Wednesday, 30 May 2012


Edit: Read the response from Neil McInnes, head of Libraries, Information & Archives here.

A year ago, the Manchester Evening News reported that a third of Central Library's books are going to book heaven. Sold, given away or pulped into mush.

There is a letter now circulating accusing the council of "cultural vandalism on an industrial scale". Melvyn Burgess has just posted the text on his Facebook page.

Now, us here in the book industry love and worship books, but we also have a slighly blasé attitude towards book pulping: we send books to be pulped all the time. It's how mainstream publishing works.

And we would assume the council is not destroying nineteenth century antiques. Is it?

However, the debate about austerity and the arts is still raging among those who mourn the Greenroom, while further south, Brent Council is under attack for its library-stripping.

Have a read. What do you think? Are books really that precious, or should we re-use the paper? Is it vandalism, or are people just afraid of change? Are you looking forward to the brand new library? Is Manchester losing something important? Leave your comments below.

Dear Lover of Literature,

We are writing to you because we recognise that you are somebody who cares about the written word and fully appreciates what Manchester Central Library’s book stock represents in terms of Manchester’s cultural heritage.

We are sure that you are aware that Central Library has been closed for a while for refurbishment. What you may not be aware of is that senior management at the library seriously miscalculated the shelf space needed to house the reference books when the library is re-opened in 2013. In an article in the Manchester Evening News (14/6/11) they admitted that they would be ‘weeding’ 300,000 books but claimed these would be replaced by the same number of ‘items’. This was complete spin. The ‘items’ they referred to largely represent the stock of the County Record Office, many of which are single sheets. The CRO is being amalgamated into the Library building when it re-opens.

The sad truth is that, as you read this letter, library staff are engaged in a continuing process of segregating for destruction a large proportion of the very thing that makes Manchester Central Library unique amongst British public libraries – its extensive and historic reference stock. It is probable that up to half the reference and lending non-fiction stock (up to half a million volumes) will have been destroyed by the time Central Library re-opens. These texts, which were housed in the old ‘stacks’ in Central Library, represented a storehouse of non-fiction reference volumes, many of which date back to the late nineteenth century. The criteria for the selection of books for destruction is unclear. The staff charged with responsibility for this job are not subject specialists, indeed many of them are not trained librarians. Many of them feel uneasy about what they are being asked to do, but they fear for their jobs, particularly in the current economic climate.
Once these books have been pulped (and many thousands of them already have been) there will be no record of them ever having existed, they will simply be erased from the system. There will be no way of knowing how many of them were rare volumes, or even unique. This is cultural vandalism on an industrial scale.
If you wish to voice your concerns over this matter, please contact:

Eamonn O’Rourke, Head of Community and Cultural Services
Vicky Rosin, Assistant Chief Executive (Neighbourhoods)
Cllr. Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council
Cllr. Mike Amesbury, Executive Member for Culture and Leisure

The above can all be contacted at Manchester Town Hall, Albert Square, Manchester, M60 2LA


Tony Lloyd MP Manchester Central, House of Commons, London SW1A OAA

Alternatively, why not initiate a campaign through social media asking the Library Service to come clean about what they are doing with the city’s heritage? Library staff are only custodians of these books – it is the people of Manchester who should be making the decisions regarding their future.


  1. Interesting post, but hello it's 2012 - the future is digital . I'd rather see more books on-line.

    Libraries & the arts need to re-invent themselves in this age of austerity and ensure that they are enjoyed by everyone (not just the middle class who tend to complain quite loudly).

    1. melvin burgess30 May 2012 at 21:23

      It'd be fine if they were going to digitalise all the books they're pulping. They're not. A lot of this stuff will be lost forever; but since it isn't being even recorded, we'll never know what's gone.

    2. And even if they digitize it, it still should not be one or the other. Digital versions are NOT the same as actual artifacts. Thus...

      So, I have a digitized image of the Mona Lisa. By your logic the Louvre should burn that in favor of a less finicky electronic screen that can show any of Leonardo's paintings at the touch of a button.

