ‘Two Missing Shakespeare Documents’, ‘The Epitaph to Gray’s Elegy: Two Early Printings and a Parody’ – the sort of thing that disturbs the theorists. Notes and Queries had been established in 1849. Not many institutions have a complete run – most universities were established years after it began publication. Fisher had a rare complete set of the journal, and Laurie Hergenhan called me from Brisbane once to check an item in it that Marcus Clarke had written. Browsing through the journal, I found Clarke had written a dozen pieces in the 1870s. I wanted to browse through it again. Browsing, serendipity – these are among the major sources of new scholarly information. That is the importance of open access library shelves full of books.

That complete run of Notes and Queries is no longer in the catalogue. It is not on the shelves or in deposit. If you are a member of the library you can access Notes and Queries electronically. But what happened to the complete run of bound volumes which anyone could consult? It was very valuable – even for its bindings to furnish a room. Was it thrown out into a skip? Or will it turn up in some rare bookseller’s catalogue? How many other books and journals have been disposed of without trace? Who would tell the truth? Just delete an item from the catalogue, and who will ever know that it had ever been there? Such speculations are the stuff that fuels the plot of The Surleighwick Effect.

Journals could not be borrowed from Fisher library, so they would all have run foul of the five year touchstone. Examination of the Fisher catalogue indicates that a host of journals including Essays in Criticism, Review of English Studies, Modern Language Review and Prose Studies have been removed from the open shelves and are now only available electronically. The hard copies have not been put in deposit but have disappeared without trace. Why? Wouldn’t it have been sensible to preserve these resources, in case of some internet meltdown or some massive cyber attack? Milton Quarterly is, the catalogue announces, in ‘off-site storage not retrievable’ – whatever that means. Mysteriously, Journal of English and Germanic Philology (JEGP) and Publications of the Modern Language Association (PMLA) are still available on the open shelves of the stacks, and also available electronically. Does the discrepancy reflect the fact that these latter two journals cover modern languages and literature as well as English? Were the French and German academics concerned to retain journals relating to their discipline, unlike their colleagues in English?

For a while, Australia lagged behind in this purge of books. In the 1990s, I donated my own library to the University of Western Sydney under the cultural donations scheme. It was philanthropy with a tax advantage. UWS was vigorously acquiring the libraries of former academics. Then the process stopped. The library no longer had the staff to catalogue donations. Not long afterwards, the scandal of the books being dumped for landfill hit the press. One of my correspondents told me that at one university ‘I’ve heard they lock the skips where they dump the books ready to take to landfill in case the archivists try to retrieve some of the rarer items’. He added:

I once saw a librarian at a local council library randomly knocking books from the shelves to the floor of the library. I asked what she was doing. She replied: ‘De-accessioning’. When she saw the look of horror on my face she explained that she been to a course and that ‘turnover’ was now considered ‘really important’ in libraries and that it wasn’t good to have too many older books on the shelves (no matter how good their condition) because new books encouraged reading.

The cultural donations scheme was a splendid way to assist small and new libraries build up their holdings. But by the turn of the century libraries increasingly claimed that lack of staff to process donations prevented them from receiving any more. This was not a uniquely Australian issue. The National Library of Jerusalem had over the years received 650 000 books it had not processed. It decided to give 30 000 of them away to the public. Nir Hasson reported in Haaretz that

among the dozens of items that mistakenly made their way into private hands were a Bulgarian translation of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Milkman and a German-language first edition of Charles Darwin’s The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals … A scholar in the humanities – one of the hundreds of people who attended the giveaway – scooped up dozens of books in the library’s core areas, about half of which were not in the National Library or any other library in Israel. They included the Bulgarian Tevye, published in 1949 by the Bulgarian Communist Party; a book on World War II and the Holocaust in Estonia; and a science book by Dr. Otto Warburg, a former president of the World Zionist Organization, signed by Yeshayahu Leibowitz.

The New York Public Library has similarly been subject to culling and off-site depositing. Stephen Eide wrote in City Journal:

Under the new plan, more than 1 million fewer books will be available on-site, and 3 million fewer books than the library could keep on-site. Researchers will have to request materials at least a day in advance, making research more inconvenient. Often, while studying a source on the premises, researchers discover through a footnote that still another source is needed. They will put in a request for that additional source, just as always – only now, they’ll often have to wait a day to get it. The discovery process will no longer flow as naturally. To non-researchers, this may seem a petty matter, but ready access to the collection – not just the collection’s magnificence – is what has helped make the New York Public Library indispensable.

