Library closures prompt fears University of Auckland will burn books

12:28 pm on 11 April 2018

Staff members at the University of Auckland fear it will burn thousands of books if it goes ahead with plans to close down its specialist libraries.

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Photo: supplied

A staff member who helped close down the engineering library over a year ago told RNZ about 10,000 books were incinerated because it was the cheapest and quickest way to get rid of stock.

The university has proposed shutting down further libraries to cut costs, which could mean precious books from its fine arts collection being turned to ashes.

The Architecture and Planning, Music and Dance, and Fine Arts Libraries were all slated for closure in favour of being merged with the general library.

Staff and students fear that thousands of books could be destroyed because there's nowhere to store them, among them books from Elam's fine arts library - the largest fine arts collection in the southern hemisphere.

It's not the first time Auckland University has burnt books.

A former student and current staff member at University of Auckland, who wants his identity protected, helped pack up 20,000 books in the University's engineering library two summers ago.

"Any books that they had a copy of or hadn't used for a substantial amount of time would be carted off to the incinerator," he said.

"More than half of that collection would have been incinerated."

He was horrified to learn of the literary bonfire from a manager, after some weeks working in the library.

"I was just in absolute shock," he said.

"I come from a lower-class, working-class background, so I grew up in an area where it was hard to get your hands on books and knowledge," he said.

"To think it's OK to incinerate books without any care or thought that those books can be rehoused to places where they are needed."

The staff member said a computer determined what books were worth keeping based on their age and how frequently they were used.

The University's urgency to close the library led to a race to save books that mattered, he said. Staff members were taking doomed books off the trolley at the same rate the workers were putting them down but, he said, " a lot of books would have been missed".

The University's past treatment of books did not bode well for future library closures, he said.

"They have been so inconsiderate and violent towards library collections."

It was "gut-wrenching" to see how the university treated the student's relationship towards the arts collections, he said.

The university said in a statement it had an "existing and active collection development policy for library material".

"As part of ongoing collection development and management, some material is disposed of according to policy - this includes damaged items and out of date text books no longer required," it said.

"We assess our collections all the time to ensure we have the appropriate resources for learning, teaching, and research. Increasingly these are e-resources (e-books, e-journals, databases) which can be accessed from anywhere at any time.

"In the case of the closure of a library (such as Tamaki where the campus is being closed) there is certainly no wholesale destruction (or incineration) of books; they are primarily re-located to the relevant library or into storage."

"In some areas, such as art and art history, physical books remain the best choice, where as others, such as engineering, e-resources are prevalent."

The review committee stated in its proposal to merge the three libraries into the general one that aside from computers, the libraries had not been modernised since the 1980s and it would be too expensive to run all three.

It acknowledged some setbacks, including students having to travel further to access information and them losing a familiar library and study environment, but it did not view those issues as major problems.

With loans decreasing and information moving online, the university proposed moving many of the hundreds of thousands of books offsite.

Elam students were petitioning the university to rethink the review.

Elam Fine Arts masters student Kathryn Aucamp said there had been no transparency or consultation with students about the process.

Those writing the proposals "don't have any understanding of how fine arts student's research", Ms Aucamp said.

Moving the texts offsite was "totally contradictory" to how students researched, she said, and arts students in particular were tactile in their research and needed to regularly flick through art books for their projects.

She said it had taken a week for books to arrive when she had ordered them online in the past.

Closing the libraries also went beyond just the loss of books and community, she said, as about 40 jobs could go in the restructure.

"It really is a space to be in community with one-another - it would be absolutely devastating to lose that space," she said.

Tertiary Education Union president Sandra Grey said losing specialist librarians could jeorpadise future learning.

"We've seen a concerted downgrading of the creative arts, the humanities and the social sciences," Ms Grey said.

That included downgrading resources such as books, she said.

Ms Grey acknowledged that universities destroyed books from time to time, but said it risked future learning.

"The books can probably find new homes elsewhere, and many are valuable to keep in a collection long-term."

The university was cash-strapped and wanted to make cuts after years of underfunding, she said, but she wanted the library closure proposal halted until further details of the government's tertiary plans emerged.

University staff have until the end of the month to submit on the proposal.