Pulp facts and fiction

July 11, 2003

Richard Grove offers some long-overdue warnings about the loss of materials from Britain's library system ("Don't pulp the past", THES, June ), but we should not condemn the British Library for the outcome of society's undervaluation of library provision and the destructive apathy of successive governments since at least the 1980s.

The threat to library stock is the outcome of wider policy decisions accepted without demur by a library community among which considerations of custodianship and public mission have taken a back seat to management-driven targets of item use and an assumption that "they can find it online".

Far from being the nation's library of last resort, the BL finds itself the library of sole resort for titles lost from other collections, a thankless task for a library that is expected to house everything of note.

The BL has become more open to admitting readers unable to find the materials they need in a municipal library sector now barely worthy of the name, where the idea of a national library system survives only in the philosophy of "bin it, they can get it at the BL". Faced with these circumstances, disposal becomes almost unavoidable to make way for newer materials.

We are stumbling into an under-resourced future where one national copy of a little-used item may be expected to suffice, despite the ever-present danger of theft or accidental loss. Much of the information may be available online, but often in a garbled or incomplete form. And the ever-changing character of research interests makes it all but impossible for university libraries to predict which items will be sought in future.

For libraries to do their job, we need to reappraise our commitment to adequate provision. In the meantime, fragmented library authorities will continue to pulp out of necessity (the BL) or crass calculation or fashion.

David Parker
Collections Libraria
Institute of Commonwealth Studies
London

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