Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence


Some Observations on the Sale of Books by Public Libraries by David Alexander, Historian, Lecturer, exhibition organiser, Member, Editorial Board, Print Quarterly

  I write as a historian and collector of prints and books who has observed with mounting dismay the dispersal of books from public libraries, particularly in the last twenty-five years. Hundreds of thousands of books have been sold, generally for derisory sums, or dumped. The general situation was set out by W J West in The Strange Rise of Semi-Literate Britain, Duckworth, 1984. I believe very strongly in the continuing value of public libraries, the opportunities they provide for people to widen their reading and learn more about literature and culture, and the special role of their reference collections. Despite the spread of the Internet books should continue to be at the heart of the public library. It seems to me that in the future the dispersals which have taken place will come to be seen to be a tragic error, not just because of the loss of reference materials but also because of the intrinsic interest of many of the books and of their role in cultural history. Great collections of books, including ones made by the Victorian pioneers of public libraries, have been destroyed, in several cases, eg in Cardiff, where there was a sudden demand for library space for new subject areas, they were simply put onto skips. In many cases books given to institutions by well-wishers have been sold without any attempt having been made to pass them to another institution; a notorious example of this was an important collection of Gloucestershire topographical and antiquarian books given to Gloucester Public Library, sold about ten years ago. However the aim of this memo is not so much to make general points but to describe one individual's experience.

  For the last 40 years I have lived in York, which in this time has become an important centre of the antiquarian booktrade. In that time one of the major changes has been the increased proportion of books in the trade which are "ex-libris". For understandable reasons booksellers, many of whom have made large sums of money selling these books to other institutions, do not in their catalogues generally name the libraries from which they have come. Formerly a bookseller receiving a library book without a "de-accession" stamp would make an attempt to return it, on the grounds that it may have been stolen; nowadays, unless it is an obviously rare volume, he is more likely to assume that it has escaped stamping when being sold. This applies throughout the country. Living in York has provided two particular forms of evidence of what has been happening in public libraries, first in York's own central library, which I have used since 1961, and secondly in the country as a whole, since the disposal of large numbers of surplus books sent from all parts of Britain to the British Library at Boston Spa has taken place bi-annually on University of York premises.

  York Central Library, built with Carnegie money in the 1920s, had a fine and up-to-date reference library until the city ceased to be a county borough in 1974. It then became a branch library run by North Yorkshire County Council, and the reference library naturally reflected this, though one part of the lending library, namely the Music Library, was built up by the Music Librarian into a very respectable collection. Most users of the library were unaware of the range and importance of the reference library's stock, which included many books which had been part of the York Subscription Library founded in the 1790s, as well as many books transferred from the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. There is a card index of the collection in the reading room, but no efforts have ever been made to draw wider attention to the resources of the library, for example to the attention of members of the University, founded in the 1970s, and there is no duplicate card index of its holdings at the University, let alone any computerised system. Nor has any publication been produced on the interesting history of the city library. Recently a considerable number of antiquarian books, including ones given by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, have been disposed of, tenders were invited from a few local booksellers and they have been sold to a Harrogate bookseller. No list is available for the public of what has been sold, and it is uncertain whether a careful inventory, noting the provenances of the books, was taken. As yet the cards for many of them have not been removed from the card index; I became aware of what was going on because I in the autumn asked for a book for which there was still a card but which could not be found in stock; subsequently to this incident a notice appeared apologising in advance to readers who might ask for a book which had been sold.

  Over the years many thousands of books of reference value, both from the lending library and from the Reference Library, have been sold, generally at 40 or 50p, sometimes more for art books. The lowest I have paid was 20p for Mary Kingsley's West African Studies, Macmillan, 1899, a book which it would now cost the library £50 to replace—the most £4 for Rudolf Wittkower's Gian Lornzo Bernini, Phaidon, 2nd ed, 1966, with its incomparable illustrations. I also acquired the first volume of John Pope-Hennessey's Italian Renaissance Sculpture; when my wife wanted to consult the second volume it had to be obtained by the library through Inter Library Loan. In all I have acquired at least 400 non-fiction works of academic value from this library. Until about 10 years ago there were regular sales, lasting a week or so; now the books are dribbled out on a regular basis on "for sale" shelves. A high proportion of the music reference books have been disposed of. Although I wrote last year to the library authorities to suggest that they first be offered to the University, which has a flourishing music department, the suggestion was not acted upon; among 10 music books which I have subsequently five were not in the University Library, to which I have now given them. On occasions it has been the practice of the library staff to tear out the title page of a book before it is placed on sale, rather than make a note of its title, in order to know which card to remove from the card index. This treatment has been meted out to quite valuable books, eg E B Havell's Indian Architecture, John Murray, ?1914, which I purchased for 40p in 1999.

  The widespread failure of libraries to offer books they wish to dispose of to other local institutions was brought home to me about five years ago. Scunthorpe Museum spent a large amount of money with a London print dealer to acquire a group of large hand-coloured prints of antiquities made in the early 19th century by John Fowler, a builder from Winterton, which is near Scunthorpe. Shortly afterwards I bought from an antiquarian book dealer one of the original albums put together and sold by Fowler himself which had just been sold by Grimsby Public Library.

  Many libraries, particularly university ones, have in recent years sent surplus books and periodicals which are not obviously saleable to the British Library at Boston Spa. Those books judged to be worthy of finding another home have been placed onto the BLDSC Booknet and details of them have been circulated to other libraries who can acquire them. However this is an expensive business for Boston Spa and many books are disposed of without any attempt being made to place them. There is a skip for their reception at Boston Spa, from which on one occasion I was able to rescue a run of bound 1980s Apollo Magazine. In any case the Booknet finds new homes for only a proportion of the books and in recent years much of the residue have been sent to be sold in aid of the charity Feed the Minds, which has held two sales a year disposing of around 10,000 books a time over five days. These are sold at £1.20 each the first one or two days, with the price reduced to 60p, then 30p and finally 15p on successive days, with the unsold remainder sent to a dump. There is not time for the books to be checked by the University Library and the majority are bought by members of the University. On the final days I have been able to save considerable numbers of books; many of Roman Catholic interest I have given to the Bar Convent Library. Few of the books which are destroyed are without merit, and it is in many cases only later that I discover the interest of the ones I have salvaged; it may lie for example in the quality of their letterpress printing, in their provenance or library book-plate, in the publisher's advertisements at the back, in the binder's or bookseller's ticket, or in the artistic merit of their book-jacket (of which I have a large collection and organised an exhibition Saved from the Waste-Paper Basket, Wolfson College, Oxford).

  It is inevitable that libraries should find that they should have books which no longer justify the space they occupy, for example multiple copies of books removed from reading lists. However one effect of the Internet, which in many cases is being used as a justification for disposing of books, either on the grounds that the information they contain can be obtained electronically, or to make space for IT facilities, is likely to raise awareness of books. Those libraries which place information about their holdings of books onto the Intenet will find that people will want to look at them. This will not necessarily be because of the information which they contain but because of the interest of the books themselves, both as objects repaying study and as part of the cultural history; it is not an exaggeration to say that both publishing and library history are in their infancy in this country. In the future the study of city libraries, of the growth of academic studies and of the output publishing houses and printers will undoubtedly increase.

March 2000

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