It is not only public and university libraries that have been subject to these purges. Back in the 1970s, I wrote a few book reviews for the Sydney Morning Herald. In those days, review copies had to be returned so they could be put in the Herald library. Payment then, as now, was meagre and, without the free book, reviewing hardly seemed worth it, so I stopped reviewing. Now that library has been purged. A former journalist, Suzy Baldwin, told me

The SMH library was forced to ‘deaccession’ when I was there. They needed half the library space to put in more accountants. Fortunately, those who were interested were allowed to go through the books before they were sent off to charity so I rescued some, including several volumes of Byron’s letters and Bernard Smith’s European Vision and the South Pacific.

We need to be deeply suspicious of the claims of lack of space or lack of funds. These things are a matter of priorities. The claims are all too often the excuse for the ideological refusal of gifts and the purging of existing holdings. Researching William Lane and Henry Lawson in the 1980s, I needed to look at a number of articles about them in the Australian Communist Review. It was in the catalogue but not on the shelves. I discovered it had been stored in deposit. Was this to protect it from rabid reactionaries who might have removed and destroyed it? Such destruction was not unknown. The issue of Artforum (June 1974) with Eva Cockroft’s article on how the CIA funded exhibitions of Abstract Expressionist Art, ‘Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War’, was missing from Fisher library’s bound volume. Or was it to discourage people from reading the journal? A retired academic told me:

As a historian of the Cold War and its many ramifications, I had been reading and collecting issues of the Australasian Spartacist for many years. While I did not subscribe to its avowed Marxist / Trotskyist philosophy, I had always found its content well-informed, interesting and refreshing, and offering some counter-balance to all the conservative US-oriented propaganda masquerading as serious academic research in so many other publications.

On my impending retirement, I approached our head librarian, a man of some long standing in his profession, and told him about my substantial collection. I offered to donate it to the university library and assured him that it was complete and in excellent condition. I had assumed it would be a welcome addition and would eventually provide worthwhile primary- and secondary-source material for future researchers. To my dismay and astonishment, he glowered at me and admonished me with some snide comment along the lines of  ‘That rubbish? Do you actually read that stuff? What would the university want with that? … Just throw it in the rubbish bin.’ He then walked off without even a thank-you-for-the-offer.

A university librarian, Craig Brittain, alerted me to other dangers. He wrote:

Years ago, at the request of Lyndall Ryan (at the time, the professor of Women’s Studies at Flinders) I was asked to establish the Eros Foundation Archive, a collection on, by and about the Australian and international sex industry. Its access is highly restricted and it is housed in Special Collections, but there have always been grumblings right from the beginning by certain staff members and academics about its very existence. Why have we got it at all? I can easily imagine a situation in which material of this nature might be purged … The next University librarian or vice-chancellor (or a conservative government, Labor, Liberal or Green) could easily decide that we shouldn’t have such filth. That the research interest of the university, which had justified the collection in the first place, had changed, and we should use the space for more worthy material.

It could be decided to rid the Eros Archive of the pornography on the grounds that it’s of limited academic value; or at least the non-Australian material, on the grounds that it’s not our responsibility to preserve the products of other countries, even though the original brief from Women’s Studies and Sociology was to collect as widely as possible. There is plenty of material in the archive that is unique to the collection (that wouldn’t be held by ANY other libraries, in Australia, or anywhere else) –- magazines and newsletters from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s (Australian and international) and X-rated videos from Australia, the US, UK and Europe.

Originally my job was to collect information about all aspects of the sex industry (and related industries, and health and social issues) – (a) about the Australian industry and how it related to the international industry, (b) printed and video materials produced by the Australian sex industry, (c) overseas products available in Australia. This original brief could easily be ‘forgotten’ or altered to suit changed attitudes to this sort of material. The current University Librarian and Special Collections librarian continue to support it, but it always bothers me when a library has the only copy of anything, especially of material as sensitive as this. The only way to protect it would be to digitize it and to distribute the digitized collection to other interested libraries. This is unlikely to happen, but until it does it’s always under threat.

