What’s really at stake in book-culling decision [Newsroom Essay]

This essay was originally published on Newsroom, February 10, 2020.

Festina lente. Make haste, slowly.

This was the motto of one of the Renaissance’s greatest publishers, whose most famous book the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington in fact owns a copy of.

The motto implies that we must make progress, that we must move forwards, but always with the wisdom of the past. Move forward, but with care; with attention; and with the knowledge that we today could be wrong. The motto has always seemed perfect for a library’s vision statement, summing up its central role. Yet in its decision to deaccession more than 600,000 “overseas” books, our National Library seems to have done us a disservice. “Shortsighted,” Helen Clark said of the cull. All New Zealanders should care deeply about the Library’s decision, because it strikes to the heart of how insular or open we are as a nation.

The Library is culling books from its “Overseas published collections” to “make room for New Zealand, Māori and Pacific stories”. The books being “rehomed” or destroyed (whichever it is, the effect is the same for National Library users) encompass philosophy, religion, arts, science, languages and a great deal more. In public announcements, Library staff keep trying to emphasise the irrelevance of the books they’re culling, like old computer guides from the 1990s. But time and again, even the books they cherry-pick as irrelevant examples seem deeply relevant. We may not learn about how to use a computer from an old computer manual, but we might learn about the ephemerality of new technologies—something the Library itself should be thinking deeply about as it gets rid of physical books. (A line from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 comes to mind: “The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caeser’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caeser, thou art mortal.’”)

We should remember too that what seems niche and irrelevant now may not be in the future. I’m 25, and I have been continually surprised by the turns and detours my interests have taken, leading me deeper into books I had never thought I would be interested in—and I know this is true for many other young people. The idea that young people will read digitally and not need print books is itself a patronising attitude, failing to take into account how technologies fall in and out of favour. Many now see the beginnings of a rejection of technology in young peoples’ lives, and it would not be surprising if this translates to a return to reading physical books.

The Library’s public announcement was good PR—it turned a negative into a positive, because which New Zealander doesn’t want more books about New Zealand? But that decision to cull internationally-published books to make room for New Zealand ones belies a deeply unsettling idea at the heart of the National Library and its master, Internal Affairs. It implies a ‘little New Zealandism’ that many thought we dispensed with decades ago. It’s a form of nationalism: an unsettling one at a time of growing nationalism around the world. In essence, it’s about whether we see ourselves as an insular, navel-gazing nation, concerned only with ourselves and our own affairs; or whether we see ourselves as shaped by and part of a global community, continually learning from the world.

Where the discussion should be centred is on the role of the National Library. The institution has decided that its role is to focus exclusively on “New Zealand, Māori and Pacific stories,” at the expense of the world around us. I expect Library staff might point to the impossibility of our National Library collecting deeply in international materials, or to the British Library’s own emphasis on British collections. But in the first case, the impossibility of collecting everything does not mean we should throw out those international resources we already have. And we simply cannot afford to take the same approach as the British Library, because we are a different nation with different needs. Our geographic distance still affects us daily, and it will always mean we need to go out of our way to connect ourselves to the world.

How will the culling affect New Zealanders? A few examples.

First, the growing number of migrants coming to our shores, who are already and who will become New Zealanders, need a library that contains their own cultural histories too. What might now appear niche, foreign and irrelevant is to someone else their very culture—it might just be the book that connects them to themselves and to others, providing inspiration and social connection. A decision to throw out all the books that might link to our new citizens’ origins is a cultural handicap at best.

Second, New Zealand’s historians, academics and researchers do not study only New Zealand. From New Zealand, they study the world—all corners and all cultures of it. To deaccession any book that does not relate to New Zealand is a severe restriction on the kinds of thought our researchers can do. It throws us back into the days of staid cultural nationalism, when it was thought that New Zealanders were only good for studying New Zealand; and it says to every aspiring New Zealand thinker and researcher, from the start, that all that matters here is that which is within our borders. We should be wary of the current tendency for countries to turn in on themselves.

Finally, a decision like this slowly works its way into the national psyche. Our collective sense of possibility is shaped as much by what knowledge is absent as that which is present. This can be seen clearly in our arts and literature of the 1930s and 40s, when artists and writers struggled to obtain international books. At worst, it forces young people to go overseas—ensuring New Zealand remains a kind of frontier from which intelligent and interested young Katherine Mansfields and Frances Hodgkinses feel they must quickly escape.

No book is obscure to the person who needs it. Many will know the experience of discovering a book that seems essential and necessary to one’s life or studies. You may well be the first person to have requested the book from the library in 30 years, but to you it’s essential, the most important book in the world. A library should exist for those moments, for the intangible, unmeasurable power that even one book can have on an individual life and on a nation’s culture. Right now, if such a book was published overseas, there’s a good chance it has been or is soon to be culled from our National Library. And that thought is a crushing reality to any New Zealander who believes our country must be large enough to encompass at least some of the world, and not just the world within our sandy borders. In the words of John Beaglehole, one of our great historians: “The tradition of an island need not be insularity.”

How to Make a Book With Steidl: Gutenberg or Aldus Manutius?

How to make a book with Gerhard Steidl documentary, Gutenberg

I stumbled across this film while looking for documentaries about early printing, Gutenberg and so on. Gerhard Steidl owns and runs Steidl, a publisher-printer based in Göttingen. Known for his photography books with the work of many of the world’s best photographers, they say that Steidl’s ink is printed so thickly on the page that it’s sculptural.

