the kind of natural weeding

Libraries Lately there's been an immense discussion about a mass disposal of materials from Manchester Central Library as part of a three year refurbishment project. The source of concern was a letter purporting to be from inside the process which suggested the people in charge of removing three hundred thousand items weren't trained librarians and that they weren't sure what was being thrown out. Cue much excitement on Twitter and elsewhere, especially from me.

Now The Guardian's finally written a piece about it, Martin Wainwright describing the various issues, relating the details of the outrage and as happened the other day with that Charlotte Church piece, someone involved in this case Smyth Harper the Head of News at Manchester City Council has popped in to offer some perspective. Now, obviously she too isn't inside the library -- she's a council press officer, but she seem pretty clued in on the topic.

Elsewhere in the comments this lengthy piece from the Manchester Evening News is linked to, finally offering some perspective on what's happening with detail as to what's being disposed of and why, "reference and non-fiction works, with some fiction.  [...] outdated scientific, medical or trade references books, or books in poor condition, have also been dug out."  They're also consulting borrower records to see what's actually being used lately.

So now we have two sides to the story.  On the one hand the suggestion of cultural vandalism on a massive scale.  On the other the catching up on seventy years of the kind of natural weeding every library that isn't a national deposit (like the British or Bodlean Libraries) which has to keep everything usually goes through.  Regular book sales in local branch libraries are an example of this.

My guess is that it's somewhere in between depending on your point of view.  The breaking up a library's collection is to some extent the destruction of a historical legacy, a mass of knowledge brought to together by successive hands across the years.  But in truth that's probably only of interest to those studying collections policies and there's an argument that a record of what was in the collection is just as valuable as keeping the physical items.

Plus if something is rarely used if ever and is available from elsewhere through inter-library loan, it isn't some great loss, if an inconvenience to someone turning up at the library hoping to look at it on a given day.  But that would also be the case if it was simply on loan.  At least from the MEN piece there's no suggestion that they're getting rid of anything unique (though obviously if there are only 2 copies left in the world you should probably keep both of those).

Also at certain point non-fiction books stop being filled with knowledge and become cultural curiosities as to what the state of knowledge was at a certain point.  Out of date scientific papers are sometimes a special case because they can be a treasure trove of historical data, but again, if they're not unique and they're not used that often and you don't have the room, there's little point keeping them, especially if they've been digitised.

At home I have a certain weeding policy especially in regards to my VHS tapes.  Rather than simply dumping the lot, I carefully went through and checked on availability.  There are some treasured films in there which have never went to dvd or were deleted within seconds of release (Nina Takes a Lover and astonishing amount of Shakespeare) so I've kept those.  I'd expect the Manchester Library's doing much the same.

All of which means I'm rather more philosophical about this than before I began writing this post (not least because Harper indicates that no local items, the bread and butter of this kind of collection are being lost).  So now I'm looking forward to seeing the new library with great interest.  But of course, Liverpool's own Central Library opens in the meantime and we've no idea what's being going on in there.

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