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Friday, July 9, 2021

"I have fallen out of love"...


... with the National Library of New Zealand, that is.

For too many years, since the National Library in Wellington, New Zealand, was taken over by the bureaucrats of the Internal Affairs department, there has been an increased raiding of the shelves.

This essay, written by eminent military historian, Chris Pugsley, elaborates the frustration that is felt by historian, writers, researchers, and readers.

 I have fallen out of love with the National Library of New Zealand.

Christopher Pugsley

I have a lifelong love affair with libraries and librarians. Growing up, I haunted my local library: Greymouth, the Carnegie Library in Thames, the brilliant Thames High School Library, and then the shock of Xavier College: a high school without a library. My home became the Canterbury Public Library and in my upper sixth year, I would clock into school at morning break so that I was seen to be seen. I then spent the rest of each school day in the public library, working my way through the classics: Scott’s Waverly Novels, Dickens, the Brontes, some of Trollope, Kipling, Stevenson, Twain, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Arnold, Manley Hopkins, and Rilke. No real plan or purpose: just reading with delight.

Joining the New Zealand Army, the Bridges Library at the Royal Military College Duntroon was another delight. Overawed that there were 128 volumes of the History of the War of Rebellion: the official records of the American Civil War. Finding books gifted and signed by Florence Nightingale among the stacks. Then the Waiouru Camp Library, The Kippenberger Library at the Army Museum, The Staff College Library at Camberley, and through all my military career and after, the Central Defence Library in Wellington: now no more.

Heaven for 12 years was the library at RMA Sandhurst. I camped in the library for a week when I applied for a lectureship. I asked at the time what would the library do for me if I got the job. Andrew Orgill the Librarian replied, “We will get any book you want’ and they did. For each project, Andrew would do a printout of all their holdings on the particular topic, including books in print but not in the library, and books not in print, but available on the various booklists, and ask me to tick the ones I needed. It was if I had died and found myself in paradise.

When I left the Army to write fulltime, we chose Wellington because of three things: Archives New Zealand, The National Library of New Zealand, including the Alexander Turnbull, and the Defence Library. Thinking about it, I should also add the Wellington Library and its silver palm trees, but that grew with the delight of the easy accessibility to the books on the New Zealand floor and the ability to sit and work among them.

Fast forward to 2020: The National Library has locked away its books and transformed itself to the best café and meeting spot on Molesworth Street; Defence Library is no more but lives in boxes in Trentham and National Archives stutters along on a part time accessibility basis, while the Wellington Library exists in a series of pop-up libraries all over the city. Sad days indeed.

Now the National Library is full steam ahead, intent on de-accessioning 600,000 of its ‘Overseas’ Books’ collections. There is a positive blurb on this act of cultural vandalism by the National Librarian online but what does it mean? Well first let’s provide some context. Take a walk with me into the National Library as it is today. In 1988, when we first arrived in Wellington, one could walk straight ahead into the reading room on the ground floor where you were surrounded by books, and you could sit and read and call up what you needed if it was not on the shelves. All that has gone. Today the only books on display on the ground floor are in the shop, which is a mixture of arts and crafts, with a small selection of books for sale. Beyond that is the immensely popular Home Café which expands out into an equally popular meeting place. Straight ahead of the entrance on the far side of the foyer is the Treaty of Waitangi Exhibition. No treasures of the National Library on display but artefacts taken from their rightful home in Archives New Zealand. It’s clearly all a question of relative clout: an arrangement between the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the National Librarian with the principal archivist seemingly reduced to a lower-ranked functionary.

I remember a delighted National Archivist, Ray Grover, walking me round when they were first displayed in their tailormade home in Archives pointing out the range of documents that were on display that allowed one to see the Treaty in all its forms and context. The library displays them more like trophy stag heads in terms of status with less exciting documents, once on display, remaining at Archives. What does that tell us about a National Library that forsakes the treasures on its hidden bookshelves, to display something it does not own? A ground floor with no books – an entire space given over to coffee, meeting rooms, and public areas places to meet and have a chat. Recently the earthquake-forced closure of the Wellington Central Library has seen one of its pop-up-libraries intrude into this meeting space and remind us that this is indeed a library, even if the books you see are not its own.