Indeed, selective purging is already undertaken. Brittain informed me of

some books I know of that have been removed from libraries and destroyed for various reasons over the years. This required compliant librarians who had to actually go and get the incriminating material from the shelves, remove the catalogue records and physically get rid of them. In the past a few librarians disobeyed instructions and hid copies in back cupboards or Special collections for a saner time. I think of: Documents on Australian Defence and Foreign Policy, 1968-1975, J.R. Walsh and G.J. Munster, 1980; Ross Fitzgerald’s From 1915 to early 1980’s: A History of Queensland, UQP, 1984; Bob Ellis’ Goodbye to Jerusalem, Viking, 2002 (the unrevised edition); Frank Tesoriero’s Community Development, Pearson (fourth edition) and the text book Understanding Health, ed. Helen Keleher and Colin MacDougall (containing chapter 13 by Tesoriero ‘Human rights and Health’) OUP, 2011. Both removed from some libraries on the grounds that Tesoriero had been charged with accessing child pornography on his computer, not because of plagiarism or poor scholarship. Oxford pulped the third edition of Understanding Health which contained a chapter by him and republished another ‘third edition’ with a replacement chapter. (He was subsequently convicted and given a suspended sentence.)

In the electronic library of the future I can see this sort of thing happening more and more often. In most cases we won’t even know about it. A publisher, a library manager, a government, a local council, will make the decision and the offending book, article, film etc. will literally disappear … at a keystroke … as though it never existed. Or a publisher (who holds the digital rights) might decide to revise and ‘improve’ the work to conform to perceived current community standards or in response to influential pressure groups. Which is much harder to do with paper texts distributed over many libraries, in possibly many countries.

Political, religious, moral and legal judgments on the worth of a book are irrelevant to library holdings. A collection of books deemed worthless by a literary scholar might be invaluable to a sociologist or psychologist or political historian. A lively young novelist suggested to me that the removal of the works of a certain best-selling, high flying mediocrity from a library’s holdings would be a good thing. But it wouldn’t, I assured him. Libraries should be value free and preserve everything, even the appalling. Later ages will then see the debased state of our literary culture when they look back at the holdings. And amongst it all some good things might also be preserved. It is all crucial historical evidence.

Alison Broinowski, reviewing my novel Asian Dawn recently, wrote:

The name Kolkata dates the story after 2001, but from Plant’s reluctant use of the internet you’d hardly know it. Having no laptop, Plant wonders whether to make a list in his head or commit it to paper which might be found. Ghosh and Ackerman seem not to have computers and don’t use email. None of them has a mobile phone. Plant hunts for monographs in the library and bookshop, not in the university’s web catalogue, and when trying to find out Starr’s background he doesn’t think of Google or Facebook. Why ever not?

The answer is that Plant, as a private-eye whose investigations often seem to touch on the political, tries to reduce the amount of surveillance on his activities. So he does not carry a mobile phone, since calls and contacts can be hacked into by law enforcement, security services, global media, other private detectives, and any young geek, and his whereabouts can be triangulated. For a similar reason, he does not use the internet, since searches are all monitored and accessible to too many agencies, governmental, security, commercial and private. That is why, when he needs information on a dodgy publisher, his offsider Fullalove advises:

‘First thing we go to the university, check out your friend Starr in the library. We go to the reference section. Open shelves. We don’t have to ask a librarian. We don’t have to borrow anything. No record, no personal contact. Forget the web. Forget electronics. That’s all monitored. We just take a pen and paper, whiz in, whiz out, then you buy me breakfast. And no one need ever known we’ve been there.’

‘And what do we look up?’

‘Whatever’s there. We start with the Marquis Who’s Who in the World.’

Well, that was the idea. But in the time between my correcting the proofs of the novel and publication, Fullalove’s strategy had indeed become out of date. When I went into Fisher library at the beginning of this year to look up Who’s Who I discovered that it was no longer there. The whole reference section with its directories of Who’s Who, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Writers, Contemporary Novelists and such like had gone. Purged.

But worse than that is the incredible fact that Who’s Who was no longer in the library at all. It was not in deposit. The back volumes stretching back a century were not in deposit. The British Who’s Who is the standard reference source for details about current figures deemed important in the UK. It is the original and basic reference work of its kind. Directories like Who’s Who should never be thrown out; they may be superseded each year for current information, but previous volumes provide a unique and invaluable record of who was who, and whose entry has been removed, and the year someone gained entry to its pages, and the changes they may have made to the information they chose to reveal. And having thrown out Who’s Who, the largest library in the southern hemisphere – as it proudly calls itself – did not bother to organise an electronic subscription to the directory.

