Somebody was telling me today how her university library has frequent 'clear-outs' of old books. Occasionally there are library sales, but most of the time, so she tells me, the books are simply dumped in skips, and sent off to be pulped, or finish up as landfill. I am more shocked that I can say.
She tells me that this doesn't just involve outdated textbooks. Old (and possibly valuable) hardbacks of the classics are often cleared out to make way for glossy paperbacks, which are thought to be more enticing to students. Similarly, old history books, including highly collectable statistical accounts are treated in the same cavalier fashion.
At this point in our conversation, I found myself having to snap my severely dropped jaw back into place. At what point does an 'outdated historical account' fit only for the skip, become a valuable old text, giving the student a snapshop of a particular place and time? When I was writing my book about Gigha, I found myself relying heavily on just such an old history of the archaeology of the island, researched and written in the 1930s, by a visiting clergyman. Of course most of the archaeological theory was out of date but it was the accurate observations of a large number of sites, that were invaluable for me. They came complete with detailed measurements, and descriptions of places that have changed drastically over the succeeding years. Armed with my little book, I could walk the island making comparisons. And yet this is exactly the sort of volume that has probably been jettisoned from various libraries to make room for glossy popular paperbacks. It is, so I'm told, a question of space. But shouldn't it also be a question of informed choice? A swift glance at a site such as Abebooks should show librarians the market value of some of these volumes, never mind their value as reference works. Charities such as Oxfam have quickly cottoned on. Yet so many of our academic institutions appear blissfully unaware of just how many babies are being ditched with this particular vat of bathwater. Such destruction is iniquitous, and if they don't want the books, they should at least be giving the general public the chance to acquire them.