Let’s go upstairs. This is the Alexander Turnbull Library. There are some small display cases and a limited selection of books. That’s it: everything else is locked away. Visit the National Library of New Zealand and see some of the Treaty documents, have a coffee, meet someone for a chat, and, due to the misfortune of an earthquake, you can look at and touch some books from another library – almost as many as the limited selection on display in the Alexander Turnbull upstairs.

It’s as if this National Library and its hierarchy does not like and are embarrassed by books? Space is clearly available. The building is home to Nga Tāonga Sound and Vision and other government agencies and to make even more room the National Librarian has commenced a programme to deaccession 600,000 books from the “Overseas’ Collections”. Read the National Library website and see the PR “reason why” but then go through the lists themselves. On 12 October the second tranche will be disposed of: some 70,000 books. See for yourself what is being de-accessioned.

All the classics: out. Shakespeare out, Cervantes out, English and European works in translation; out. Nehru, Marx, Mao Tse Tung, Primo Levi, Graham Greene, the Arctic, Asia, the Americas, et al. Out.

It is interesting when you decide to downsize: the first cuts are tentative and then one gets into the swing of it and then it’s swingeing cuts. Settle on a period or an author: so out goes Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set. I thought how would someone see Mansfield and her work in context once all her contemporaries have had the chop? How would it work for our poets and writers both past and present? I noted that Judith Wright, the Australian poet’s works are out. I wonder what Hone Tuwhare would think of that? His correspondence with Judith is in the Turnbull. He admired her activism over Aboriginal lands rights.

The more I studied the list, the more I thought that these de-accessioning librarians clearly do not read. Why else would they work so assiduously to gather their papers and writings for the Turnbull while the National is chucking out their books? Books did not arrive at the National Library by chance. They were selected for a purpose and to give a context to our history, culture and our lives: a doorway to a much wider world. After all we are all migrants here: simply separated by the centuries.

All of the 19th Century imperial and colonial histories are getting the chop. I would have thought that these are very much both sides of us: “Colonial” being a popular word today. Perhaps the National Library was not on the distribution list about the introduction of teaching on New Zealand history in schools? Isn’t how we come to be here, part of that?

Being a military historian, I try and gain a context to my area of interest by reading all I can from those involved on both sides of the front line. Contemporary memoirs, novels and writings has always been part of that, before I drown in the official records and diaries. After all, all history is contemporary history.

Who can research New Zealand on the Western Front in First World War without reading Barbusse’s Under Fire, Jules Romain’strilogy on Verdun, Graves, Blunden, Sassoon, Frederic Manning’s The Middle Parts of Fortune, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Junger’s Storm of Steel, which in the latest translation acknowledges Junger’s post-war correspondence with one of those he fought against at Rossignol Wood. He wrote on this in some detail in his Copse 125. His correspondent was Ormond Burton and both he and Junger pondered on how warfare had changed by 1918? Will we keep Burton’s ‘The Silent Division’ which after all was published by Angus and Robertson in Australia and discard Junger: along with all the rest? But then out goes the Australian Leon Gellert’s poetry on the Gallipoli campaign, with the line:

There’s a sound of gentle sobbing in the South.’

Masefield too is out but who else but we, was he writing about when he penned these lines?

They came from safety of their own free will
To lay their young men’s beauty, strong men’s powers
Under the hard roots of the foreign flowers
Having beheld the Narrows from the Hill.’

T.S. Eliot is out. I have his collected poems and remembered the dedication in his Prufrock and Other Observations. ‘For Jean Verdenal, 1889-1915 mort aux Dardanelles’. The last line of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is the title of Ian Hamilton’s Till Human Voices Wake Us: a vernacular classic of the hell that conscientious objectors lived through in New Zealand during the Second World War. An American mourning a young Frenchman killed at the Dardanelles that he met while studying at the Sorbonne becomes an inspiration to a New Zealander obdurately standing for his beliefs a war later? Are we to pretend that we are not inextricably part of this history?

The Australian American British Canadian and European novelists, poets and playwrights, are out. Keith Douglas’s Alamein to ZemZem is out, along, I guess, with his poetry? Three times a year I walked cadets along the hedge in Normandy where he was killed, without mentioning his name but remembering his words. His tank was in support of the New Zealanders at Alamein and when wounded he ended up in a New Zealand Dressing Station. No doubt to distract him, a New Zealand doctor, while picking pieces of shrapnel out of Douglas’s flesh, muttered that: ‘A New Zealander is someone who wears braces, wears false teeth, and calls his best friend a bastard.’

