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BOOK DUMPING: Clearing the library shelves

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Simulated Americans dumped

Simulated Americans dumped


I found Robert Frank’s Americans in my cornflakes packet today. Yesterday I found bits of Irving Penn’s Passage: a work record and Cartier Bresson’s Decisive Moments in my Epson inkjet paper box. And the black and red flecks in the Mercury Cider carton I’d just purchased from Dan Murphy’s where from Trent Parkes’ Dream Life and Robert Holden’s Photography in Colonial Australia: The Mechanical Eye and the Illustrated Book respectively. Whether we like it or not books are slowly and systematically being slipped off the shelves in public libraries and research libraries in institutions across the nation to end up as recycled pulp for new books and boxes and cartons as well as landfill.


In 2014 the University of Sydney Medical School was found to be secretly dumping books. A significant article on this and the institutional practice deaccessioning (dumping) books by Elizabeth Farrelly was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2014 entitled Library book dumping signals a new dark age. She wrote:

In May, Sydney University announced its library “restructure”.  This magnificent library, among the country’s finest, had already, a decade earlier, deacquisitioned some 60,000 books and theses. More recently there were further, unquantified and undeclared cloak-and-dagger dumpings to make space for the wifi and lounge-chairs that have given the once magical Fisher stack the look and feel of a church playgroup.


GOOGLE - Search for book dumping (Detail)

GOOGLE – Search for book dumping (Detail)

I found it interesting to do a Google search of the terms <books dumped in skips dumpsters> and discovered more instances of the destruction of books. There were many articles about book dumping including one from 2005 in The Guardian reporting the University of London’s Octagon Library dumping stacks of books in skips outside the library. Left to the elements these books, some dating back to the 19th century, were in peril until students and staff rummaged through to salvage what they could. The article quotes author, publisher and campaigner for libraries Tim Coates as saying:

A library is a collection of books, it’s not a building. Throwing out books because you are having a refurbishment is like moving house but saying I won’t bother taking my family with me.

Progressively real books are disappearing fast from community and institutional libraries. If you talk to the librarians, who love the books that they are custodians of and are sworn to protect, these book dumpings are being directed by library managers who use include factors such as refurbishment and re-utilisation of library spaces as the need for their actions.

Aiding the downsizing process is the use of automated book culling software that analyses the user demand for books held by the library and prepares a deaccession list for books with low or no borrowing or patron access. For public lending libraries whose borrowing clientele may be towards popular fiction and children’s books other Dewey groupings may suffer. The use of this kind of software causes a whole range of books to be stripped from the selves and causes frustrations for librarians who want to maintain a broad range of subject matter. This can lead to desperate acts. Jason Ruiter of the Orlando Sentinel newspaper reported how staff at the East Lake County Library created a fake library patron in 2016 who then proceeded to check out 2,361 books over nine months. The ruse was reported and library staff were reprimanded or had their employment terminated.

The heart of the problem is that the knowledge economy is shifting from physical assets to the online presentation of virtual resources. In a somewhat charged conversation I had with a State Librarian around 18 months ago I was informed that the particular library had 1 million physical visitors over a year and 20 million online visits or ‘hits’. The Librarian continued by saying that they, in conjunction with a consortium of institutions with similar strategies, were directing funding to support the online user. What can be put online and be remotely searched and accessed is the focus of these institutions. My argument was that although page-turning software may make available remote viewing of the usual codex form of the book, books like artists’ books that have so many more features and physical attributes that could not be conveyed online. At best, I said, was that the online presentation of an artists’ book could only be like a travel postcard to an exotic place that could be used to encourage the virtual viewer to visit the real thing.

