Lest we forget the power of knowledge

Discarding more than 600,000 books from the National Library's overseas collections will bury vast insights into two current crises, writes Associate Professor Dolores Janiewski.

When New Zealanders commemorate Anzac Day, we repeat the phrase ‘Lest we forget’, but the National Library is intent on discarding books that can remind us what we experienced in the past, as well as help us understand the present and envisage our future.

Rather than seeing its purpose as a repository for what New Zealanders have thought important, the library is continuing with plans to discard more than 600,000 books and periodicals from its overseas collections.

If the books were published before 2000 and outside New Zealand, we may not be able to read at the library people’s thoughts on war or peace, atom bombs, Australia, Great Britain or the United States, Rudyard Kipling or George Orwell, or government from the perspectives of 51 nations.

Will we know what an Orwellian process is when such books are ‘rehomed’ in diverse locations?

New Zealanders may not know that the phrase ‘lest we forget’ came from Kipling’s poem written in 1897 for Queen Victoria’s jubilee, the same reason Victoria University of Wellington carries her name.

When New Zealanders say ‘lest we forget’, do we know the loss of his son in 1915 caused Kipling to write, “If any question why we died, Tell them, because our fathers lied.” Was Kipling including himself among the fathers who lied?

Will we know about the causes of World War I without books published elsewhere?

Some books provide insights into two current crises. The library has 2000 books about disease, 171 about depressions, and periodicals published in the 1930s that discuss unemployment, militarism, and dictatorships. We can learn about the causes of the recent protests here and in the United States by reading 420 books about racism and 43,000 about that conflicted society.

In February 2020, we did not know these were experiences from which we might need to learn. New Zealanders can now understand the relevance of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year about a London epidemic in 1665 and a devastating fire. An earlier form of ‘social distancing’ forced Isaac Newton to leave Cambridge and begin a solitary voyage of intellectual discovery that taught him about gravity. Aren’t books about those important experiences useful to New Zealand readers?

Justified as fulfilling the library’s duty to preserve New Zealand’s memory and claiming to follow the example of other national libraries, the policy is based on faulty premises.

Other national libraries recognise their citizens can learn from other societies. The Library of Congress has almost 4000 books on New Zealand history, for example. Why does New Zealand’s National Library believe it serves an inward-looking nation that needs protection from external knowledge? Knowledge is not a virus but a life-enhancing source of information and imagination.

Tossing out books New Zealanders have read in libraries across this country since 1939 erases vital parts of our memories and intellectual heritage. The policy assumes we already know what we will need to know, but recent experience suggests otherwise. Did we know anti-Islamic hatreds would result in a murderous attack in Christchurch in March 2019? Isn’t it possible we can learn about some of the sources of that evil by reading a 1922 book about the Ku Klux Klan that may soon be discarded?

When we are cut off from international travel, reading can substitute for those direct experiences, as the 15,000 books about travel and the 80,000 historical texts in the National Library demonstrate. The 60,000 works of literature teach us empathy with people in distant places.

Shouldn’t Orwell’s books remain in the library to show that New Zealanders comprehend his warnings about propaganda and the silencing of dissent? Let us not forget.

Associate Professor Dolores Janiewski teaches topics in the history of the Americas, the Cold War and the 1960s at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

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