'We'll replace pulped items,' pledges library

July 11, 2003

The British Library has promised to try to replace documents it has admitted were pulped "with insufficient regard to their research value" in a 1990s book cull, following an investigation by The THES.

The library made the assurances this week to culture secretary Tessa Jowell, who intervened following a THES report on June that revealed that thousands of invaluable items had been pulped by the library since 1990.

Academics were outraged by a 123-page document listing about 30,000 of 80,000 items from 28 countries that were destroyed by the library after a 1989 review.

The document showed that reams of official data covering areas as diverse as historic levels of forestation, soil erosion and the spread and prevalence of disease, crucial to research fields such as environmental studies and history, had been destroyed.

Labour MP Tam Dalyell wrote to Ms Jowell last week saying he was "greatly alarmed" by The THES report. "Surely the British Library should not be pulping information that could be of great use" to environmental researchers, he wrote. Mr Dalyell has tabled a parliamentary question on the issue, scheduled for September.

A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport confirmed that Ms Jowell had sought an explanation from the library. He said the library had confirmed that a disposal exercise carried out after an open review in 1989 "had led to disposal of some material with insufficient regard to its research value".

He said the library had assured the department it had reviewed the entire list of discarded material obtained by The THES, and had established that, although the library no longer had the material, the environmental data were available from other sources.

The library added that it would give personal assistance to any researcher seeking discarded materials to help them access alternative sources, and it would "explore the feasibility of re-acquiring items discarded in the 1993 exercise which are of clear research value".

British Library chief executive Lynne Brindley said the department was satisfied with the library's explanation. "There was a one-off exercise from 1990 to 1994," she said. "It is a piece of history." She said the review that had led to the disposal of 80,000 books had been conducted in an open and transparent way - it had gone through all the library's advisory mechanisms and had involved academics.

Most of the materials chosen for disposal were overseas official publications, which had been received by the library on an ad-hoc basis and were not part of complete coherent collections.

"We have done detailed checking of the documents listed by The THES and we have established that there are a significant number of copies available in the UK," she said. "We established that 100 per cent of the environmental material discarded is available somewhere."

She declined to express regret over the disposals, but said: "It definitely would not happen now. A newly approved disposals policy rules that only duplicates can be discarded, and only on the clear authority of the library's board."

She said the library collected more than almost every library in the world, spending £13.5 million a year on acquisitions, on top of the material worth about £7 million sent by publishers without cost under their legal obligations.

But she added that space and public funding constraints were making it "very, very difficult" for the library to sustain its level of activity.


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