My copy is much battered and originally came from the Cromwell Public Library. It is firmly stamped in red: ‘DISCARD’. It is a far better and more honest word than ‘De-accession.’ Why should our National Library DISCARD 600,000 books and what will be next to go in 10 or 20 years? Will we continue to shrink? We will, of course, have to change the definition of Librarian, from one who loves books to one who de-accession books, or better still, DISCARDs books.

The Turnbull has copies of Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett’s papers and diaries from his time at the Dardanelles and his trips to Australia and New Zealand, but the National Library are getting rid of his books. Perhaps they don’t talk to each other? The same is true for C.E.W Bean’s The Dreadnaught of the Darling where he explores the rural nature of the Australian character that form part of his extensive writings on the Anzac (in this case Australian) experience on the First World War. I guess this means the rest of his works are also on some future list.

One of the truisms of military teachings is the saying that there are no good or bad battalions only good or bad commanders. Everything flows down from the top. Parallel with this is the saying that the measure of your tenure of the organisation that you are responsible for, is not how you use it but how you leave it for your successor. As junior officers we used to joke about the ‘frontal lobotomy zone’ where you would see people you admired as leaders lose the plot when they got promoted to senior staff positions. The same is true for all professions. How should a National Librarian look back on their period in charge? “With the best of intentions, I discarded 600,000 books and deliberately saved space and money at the cost of closing the window for future generations of New Zealanders to the world of books and the amazing avenues that they open?”

Is that too harsh? What is happening now can never be undone. Going through the Australian collections on the list, I see Osmar White is out. Fielding-born, his parents went to Sydney when he was two. An official correspondent in the New Guinea Campaign, his too honest and critical writings captured in his classic Green Armour led to him losing favour with the Australian High Command. He finished the war reporting on the American forces in Europe which led to his other classic Conquerer’s Road. I have both: each required reading for these campaigns. But no room for New Zealand-born White? No room also for Douglas Stewart and his appreciation of Kenneth Slessor, A Man of Sydney? This must be just ignorance or has this Eltham-born New Zealander and author of Springtime in Taranaki, damned himself by becoming an expatriate and editing the Bulletin’s Red Page for 20 years?*

This is where distinctions on who is in and who is out really gets a little crazy? Have a look at the scruffy New Zealand soldier who stands in bronze on the Devonport and Masterton war memorials. The model is of Joe Lynch and was sculpted by his brother Frank. Born in Sydney, the family moved to New Zealand and lived in Ponsonby, where their father was a stonemason. Frank followed his father with a talent for sculpture and Joe was an exceptionally fine black and white artist. Both served in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force: Frank on Gallipoli and Joe on the Western Front. After the war both headed for Sydney where they were absorbed into a group of artists and writers which included the New Zealanders: George Finey, Unk White and Noel Cook. Joe Lynch was drowned one night after falling from a Sydney ferry on his way to a party at George Finey’s house. It was said that the beer bottles in his coat pockets weighed him down, but it led to one of Slessor’s finest poems Five Bells, as an elergy to Joe. I guess George Finey’s The Mangle Wheel is out as well. We have Slessor’s correspondence in the Turnbull but now we dump his and Stewart’s books from the National Library.

I see Eric Partridge is also out. This really is a puzzle: New Zealand-born and one of the finest lexicographers of the 20th Century. He served with the Australian Imperial Forces in the First World War and left a fascinating account of his war experience. Perhaps it was that service with Australians which disbarred him? I have my much thumbed and much foxed, cheap paper one-volume edition of Slang and Unconventional English. It is always a delight and educative to find that certain four-letter words can be traced back to Middle English and not used in writing since the 15th Century. But as we know, in this age of NETFLIX and Neon, these rules have been relaxed. The words feature in print and on screen and can appropriately be used in a multiple variety of phrases to express what the National Library is doing here.

