Spinning Destruction: The Official Information Act vs The National Library
New Zealand’s Official Information Act (1982) is a glorious thing. It allows members of the public (within limits) to access governmental information, including the advice provided by public servants to Ministers.
Now, early last year, there was a furore over plans by the National Library to cull its Overseas Collection:
The matter has not gone away, with a group of concerned people setting up Book Guardians Aotearoa to hold National Library governance to account. It turns out that BGA have used the Official Information Act to get their hands on communications between the Senior Communications Advisor of the Department of Internal Affairs, and a public relations company called Double Denim. The communications are about how best to spin the culling of the Overseas Collection:
An email from the Senior Communications Advisor from 27th November, 2019, sets out the need for a media campaign:
The National Library of New Zealand are looking to find new homes for a portion of their overseas published books – this collection no longer meets our Collections Policy which was updated with extensive consultation in 2015. We are now focusing on growing our New Zealand and Pacific collections – collecting our stories and memories because no one else in the world is going to do that for us. We would like to make every effort to rehome a portion of this collection and give these books away rather than pulped. We’re wanting to reach New Zealander’s [sic] who love to read – we know from research despite the falling literacy rates New Zealanders are still passionate about reading. This campaign would need to be clever and tap into our kiwi [sic] sensibilities and pride. We’re open to the idea of taking donations to raise money for literacy or simply giving these books away for free.
Ugh. The National Library already has a statutory duty to collect locally-published items. One does not grow a local collection by purging everything that isn’t local, and trying to invoke nationalism in this context is just sickening.
It also turns out that they were willing to spend $20,000 of taxpayer money on telling the New Zealand public that they shouldn’t worry that their National Library is axing 600,000 (potentially irreplaceable) books. These aren’t all manuals on Windows 95, and everyone knows that the vast majority will be getting destroyed, rather than re-homed.
By 4th December, 2019, the officials were deciding not to push the “books are electronic now” angle, instead pushing matters of storage. As the linked article also notes, there was a communicated warning against spreading misinformation, specifically about the National Library filling gaps for other libraries… only for the Director of Content Services to give a television interview in March 2020, where this very misinformation was repeated.
Anyway, quite apart from the bureaucratic notion that destroying culture is somehow preserving it, the article raises an important point – there simply aren’t anywhere like the numbers of local books being published to warrant this “cull for space” (anticipating 90,000 New Zealand items a year versus fewer than 3,000 actually being produced). Oh, and that the public relations campaign – which the public are paying for, of course – is also making a conscious effort to cloak itself in appeals to Maori and Pacific culture, as though Maori and Pacific researchers don’t have the same need of those purged 600,000 books as anyone else. It really is a depressing situation.
New Zealand and Pacific Culture does not exist in a vacuum, cut off from the rest of the world. Anyone who thinks otherwise should not be running a bloody National Library.
Addendum: A depressing article on the disposal: https://www.newsroom.co.nz/flogging-the-family-silver-for-2