I had previously read this New Yorker article on Steidl’s life and work, which describes things wonderfully. The public interest in Steidl seems to mimic the resurgent interest in people engaged in traditional craft the world over—maybe none more so than Jiro of Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Printing is of slightly (only slightly) more interest to me than sushi.

You can stream How to Make a Book With Steidl on Vimeo here. It features Steidl co-producing books with photographers such as Robert Frank and Martin Parr, with some of Steidl’s more idiosyncratic tendencies on display, as from the New Yorker profile:

Artists who work with Steidl typically travel to Göttingen, which is about four miles west of the old border with East Germany. They wait, sometimes for years, to be summoned, and are expected to drop everything when he calls. “It is like going to kiss the Pope’s ring,” Mary Ellen Carroll, the conceptual artist, said. (In 2010, she published “MEC,”—a book of her work, divided into categories including Mistakes, Boredom, and Lies—with Steidl.) When artists arrive in Göttingen, Steidl is often not quite ready to give them his attention, and so they must while away entire days in a library four floors above the company printing press, which runs non-stop, seven days a week. Steidl does not want artists straying into town, or dawdling at a restaurant or a bar where he cannot find them. “He is like a monk,” Robert Polidori, whose work Steidl has published since 2001, says. “He is not a priest—he is there to work, but he doesn’t perform miracles, or sacraments. He delivers.”

Personally, Steidl strikes me as a figure closer to Venetian printer Aldus Manutius (Aldo Manuzio) than Gutenberg. His dedication to culture rather than religion, his mixing business with scholarship and culture, and his commercial success (Gutenberg was bankrupted and lost his type) make this feel true. But I suppose it’s easier just to say Gutenberg!

Alexander Turnbull and New Zealand’s Library (A Short Bibliography)

Alexander Turnbull Library Iorangi
Turnbull and friends aboard his yacht Iorangi in the Queen Charlotte Sound. Image from Alexander Turnbull Library collection.

We have the man’s library, but what to do with the man himself? Dilettante, cocaine addict, recluse, snob, sailor and bibliophile—Alexander Turnbull is not one of those benefactors to be remembered fondly by history, nor, for that matter, by his contemporaries. When he died in 1918 he left his library to the nation. Had he not done so, it’s unlikely he’d be remembered at all.

But what a library! Readying myself for my return to Wellington I’ve been browsing through old catalogues of Turnbull’s books, discovering what I’ll have access to after giving up the Bodleian. Guiltily, I realised I’d made from a distance that old mistake in assuming that because we’re small we wouldn’t have much of value.

We have a copy of what has been called the most beautiful book ever printed, the Hypnerotomachia poliphili, from Aldus Manutius’ Venice press. Turnbull bought it from Bernard Quaritch, famous London book dealer, in November 1900. There are over 100 other incunabula in the national collection, many but not all from Turnbull’s own collection.

We have one of the finest and most complete collections of Milton books in the world. This was perhaps Turnbull’s most serious collecting interest, and his most costly.

Turnbull collected complete sets of books from famous private printing presses including, most notably, William Morris’ Kelmscott Press. Alongside this, of course—and after Turnbull’s time—we have complete runs of everything printed by New Zealand’s own private presses like Caxton and Pegasus.

There are currently 24 medieval manuscripts in the Turnbull Library, though Turnbull himself only bought one (he did not read Greek or Latin). The earliest is a pre-1150 manuscript of Boethius’ On Music.

And then, most significantly, is the fact that Turnbull aimed for utter comprehensiveness in his collection of NZ-related materials. Neither Sir George Grey or Dr Thomas Hocken, who donated their significant libraries to the public too, had the sheer quantity of NZ books as Turnbull did.

And unlike so many collections in Europe, we don’t need to be members of a university or personal friends with the collector to go and view any of these. They’re a part of our national collection. Just walk in to the National Library building in Wellington.


Turnbull and NZ’s libraries, a short bibliography:

The Fascinating Folly: Dr. Hocken and his Fellow Collectors. E. H. McCormick, University of Otago Press, 1961. (This is a pamphlet with great introductory material to the three contemporaneous book collectors who gifted their libraries to the nation.)

Alexander Turnbull: His Life, His Circle, His Collections. E. H. McCormick, Alexander Turnbull Library, 1974. (The most comprehensive biography written on Turnbull).

This brilliant guide to book history at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

The Turnbull: A Library and its World. Rachel Barrowman, Auckland University Press, 1995. (A great history of the library through time, though with far less about Turnbull himself than McCormick’s biography).

Early Imprints in New Zealand Libraries. Alexander Turnbull Library, 1995. (Subtitled “A finding list of books printed before 1801 held in libraries in the Wellington region”, this is a good primer on what we have in our libraries).

How millionaire book collector Alexander Turnbull fell from grace“. Redmer Yska in The Listener, January 2019. (A good primer).

The Oldest Manuscripts in New Zealand. David Taylor, NZCER, 1955. (A popular book in its time, this covers the earliest Medieval manuscripts we had in all NZ libraries before 1955).

Account of a cruise in the yacht Iorangi to Queen Charlotte sound, New Zealand. Alexander Turnbull, privately printed, 1902. (The only book Turnbull himself ever wrote. A copy is available, of course, in his own library).