Very recently the effects of library downsizing have become very evident to me. For 20 years I nurtured an institutional special library collection relating to photography. Dutifully, with the support of my fellow staff members, we dispensed the yearly library budget by acquiring the best books that represented the industry and the art of photography. Despite having my own professional library I considered the institutional library as an extension of my bibliophile activities. Special books beyond my personal budget were able to added to the library and as a diligent seeker of discounted and remaindered books, I occasionally bought two copies of heavily discounted books – one of which I donated. At times, through professional networks and contacts when opportunities to get complimentary copies of books came available, I’d make sure that I’d score some for the library.

Now at this institution over the years I’d seen changes affecting the library and it’s space for books. Firstly, in a remodeling of the space high shelving were replaced by the OH&S friendly chest-high form – I thought, where did the surplus books go? Next was the encroachment of extra office space in the shelving area. Not for library staff but interestingly for IT support services. I thought, where did the surplus books go? Next computer bays and a classroom were added into the library space and the stacks shrunk further – where did the excess books go? Well I know where some of them went as just outside the library door resided a trolley for years that has a sign on it, ‘help yourself – please take away these books we no longer need’.

It has been 21/2 years since I left the institution and I recently visited my old teaching space to have lunch with my former co-teacher to reminisce over the old days and collect a few possessions left behind. While gathering together my things I encountered a 100 or so library books in one of the back rooms. My former co-teacher explained that the library was downsizing and that they were to be ‘disposed’ of, so she had asked them to give the books to her and she would distribute them. She said: ‘you can have some if you like’ – and I did. I selected a few books that were in the library’s initial set that seemed to me to be based around remainders from the early 1980s American photobook publishing era – books that are now difficult or really expensive to get. These I passed on to a friend who has been assembling a specialist photobook library. I did keep a few special things for myself: a 1980s copy of Frank’s The Americans; Les Levine’s early 1980’s Using the camera as a club … not necessarily a great one; a catalogue for Susan Purdy’s The shaking tree and Axel and Roslyn Poingant’s Mangrove Creek 1951: a day with the Hawkesbury River postman … and … and.

In a way I’m not surprised by the deaccessioning of ‘my’ teaching library as over the last 5 or so years of my teaching I found that students would not go to the library even when I’d suggest a particular text or texts that were related to their personal research. Always, when interviewing students about what they researched I would be presented with a bunch of URLs and low-res laser prints of screen dumps. Oh! How disappointed I would be when the physical manifestation of their interests, a book, was shelved in the library only a few minutes away. Ultimately I did embrace online research opportunities for students and helped to develop skills in that area that I’d honed in my PhD candidature a few years earlier.

Whatever I may feel about my personal experience, in the wider world of books and libraries, the practice of book dumping and shredding no doubt will continue and escalate. We need to protect access to books in public libraries and research collections and many public groups have emerged to challenge politicians and bureaucrats for their initiation of changes to libraries. One example is the group Citizens Defending Libraries that has an ongoing campaign against the Mayor and developers about changes to the New York Public Library service. In a currently running petition they make the following statement:

We demand that Mayor de Blasio, all responsible elected officials, rescue our libraries from the sales, shrinkage, defunding and elimination of books and librarians undertaken by the prior administration to benefit real estate developers, not the public. Selling irreplaceable public assets at a time of increased use and city wealth is unjust, shortsighted, and harmful to our prosperity. These plans that undermine democracy, decrease opportunity, and escalate economic and political inequality, should be rejected by those we have elected to pursue better, more equitable, policies

There may need to be a new term in the library lexicon to recognize these supporters of libraries – maybe we could call them bibliovigilantes.

Outside the public and the academic systems there is a more important role for those who collect and maintain personal specialist libraries. They may become the keepers of the knowledge. More importantly though, in this increasingly virtual world, they will know not only of the content of books, but the will also possess the experience of turning physical pages, the aroma of paper, ink and binder’s glue, and the power of the solidity and weight of the object we call a book.

Scarily, if we allow the unfettered disintegration of the library and the demise of the book, we may be creating a bookless world like that in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and the job title for those who deal with books will not be librarians but rather ‘book firemen’.


Doug Spowart

Written @ Wooli, December 2016






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