Accessing library records for political intelligence operations is a basic practice. I remember a particularly distasteful hack who used to hang around on the fringes of the literary and political worlds telling me some years back that he was researching one of those Cold War left wingers routinely denounced in the media. He had gone to the chap’s Oxford college and looked up his library borrowings in the 1930s. I am still not sure whether this was a careless revelation of tradecraft or an attempt to freak me out. Freak me out it certainly did. Who knows what books youthful curiosity had led me to consult? Who knows what interpretation might be put on such borrowings in some witchhunt or spookery?

Now, of course, that is a matter of routine. The shift to electronic library searches makes the intelligence agencies’ tasks simple. Everything is recorded, everything is accessible by NSA or GCHQ. You don’t need to log into WikiLeaks to end up automatically on a watch list. My current project is Wild Bleak Bohemia, a documentary about the lives of Marcus Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall. I turned up an 1860s article about Clarke in a series called ‘Sketches in Pigskin’. Not knowing the significance of pigskin in this context, I did an internet search. Pig skin was used for horse saddles and I clicked on one item the search engine found for me, which took me to an anguished query by a young Muslim who had bought a horse saddle, discovered it was made of pig skin, and wondered whether the use of an unclean animal in this context was forbidden. Yes, there I was, on a fundamentalist Islamic website. And the bells may well have been ringing.

Such considerations are relevant to the issue of open access, of what books should be on the shelves. The result of shifting books from open shelves into deposit means that you can no longer consult a lot of things in the library without any record of your search being made. Every request for a book from deposit, like every borrowing and every internet search, is recorded. Replacing open shelf hard copies with digitized versions to be accessed by the internet again ensures that every consultation is recorded. If you can access them, that is. Books and journals that previously anyone could consult are being replaced by e-versions, restricted to the university’s staff and students. Free, democractic, open access to information is now being reduced to a user-pays model. If you are a member of a wealthy, elite institution, you may have access to the world’s learning. Otherwise, forget it.

We no longer burn books as the Nazis once did, but we get rid of them from libraries so we can put coffee lounges in their place. Same policy, different strategies. Again, this is a world wide trend. Peter Jones, an emeritus professor of Classics, wrote in his column in the Spectator about the library of the University of Newcastle-on-Tyne:

It was over Christmas 2007 that the culture began to change, and the library to go the way of the rest of the university. Management ‘rebranded’ it, and in January 2008 one walked in to find something called ‘YourSpace’, which offered students places where they could (i) work in comfort, (ii) work with friends, or (iii) chat.

I was not aware that the purpose of a university library was to act as a social networking area, but this move fitted into a wider trend. Government pressure to take more and more students was relentless. Staff-student ratios plummeted. It was now becoming impossible to give the weaker students the help they needed to bring them up to scratch. It was more a case of the university adapting its standards to theirs. The student, not the university, was now the master. Academic staff, naturally, had no say in the matter: the administration made it quite clear what was required. So students want the library (of all places) to be a social space? It shall be done.

A few years later, TV screens sprang up throughout the building. They informed us of the weather, how to contact victim support, where we could get help if we were in financial difficulties, that all the computers were working and we must carry our smartcard at all times – all quite irrelevant to the work of a library. Then management put up a notice informing users that the library strove constantly to ‘deliver excellent customer service’, ‘embrace teamwork’, ‘celebrate success and share praise’ (I am not joking). When management tries to ingratiate itself, you know you are in trouble. Occasionally I asked staff and porters what praise they had shared that day. They fell about laughing.

The same policy has spread through public libraries throughout Australia. My own local library has a room, the doors always wide open, devoted to infants’ story telling and sing-alongs and other loud activities, even though there is a community centre next door that could more properly be used for such things and allow some peace and quiet for the students swotting for the HSC and the pensioners browsing through books and newspapers. But at least these libraries still exist. In Britain, public libraries are increasingly being closed, as the local councils claim they no longer have the funds to maintain them and at the same time pay the vast salaries of council CEOs. In 2012, some 200 public libraries in the UK were closed.

There are many ways and excuses to destroy libraries. The last years of the nineteenth century saw a concerted move to educate people, provide free schooling, free libraries and universities of quality and distinction; the twenty-first century seems to be running a policy of dumbing down and surveillance. Yes, the internet allows easy access to information. But it has not replaced books. It is an invaluable research tool. So are traditional books and libraries. An intelligent solution would be to maintain both systems. To depend increasingly and solely on the internet is not a good solution, except for the shareholders in IT companies. A correspondent pointed out to me:

One extra thing I’ve found that is very problematic is the digitization of newspapers. They always only chose to digitize a single issue of each day’s paper. The problem with the Sydney Morning Herald, for example, is that sometimes something really controversial hits the first edition but is removed pretty smartly by the lawyers and vanishes from subsequent editions of the paper. Future generations will never know that this occurred and there thus will probably be occasions when extremely significant events become hidden from history because only one edition of a newspaper was digitized.

