There's a lot to be said for reading yesterday's papers

'The British Library has no business guessing what its users will need in the future'
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The Independent Online

Something alarming is happening at the British Library. Hardly out of one public-relations catastrophe over its new building, the library seems to be courting a new and still more worrying one. Pleading pressures of space, the library is proceeding to divest itself of some of the less popular items, and whole runs of newspapers are being sold or destroyed, to be replaced by microfilms.

Something alarming is happening at the British Library. Hardly out of one public-relations catastrophe over its new building, the library seems to be courting a new and still more worrying one. Pleading pressures of space, the library is proceeding to divest itself of some of the less popular items, and whole runs of newspapers are being sold or destroyed, to be replaced by microfilms.

Though the great mass of the library's users are scholars working on serious subjects, a big proportion of its collection consists of the most trivial material imaginable. Hello! magazine, railway timetables, Mills and Boon novels, all collected assiduously for decades and rising unpreventably in the cellars of the library, like some great flood.

What, one may ask, is the point of collecting such stuff? That is the question that the library has been asking. In 1989, the library decided to carry out a cull of its more conspicuously trivial material, and junior staff were dispatched to weed out 80,000 volumes that cannot be needed any more.

The library has said reassuringly, after the fact, that they were government publications from America and Europe, and not British copyright material. Old almanacs have elsewhere been cited as the sort of books that the library can well do without: volumes of no practical use, which (we are invited to think) are not of interest to scholars.

At the same time, the library's vast collection of newspapers, held at Colindale, is undergoing a severe rationalisation process. The library is proposing to rid itself of around 60,000 volumes of periodicals published after 1850, or about a 10th of the Colindale collection. Microfilms of the originals are to be made for reference purposes, and the originals offered for sale. If no bids are received for a lot, it will be destroyed.

Those sound like fairly innocuous propositions, but they are not. Many of the books that are being disposed of may very well prove of interest to some future analyst. If you had asked the average librarian 100 years ago what might usefully be disposed of, he would no doubt have happily got rid of a great deal that seems of the highest possible value to us. The point is that the library does not know what will become interesting and has no business guessing what its users will need. The job of disposal is, we are told, being carried out by junior staff; it is not impossible to imagine they may dispose of something that contains irreplaceable information.

The proposal to get rid of newspapers and replace them with microfilms is just as worrying. Nicholson Baker first brought this proposal to wider attention, and HR Woudhuysen has written an alarming article about it in the TLS. Microfilms are not an adequate replacement for the hard copies of newspapers. Any form of reproduction is prone to error. As Woudhuysen points out, "The history of photographic facsimiles is littered with disasters, pages missed, volumes skipped and passages rendered unreadable."

Once the original is destroyed, such errors become impossible to correct. And the possibility of such errors is greatly increased by the alarming fact that the British Library is not always proposing to carry out the task of reproduction before destroying the original. In some cases, it is proposing to buy in copies of microfilms. Is it absolutely convinced of the quality of reproduction in all such cases? And even if the microfilm is complete, it may not last; microfilms may themselves decay in the end and are often subject to flaws. And once they are gone, there is no original left to reproduce. If a page, a volume or even a complete run of an obscure provincial newspaper from the 1920s just disappears, that may not matter as much as the destruction of the Library at Alexandria. But it does still matter.

Nor is microfilming a complete record of its original. To take a single example, the Bauhaus artist Lionel Feininger worked as a newspaper cartoonist in Chicago in the first years of the century. It would be absolutely impossible to form any view at all of that work from a microfilm. Of course, no one would destroy Feininger's work, but how many unsung Feiningers are there hidden within those volumes heading for the pulper?

As Woudhuysen says, this action of the library's is a betrayal of trust. It is not for the library to judge what its readers may or will find interesting. From time to time, in the catalogue of the library, one comes across a note that a volume was destroyed by enemy action during the last war. It is almost inconceivable that action carried out in conditions of near-secrecy, by the library's own staff, from the 1990s onward, may in the end create similar large holes in the lesser-noticed parts of the collection.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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