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Attack of the Unlibrarian

I am generally fairly IT savvy (I even have an ancient IT degree), but at the same time I am rather unconvinced that the future is as digital as everyone says. In particular I have been appalled at the constant destruction of physical books by university libraries. Now I am informed that a major Australian university library has destroyed – not sold or given away, mind you, destroyed – some 400,000 science books, including an irreplaceable palaeontology collection that a senior researcher had just arrived to curate.

The justification by the head librarian concerned was twofold, I am told:

1. “In a few years there will be no books in libraries; everything will be digital” and

2. “We couldn’t sell or give them away because of our licensing agreements.”

Apparently the same licensing agreement prevented the librarian from notifying the deans, heads of school or researchers curating the collections. A unique collection of bound journals from the 1920s and 1930s was destroyed without even being catalogued, because “we didn’t know how to catalogue bound journals”.

There is no record whatsoever of what was destroyed, and the cost of replacing as many of these items as can be replaced looks to be in the tens of millions of dollars.

The palaeontology works were destroyed because (and I am told this was said in front of a dozen or so palaeontology researchers) “Nobody does palaeontology at [the university concerned] any more”.

Books are more than the information contained within them. Scanned photographs and figures are not as good as the originals, and precious detail gets lost unless somebody scans at extremely high resolution. In any case, these lost works were not scanned, just trashed.

A book is like a specimen in a museum (also being trashed according to stories I hear from various specialists); it must be preserved for the future. Unfortunately we have a generation of managers, librarians and students who think that physical objects are unnecessary for study, and we run the risk of settling into a comfortable illusion of our own making.

As I am not an accredited journalist, and therefore do not enjoy the freedom of speech of somebody with the professional integrity of an Andrew Dolt or Alyin’ Jones, I cannot name the university, but I shall not name my sources. Any investigative journalist who wants to find out more will have to ring around.


  1. Hmm, any more details on this, like actual names and such? Because, frankly, it sounds rather unlikely and would also come under federal laws about preservation governed by the NLA (where I worked for a number of years) and, well, it also sounds implausible that this came from a librarian in charge rather than anyone else in charge …

    • I cannot, without exposing myself to defamation suits, say anything more. I can’t even point in the direction of the university concerned. Australian law requires that potentially defamatory statements pass strict tests for public interest. It should be covered by fair comment provisions and the fact that corporations with 10 or more staff cannot sue, but I can’t say this with confidence. Also, I wish to protect my source from victimisation as a whistle blower. However, what I was told is what I say above.

  2. Michael Barton wrote about what happens to ‘withdrawn’ library books a couple of years back.

    Personally, I am still incensed about what they did to my local public library recently. A more charming, friendly building you could not hope to come across. But the library itself was on an upper floor, which created problems regarding disabled access (even though there was a stair-lift). The council’s solution: spend millions renovating the library, including the installation of a lift and a coffee shop. The result: about half the number of books there used to be. And all the ones I am likely to want to read are in locked glass cases.

  3. If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with a “there will be no books in libraries” on his lips should be boiled with his own Kindle and buried with a stake of calves’ leather binding through his heart.

  4. Jim Cliborn Jim Cliborn

    No words of wisdom I’m afraid, just let me register my vote of utter disgust at your present situation. This is totally unacceptable. I’m sorry for you.
    Best of luck,

  5. As the son of a librarian and the collector of books that I will never actually “read” as such, just pick them up and leaf through them, I am appalled at the callous attitude. Books! They hold information, They hold enjoyment. They hold a tactile sensation that I can never replace with my nook. I am appalled that entire collections that can’t be replaced were treated like facts at Fox News.

    My lottery dream is to have a soup, beer and book shop because BOOKS!

    • And, yes, I would call it “The Panda’s Thumb.”

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