Feb 14, 2015

I too am a book killer: the Manchester Central Library book disposal

This is a rant. I have edited it down as much as I can. But it is still a rant.

Firstly, have a look at this story about a Manchester library disposing of books. It's an echo of a similar story in 2012.

Here are my bookseller thoughts.

I don't get the furore over Manchester Central Library​ pulping books, if indeed they have done. We all think about classics and rarities, but most old books are without value, however you choose to define value. Just look at the 1p sales on Am*z*n.

I once found a recycling bin containing old books at the back of a Manchester university. That too was a quiet disposal, albeit on a smaller scale. I was initially shocked - but all of them were crap old academic stock no-one would have been interested in.

Let's assume the reported 240,000 figure is correct. 50 Shades Of Grey weighs 396 grammes. 240,000 50 Shades would weigh 95 tonnes. (That's the equivalent weight of a free Renault Clio given to every member of Take That every day for a month. And I mean a March or July month, not a February or June month.) That's a lot of weight. And space. And 24-hour storage, which costs.

We *could* pour taxpayer money into storing four copies of the third edition of, I dunno, Understanding Glass Making, with all of its out-of-date techniques. I'm presuming their techniques have changed. Bad example. Anyhoo...

Or we could close the beautiful new Archives-plus room at the library so they have space for them all.

Or we could dispose of the old stuff. We could leave it to their hugely experienced expert librarians to save what is worth saving (and there will have been lots of great stuff I'm sure they have kept) and then to choose all the gubbins we never saw or wanted to see anyway.

What's the other option? Produce a 240,000-book list and submit it to a public vote?

And here's the rub. The book industry pulps books all the time. Booksellers fill "red" boxes for that very purpose. I recently filled one of those boxes with a book written by a Manchester lecturer whose department used those very recycling bins I mentioned earlier. That's karma for you. It wasn't a bad book. It was just, well, our industry pulps books. Storage is not infinite but our capacity to produce new books is. It's an uneasy truth for book lovers.

I love books but I am also a book killer. Pulping makes us gasp with horror, but pulping helps new books survive.

I should point out that the full truth of the Central Library story is not clear at the time of writing, and this is indeed a possibly ill-informed rant. They may well have dropped the ball. They may just need better PR. But the public debate needs to hear this: the industry value of books may define 'value' in a way you haven't considered before.

Feel free to throw books at me the in the comments.


Anonymous said...

I agree with most of this. I don't think books are intrinsically sacred, or that pulping them should be considered intellectual heresy, per se.

On the other hand, I suppose the value of books (in terms of the knowledge they impart) can change over time in ways we can't anticipate. A lot of the John Rylands' and Portico's stock is the equivalent of the 3rd edition Understanding Glass Making. They tell us lots of subtle things about the time in which they were written - more than how people made glass - and these books get to be 300 years old by not being pulped, even by people who (300 years ago) might have considered them valueless.

I kind of wish the Library had rented a thousand trestle tables and lined them up in the square outside the library on a sunny day, and put all the books on them before they were pulped (if indeed they were), so people could come along and pick through them, and save them if they really wanted to. Then at least when people griped about pulping, they could say 'you had your chance'.

Jim Hinks

Fat Roland said...

Cheers, Jim. Good points well made. It might be, of course, many of the books *have* been sold to a third party whose job it is to sell on remaindered stock. Perhaps there are enough books in there to keep The Works going for a long time to come. Or maybe not. Also, if the next Manchester Independent Book Fair doesn't have at least a thousand trestle tables, I'll be sorely disappointed...

David Hartley said...

I totally agree with this Fats. A walk through the main campus uni library shows how many copies of old editions of text books get unused, unread or damaged beyond repair, and how much room a fuckton of books takes up. The Central Library have rather ballsed up in a PR sense (although they might have had other things on their minds at the time), but they should produce a list of the books pulped alongside a list of the newest editions kept or pulped books that have been digitised.

But then again, I think we need to have a little more faith in the expertise of our librarians, whose job it is to manage space and to manage changes to the processes of book storage. I feel sorry for them suffering under the wrath of Winterson et al who are using this as publicity, to keep their names floating around as 'protesting' writers. Feels rather pathetic. Our libraries should be celebrated and trusted, not demonised.