Why the British Library won't go by the book

Truth is, we have become a society of hoarders
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It seems that the British Library has abandoned its 300-year-old policy of keeping every book published. Now it emerges that 'low use' volumes are being discarded - an astonishing 70,000 over a couple of years. I wonder if a special committee sits in judgement on these poor, unloved tomes, and if so, on what basis are some saved and others find themselves consigned to junk shops.

It seems that the British Library has abandoned its 300-year-old policy of keeping every book published. Now it emerges that 'low use' volumes are being discarded - an astonishing 70,000 over a couple of years. I wonder if a special committee sits in judgement on these poor, unloved tomes, and if so, on what basis are some saved and others find themselves consigned to junk shops.

This ruthless new regime at the British Library has resulted in at least 2km of empty shelves. But it is not just at the library that space is at a premium. All over the country we struggle with the problem of editing our lives and our possessions. The truth is, we have become a society of inordinate hoarders. Hand in hand with recycling goes the crippling addiction of saving and storing. And I am a serious victim.

Is it really such an outrageous crime for the British Library to take the lead? Along with the increased use of computers, space-saving technology like CDs and minidiscs, you have to set the public's addiction to Antiques Road Show, car boot sales, and all forms of collecting. E-mails have not reduced the amount of paper we send each other every day or (in spite of Stephen King and the web) the number of books published. Specialist magazines spawn weekly. We can buy disposable nappies and razors, but fill our bathroom cabinet with dozens of creams and exotic lotions. Organic produce is wrapped in almost as much junk as the non-politically correct stuff.

Every trip to the supermarket yields a binful of packaging. So the sheer volume of stuff coming at us has increased exponentially. And at the same time, flats are smaller, more expensive and certainly lack roomy cupboards. All of this should engender a simpler streamlined approach to living, but it hasn't. We are ambivalent about the notion of keeping fewer possessions. We might opt for a minimalist, built-in kitchen, but the cupboards will be stuffed to bursting with enough supplies to keep us going through a nuclear war. Packets of sun-dried tomatoes and ageing bags of risotto rice for a kickoff. If the "low use" committee were to visit the Street-Porter kitchen, several yards of empty shelves would result.

Any trip to an antique market shows that people now collect anything. Forget blue and white transfer-printed Staffordshire pottery. That's far too obvious. We've run out of real antiques that are affordable. These days old talcum powder tins or unused, 10-year-old packages of Avon cosmetics all have their devotees. Probe the contents of any streamlined home and you will uncover a mini-collection of useless items, be it pre-war can openers, ancient copies of the Eagle or the last five years' Christmas cards.

Is it because, by collecting something, we feel more comfortable with the harsh and often unfriendly outside world? Is it the human equivalent of a hamster making its nest? Men are far worse serial hoarders than women. Now a whole industry has grown up to service our desire to hoard. Professional tidiers can come to your home and (for a fat fee) discard and sort on your behalf. Chains of shops sell storage units for everything from shoes to vegetables.

And when you finally admit defeat and accept that your home is too full to cope with, there is no shortage of self-storage places where you can rent a lock-up unit and put it all out of sight. Only the other month I managed to fill 50 boxes with my old paperwork. You would have thought that the charge of over £90 a month would have focused my thoughts on pruning this mountain of detritus, but it hasn't yet. I'm quite proud of the inventory I've cobbled together, but I have already failed to find several books and photographs I needed.

The next step might be to form self-help groups for people in a similar situation. The British Library's low-use committee could be engaged as visiting consultants.

Comments