Details of thousands of irreplaceable research documents pulped by the British Library as part of a books disposal programme emerged this week, sparking outrage among academics.
A 123-page document, seen by The THES, lists about 30,000 books, journals and official research reports from 28 countries that have been discarded since 1990 from the library's Official Publications and Social Sciences Reading Room, one of 11 reading rooms. Some 80,000 items have been disposed of since a 1989 review.
The material includes reams of official data on areas as diverse as the spread and prevalence of diseases, historic levels of forestation and soil erosion. The information is crucial to fields such as environmental studies and history.
Richard Grove, research director of the Centre for World Environmental History at Sussex University, said his ten-year research project on the environmental history of the British colonies had been thwarted by the library's disposal of key documents.
Dr Grove said: "There has not been a loss to the world of scholarship this big since the Great Library of Alexandria burnt down in the 3rd century.
"It makes a mockery of the British Library's global role as a library of last resort and a receptacle of all human knowledge."
This week, Clive Field, director of scholarship and collections at the British Library, admitted that although he was not in charge at the time "it is conceivable" that much of the material listed in The THES document had been pulped.
He said the disposal process was agreed after an open and transparent review of collection policy and space constraints in 1989, which led to the report Selection for Survival. The discarded material was not part of a comprehensive collection and was not often used by scholars. The process was completed by 1994, he said. The library had made no secret of what it had discarded.
Now only duplicated items were disposed of with the explicit agreement of the board of trustees. Disposals ran at between a few hundred and a few thousand items a year, compared with the collection of 2.5 million items each year.
Among the items pulped were 1,400 official documents received annually from Canada and 7,890 from Belgium. Included in 45 Malaysian texts discarded were a Malayan Soil Survey report from the ministry of agriculture and a national crop survey from the Department of Statistics. The 16 items discarded from Indonesia included a 1956 report from the Institute of Marine Research and a report on a 1961 earthquake.
Andrew Goudie, professor of geography at Oxford University, said that the academic community had lost "essential tools for addressing major environmental issues".
The burgeoning field of environmental history had been worst hit, he said.
"Crucial to reconstructing... past climates and other environmental changes, such as soil erosion, deforestation and fish declines, are archival materials and official research reports and data sets."
The size of the library's 1990s disposals became clear only in 2000 when a librarian wrote to a reader who could not find the material he was looking for. The librarian confirmed that between 70,000 and 80,000 items, taking up 2km of shelf space, had been discarded.
The librarian said items had been selected on a case-by-case basis by "comparatively junior staff".
Dr Field said: "We take 11km of paper-based material each year and we do not want to get into a situation where one cannot collect because there is not enough room.
"The policy is, wherever possible, to try to provide a good alternative home for material. Sometimes it's falling to bits and of no use, sometimes it is not of current interest to academic libraries and is not wanted. As a last resort - and only as a last resort - it will end up pulped."