This is a problem with the splendid Trove initative by which Australian newspapers have been digitized. And it is a problem with a reliance on digital records alone. Furthermore, with e-books it is so easy to change the text and leave no trace of the change behind. The Orwellian vision of reprinting entire editions of a work and withdrawing and destroying the previous edition was always cumbersome and expensive; doctoring digitized material is easy.

Preserving it, however, is another issue. The exploitation of obsolescence for commercial gain is a characteristic of the IT industry. New technology is introduced and information stored on early computer systems, like floppy disks from years ago, is no longer retrievable. New retrieval systems do not last forever. Some of the Brave New Libraries may soon be inaccessible. The rush to throw out hard copy books and journals once they have been digitized could result in the loss of the content forever. Robin McKie and Vanessa Thorpe reported in the Observer on the digital Domesday book:

It was meant to be a showcase for Britain’s electronic prowess – a computer-based, multimedia version of the Domesday Book. But 16 years after it was created, the £2.5 million BBC Domesday Project has achieved an unexpected and unwelcome status: it is now unreadable. The special computers developed to play the 12in video discs of text, photographs, maps and archive footage of British life are – quite simply – obsolete. As a result, no one can access the reams of project information – equivalent to several sets of encyclopaedias – that were assembled about the state of the nation in 1986. By contrast, the original Domesday Book – an inventory of eleventh-century England compiled in 1086 by Norman monks – is in fine condition in the Public Record Office, Kew, and can be accessed by anyone who can read and has the right credentials. ‘It is ironic, but the 15-year-old version is unreadable, while the ancient one is still perfectly usable,’ said computer expert Paul Wheatley. ‘We’re lucky Shakespeare didn’t write on an old PC.’

Nor is the problem a new one. A crisis in digital preservation now afflicts all developed countries. Databases recorded in old computer formats can no longer be accessed on new generation machines, while magnetic storage tapes and discs have physically decayed, ruining precious databases.

For millennia, men and women have used paper to create everything from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Neville Chamberlain’s ‘piece of paper from Herr Hitler’. In the past few decades, computers, scanners, cassettes, videos, CDs, minidiscs and floppy disks have been used to replace the written word. Yet in just a few short years these digital versions have started to degrade.

The space agency Nasa has already lost digital records sent back by its early probes, and in 1995 the US government came close to losing a vast chunk of national census data, thanks to the obsolescence of its data retrieval technology.

Betamax video players, 8in and 5in computer disks, and eight-track music cartridges have all become redundant, making it impossible to access records stored on them. Data stored on the 3in disks used in the pioneering Amstrad word-processor is now equally inaccessible.

My original brief for writing this piece was the announcement of changes to Mitchell Library in Sydney. At the time of writing, the specifics of those changes are not clear. We can only hope that the proposals do not follow the patterns of destruction itemised above.

Read the correspondence for this article.


Paul Comrie-Thompson, ‘The Great Purge of Our Libraries,’ Counterpoint, Radio National (18 July 2011).
Stephen Eide, ‘The New York Public Library’s Uncertain Future,’ City Journal (Autumn 2013).
Alison Flood, ‘UK lost more than 200 public libraries in 2012,’ The Guardian (11 December 2012).
Nir Hasson, ‘How did Israel’s National Library give away a first-edition Darwin?’ Haaretz (21 July 2011).
Peter Jones, ‘Shelf hatred,’ The Spectator (29 October 2011).
Michael J. Lewis, ‘Philanthropic tyrrany at the NYPL,’ The New Criterion (December 2013).
Robin McKie and Vanessa Thorpe, ‘Digital Domesday Book lasts 15 years not 1000,’ The Observer  (3 March 2002).
Nigel Morris, ‘Revealed: the full cost of the cull of public libraries,’ The Independent (1 March 2014).
Yuko Narushima, ‘Books get the shove as university students prefer to do research online,’ The Sydney Morning Herald (8 March 2011).
Yuko Narushima, ‘You can judge a book by its “dust test” as university library cuts its staff and stock,’ The Sydney Morning Herald (12 May 2011).
Michael Wilding, ‘The Great Purge of Our Libraries,’ Quadrant (1 July 2011).