    3. Melvin; thanks for drawing attention to this neglected topic. I may not agree with you on everything, but it's great to discuss these concerns and raise the profile for public libraries everywhere.
      Anonymouses; the same applies for your concerns. I'm sure if you can volunteer some of your time, Manchester Libraries, if it's anything like Lancs, will really appreciate the offer and the chance to show you the myriad problems, curating an infinite amount of stock with a, very, finite amount of resources/space.

  2. You say: 'And we would assume the council is not destroying nineteenth century antiques. Is it?'

    The letter says 'segregating for destruction [...]its extensive and historic reference stock.' and 'These texts [...] represented a storehouse of non-fiction reference volumes, many of which date back to the late nineteenth century.' and follows on with 'The staff charged with responsibility for this job are not subject specialists, indeed many of them are not trained librarians.'

    I think from that, you could deduce that, yes, irreplaceable texts of historic merit are being destroyed. And 'Anonymous' above is completely missing the point - these books have no hope of becoming digital or being put on-line, if the hard copy isn't available to be scanned.
    Why aren't these books at least being offered at auction?! Is it because this 'mistake' couldn't then be hidden? At least auctioned as a collection, someone with some expertise can properly assess which ought to be saved, and, it would save a fortune in staff costs. The arbitrary destruction of these books, which belong to the people of Manchester, is an outrage, and not the actions of a properly open and democratic council.

  3. See the top of this post for a link to a library spokesman's response, released today via Twitter. Have a read. What do you think?

  4. As someone who stacks shelves in a library, as opposed to someone who knows how libraries should be run. My opinion; our anthropomorphised view of books, is still in the shadow of millennia in which books were, rightly, revered for their economic value. This is no longer true, that is a good thing. Public libraries' role in this process was an, if not the most, important one.
    To quote me;) Books are beyond value. A book is just a bunch of fucking paper, ink and glue.

    1. Richard - love your enquiries blog post!

    2. I loved writing it:) Only the names were changed to protect the innocent. The fact that it was the day before April fools day (my favourite day, give me the lord of mis-rule, over a miss who rules, any day) set the scene.

  5. I think what this debate demonstrates most about is the unquestioning nature of people jumping the gun on social media. If this was a discussion in the old fashioned printed (!) media there would have been proper discussion on the validity of the source of the allegations. Reading the original letter can only point to one of two possibilities, a former/current employee with an axe to grind against their managers for some reason, or, most likely, pure conjecture based on gossip and rumour. That prominent writers such as Dave Haslam and Melvin Burgess have taken this up in such a kneejerk manner says little for their own critical faculties, and the exaggerated and shrill response of the twitterati (are Manchester Libraries really worse than the taliban? or the nazis?) speaks volumes about people with short attention spans, and, paradoxically, far too much time on their hands.

    1. I wish people would get off their high horses! I used to work in the library and there was a right load of rubbish down there amongst the 'gems'. All libraries get rid of stuff. An anonymous friend (so it must be true) tells me that John Rylands (gasp) also weed their collections. Central Library hadn't been done for years. The books weren't even on an electronic catalogue so access was very limited. Do the reading classes always put such store in dodgy anonymous sources? I wish people would calm down a bit and then we can have a serious discussion about the future of libraries and special collections rather than simply pressing retweet. The library isn't there simply to amass stuff. We need to help people make the best use of it. 'Collections of artifacts are only as valuable as the communities that use them'.

    2. Hello Paul, thanks for mentioning my name. There was no kneejerking from me, I heard rumours and asked on Twitter if it was true and then I asked Manchester Libraries a few questions.

      In an information vacuum (created by the lack of transparency in the activities of Manchester Library) then of course there will be conjecture. As far as I know there has been very little discussion of this issue anywhere.

      I accept some weeding out is done all the time but this goes well beyond weeding out; the initial amount was 300,00 which is a huge number of course, but now it's said to be 500,000 and the increase is down to the Library discovering it hasn't got as much shelf space in the new design as it thought it would have. Like I say this might not be true, but who knows? If it is true it's evidence that it's a cock-up rather than good librarianship.

