Don't pulp the past

June 27, 2003

The British Library may be short of space but destroying rare material is untenable, says Richard Grove

This story begins in the Australian National Library in Canberra in March 2002. "No," the librarian said, "I am afraid I can't locate the 1936 report you want on soil erosion in Queensland. But don't worry. When you get back to London, you'll be able to find it in the British Library - they keep everything there, however little used it is."

Before I go on, I should explain why I was looking for a dusty old report on an obscure subject 12,000 miles from home. I'm part of a group at Sussex University researching four centuries of the environmental history of the British Empire and Commonwealth, a project that has so far taken three years and may take many more.

The environmental impact the empire had was massive and unprecedented in history and a foretaste of the familiar and disastrous effects of globalisation today. It was possibly the most significant long-term consequence of imperialism and, as a result, is worth understanding.

My research involves delving into arcane and obscure official publications written by generations of colonial officials and their post-independence successors. I look at works on, for instance, fisheries, cocoa blight, pest control, Pacific plankton, monsoon failure, forestry, geology, sewage outlets, irrigation and women's agriculture. All these areas were of abiding and often vital concern to colonial officials and scientists in the 70-plus territories that made up the empire. Some of the information I find is ephemeral. Far more of it is essential for use as baseline data to measure changes in deforestation, species decline and climatic patterns.

So when I returned to London I marched confidently to the British Library and sought the report on Queensland soil erosion. There was a computer entry with a catalogue number, but this had an addendum, noting that the report was "discarded". A readers' assistant could not enlighten me. She said she knew of no disposal policy but would look into it and write to me.

Perhaps it had been wrongly shelved, she said, or lost by a reader. I was reassured. But I received no letter.

As the weeks went by, I discovered that more and more colonial documents had been "discarded", according to computer entries. No library staff could shed light on the matter.

Then last month I chanced to ask a librarian whether she knew of a disposal policy. Yes, she said, "we get rid of a lot of material that isn't called up by anyone, so we just get rid of those categories". While I swallowed that, she hurried off.

Meanwhile, another librarian, who had overheard our conversation, appeared.

He admitted that there was indeed a disposal policy and showed me, hurriedly, a 123-page list of tens of thousands of books and reports that had met this fate.

Among the thousands of titles, I picked out a rare two-volume work on the soils of Fiji I had been seeking for years, 1950s reports on the Singapore Botanic Garden, reports on the progress of forestry in Sarawak, game conservation in Papua New Guinea and agriculture in the Solomon Islands.

All these, I knew, were almost impossible to find. Now, I would never find them.

I now know that the disposal policy was based on a 1989 report to make a mile of shelf space available. That may be good news for the British Library, but it is bad news for me. More important, it is bad news for scientists who use old environmental records to build up detailed data to tackle the challenges posed by global climate change.

It is miserable, too, for those heroic workers in schemes that struggle to provide books for impoverished university libraries throughout the third world.

Behind our backs, the British Library has been destroying the written environmental heritage of an entire empire, much of which we will never be able to read and benefit from again. How was it allowed to do so? We need some answers now.

Richard Grove is research director, Centre for World Environmental History, University of Sussex.

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