People worry about the ephemeral nature of information on the internet. Web pages are easy to create and just as easy to remove or alter. Many prefer to refer to a hard copy of a book because they believe that it will be accessible for longer than information found on the internet.
But the book is not an inviolable object. It can be destroyed by disaster, carelessness and by a deliberate act. Recently the Sydney Morning Herald drew attention to the destruction of thousands of old books, journals and newspapers by the University of New South Wales. Unfortunately the library’s response does not seem to have had much publicity. The library states,
Where duplicate copies are discarded, at least one copy is left on the shelves so the knowledge contained in the book is still available.
Andrew Well, University Librarian, University of New South Wales, ‘Statement on Collection Management’, 16/3/2011
Nowhere in this statement or in the library’s ‘Collection Development Policy’ is there any reference to removing all copies of certain books unless the library holds the last copy in Australia as suggested in the Sydney Morning Herald article. I will leave this discrepancy for others to address. My aim here is to explore the broader issue of the pressures faced by archives and libraries around Australia to balance retaining material for posterity versus the inevitable difficulties posed by funding and storage constraints.
I have just finished another period of intense archival work, visiting three archives in two states. I am reminded of the parlous existence of archives and libraries whenever I visit them. At several archives I have visited over the last year I could see the strain that archivists are under trying to defend their collections from destruction due to poor storage conditions or the desire of management to use some of the space taken by the library for other purposes.
While the University of New South Wales library has made an effort to ensure that they retain at least one copy of a book on the shelves I have been confronted by the damage caused by the wholesale disposal of books at other libraries in the past. Over the years a collection may have been physically moved from one building to another. It is much easier to cull books than to move them. Where the archive is held by a university, they have at times been visited by lecturers who tell the librarian to remove all old textbooks off the shelves because they do not want their students to be reading superseded, discredited material. Yet these textbooks are valuable for historians as they give us insight into what was accepted wisdom of a discipline in the past. I was pleased to note that the University of New South Wales library retains one copy of old textbooks.
Our research focuses on how student teachers were taught to teach reading and how school children were actually taught to read in the classroom. We may not want our current student teachers to practice what is suggested in these old education texts, but they are significant because they shaped the learning of not just a group of student teachers in the past, but an entire generation of school students.
Clearly books will not last forever. It is important that we secure them as much as possible. However, we have to be practical at the same time and recognise that there is a cost to storage. Kristen Thornton, the curator and librarian who manages Deakin University’s impressive Australian Schools Textbook Collection has helped me understand the issues and processes that libraries work through when negotiating the difficult balance between the need to preserve books and manage the costs of doing so. “Weeding collections is a big issue everywhere,” commented Kristen. She told me about a repository of low-circulation books in Melbourne called CARM. Participating libraries can move low-use books to this facility and patrons can access them through inter-library loan. The catalogue is accessible through Libraries Australia, Trove or directly from the organisation itself. The University of New South Wales is one of the libraries that contributes to CARM.
Those working in the digital world are well aware of the need for multiple backups for critical data and how essential it is that these backups are stored in more than one location. Books are critical data for our culture and society. We need multiple backups for books. But in the case of books the strongest type of backup policy will be one that supports backups on a variety of media. We need to preserve a limited number of physical copies of the book, but the security of the book is enhanced markedly when we also store electronic copies of books. Automatically this type of multi-media backup will ensure that backups are stored at different locations. Digitisation improves accessibility on a scale that physical holdings of books cannot.
The number of old books held by libraries is going to decline as storage costs rise and the number of books that have been digitised increases. Yet while digitisation helps to reduce the storage costs faced by libraries, it is not free. The bottom line is that sustained funding for digitisation plus ongoing funding for the physical collection of libraries is vital. We need to both digitise and retain copies of books. One without the other makes a book more vulnerable to destruction.
I always return to my responsibility in all this. Historians, whether academic, amateur or in between need to be at the frontline of publicising good collections and defending them. How can we do our research without books? Archivists have told me that they would appreciate a copy of receiving a copy of any article or paper delivered that relies on information provided by their archive. This is the evidence they need to demonstrate to the organisations that they are dependent on for space and funding that the archive is regarded as historically significant and therefore should be nurtured. But I think we can do more than this. We should be using social media to tell the world about any archive or library that we find helpful for our research. We should join archivists and librarians in their efforts to preserve their collections.