      My two questions were; (1) is there any independent assessor looking at the policies and processes behind this destruction (or do we just accept that a major resource built up over centuries on behalf of the people of Manchester can be subject to such a major operation without any outside scrutiny? I believe Mr McInnes is telling everyone that the Disposal Policy is secret. (Why should it be!!? is it a threat to national security!?? Or his job security?)

      And (2) what other avenues have been explored. I know of three charities personally who are in dire need of books - not to sell, but to distribute. Might some be donated? Might some be sold?

    3. Surely the main point about this, Paul, is that none of us are able to use our critical faculties unless this is debated openly. As it is, the library's Disposal Policy is shrouded in secrecy, we have no way of knowing what books are being destroyed, which ones are being kept, or why. We all know books get pulped; I have no doubt that Manchester Central Library needs a clear out and the refurbishment is a good time to do it. But up to perhaps 70% of the stock? With no public debate? And no public airing of Disposal Policy? If as you say there is nothing to worry about, there should be no worry about open discussion, either. When a library, a place of information, is being secretive, we need to start asking questions.

    4. I think one of the reasons libraries are reluctant to release this information, is that the public reacts in such a 'kneejerk' fashion to 'book burnings', rational debate is buried under an avalanche of rhetoric.
      As librarians we'd love to be able to store every book permanently, be it Shakespeare or Daisy Meadows. We can agree a geometrically increasing source of funding is unlikely to appear, so decisions must be made. And yes sometimes wrong decisions are made. Even to exaggerate someone's character as elitist or fascistic, for those mistakes, is to attribute an un-merited level of significance to the public library. We're just not that important anymore.
      Which is why I'm delighted such passions are aroused in debates about libraries. The biggest threat to the public library is Shhhhhh. Whenever public libraries are referenced in cultural media, inevitably someone will put a finger in front of their lips and blow.
      I'm sorry if I sound deliberately provocative, I've experienced this before and would like to ask anyone who is keen to help libraries to look into volunteering. I'm helping to organise a meet up for a couple of hundred librarians, to discuss how to respond to cuts not just how to stop them. If anyone is interested


    6. Doh! How professional am I:/

  6. Neil's response is an excellent piece of copy writing work from Central Communications at MCC. Impressed!

    1. Couldn't agree more, it defends the councils' position, politely, with less hyperbole than the complaint. My defence may have been shorter, I suspect it may have caused considerably more offense.

  7. Melvin Burgess criticism that there are no subject specialists involved is disrespectful to the staff involved in the process. The MCC response states that the least experienced member of staff has 16 years experience in Central Library.

    Also should this debate extend to what the role of public libraries should be in 2012? 57% of those earning under 12500 in the UK do not have internet access at home. What does that tell us? Discuss?

  8. I have followed the debate about Manchester Central Library with interest. My first job was as a library assistant, and I have subsquently worked as a professional archivist. I note that the head of the library service, Mr Neil McInnes, has described the library's book collection as an 'archive', although he seems to have a limited understanding of what this word means.

    Every public archive is expected to have an Acquisitions Policy and a Disposal Policy. In most cases the Disposal Policy will be either (1) dispose of nothing unless it is known to carry an infectious disease; or (2) offer the item to another suitable public collection or museum. If Mr McInnes believes himself to be the custodian of an archive, as he has claimed, he should immediately publish his Disposal Policy (which is currently a secret) so that Manchester's council tax-payers, who have paid for these books over a period of many decades, can either approve or reject his proposed policy.

    The current level of secrecy surrounding this Disposal Policy suggests that the Manchester Library Service has something to hide. We cannot debate a secret document which is kept under lock and key.

    We also need to be told what percentage of the total book-stock is under threat of disposal, and what alternative measures will be put in place if the Disposal Policy is rejected by the public who have the pleasure of paying Mr McInnes's salary.

    These are reasonable questions, and it is vital that they should be answered without further delay.