I see that Ion E Idriess is out. I devoured his adventure tales as a boy: clearly not PC today. But one page in The Desert Column, niggled me to Gallipoli and niggles me still. (Ask the Te Papa and Weta Workshop staff on my ongoing insistence on more and more flies on the open tin of bully beef in the Private Dunn model in the Gallipoli exhibition). Let me quote from it:

‘…. Maggots are falling into the trench now. They are not the squashy yellow ones; they are the big brown hairy ones. They tumble out of the sun-dried cracks in the possy walls. The sun warms them I suppose. It is beastly. … We have just had “dinner.” My new mate was sick and couldn’t eat. I tried to and would have but for the flies. I had biscuits and a tin of jam. But immediately I opened the tin the flies rushed the jam. They buzzed like swarming bees. They swarmed that jam, all fighting among themselves I wrapped my overcoat over the tin and gouged out the flies, then spread the biscuit, held my hand over it, and drew the biscuit out of the coat. But a lot of flies flew into my mouth and beat about inside. Finally I threw the tin over the parapet. I nearly howled with rage. I feel so sulky. I could chew everything to pieces. Of all the bastards of places this is the greatest bastard in the world. And a dead man’s boot in the firing possy is dripping grease on my overcoat and the coat will stink forever.’

What we are doing with these 600,000 volumes ‘will stink forever.’ Australian or not – these are words that should be read by every New Zealander and anyone wherever who wants to understand the hell nations send their soldiers too and why war destroys everyone who serves, sooner or later so that families must live with that cost for generations to come.

I have always picked up copies of The Desert Column whenever I see them. His words, simply written in tight short sentences, carry universal truths as do all these discarded books in one way or another. How do we judge who we are in any age if we simply look at ourselves alone? On Gallipoli I looked at the “gutsful” men who held us together when war was breaking us apart. Some who come to mind: Malone an immigrant, Wallingford an Immigrant, Te Rangi Hīroa an immigrant of some generations and Warden, an Australian – all inextricably part of our story. A universality that the National Library would deny.

In 1980 I was the sole New Zealand student at the British Army Staff College in Camberley. Book packs were issued to the 180 students: almost all British and NATO official pamphlets. There were two exceptions: both from New Zealand. One was perhaps the only New Zealand pamphlet issued by the New Zealand Army in the 1950s. It was triggered by the American historian SLA Marshal’s study Men under Fire on the American infantry soldier in combat where he concluded that less than one in four fired his weapon. NZP.4 Infantry in Battle was initiated by Major-General Sir Howard Kippenberger, as Head of the War History Section, and was compiled and edited by Colonel (Later Lieutenant-General Sir) Leonard Thornton. It drew on the judgement of New Zealand veterans to argue against Marshal’s findings. The second was Kippenberger’s own account of those war years Infantry Brigadier. These two titles were not issued because I was attending. Indeed, the pamphlet was no longer issued in the New Zealand Army and had been long forgotten. These books were selected because the discerning staff of one of the most highly regarded command and staff training institutions in the world, believed they transcended national boundaries, with each having something important to say about the profession of arms and the command of men in battle.

These 660,000 volumes which the National Librarian has chosen to dispense with ( or as the Cromwell public librarian would stamp “DISCARD”) were selected at some point and some time to serve the same purpose to provide a context and give us an awareness of something important in the wider world that impacted on who we are and how we fit in. When I look at the lists it is seems that for so many of these volumes that importance remains. We as a nation will be the poorer for their loss.

I would have thought that one should visit our National Library to visibly delight in the treasures that are held there. To see and touch thousands of books on display and do what one used to be able to do when the books were downstairs. To sit among them, take them off the shelves and feel that they are there to be read and enjoyed. Surely these foreign ‘overseas’ volumes should be taken out and given another run. Accept that the ambitions for downstairs and the Library at large, should be more than an exceptionally good café and meeting place but most of all a library crammed with books to delight in. Send the Treaty documents home to where they belong. Bring out the treasures of the National Library and the Turnbull and put them in their place. Earn your keep as librarians by ceasing to be people who de-accession books and be inspired to make them available to read and delight in rediscovering how we fit into the wider world?

None of which of course will happen – I am tilting at windmills, but there again, in years to come, who will get the allusion? Cervantes is among the DISCARDs.

Christopher Pugsley
  • Since this was written, Osmar White’s books have been saved, although “Conqueror’s Road” does not appear on the National Library catalogue. “A Man of Sydney” is also saved. It should never have been necessary, however, for an article of this nature to have been written to call the Library’s attention to important works in this way. That ought to be their job. It is still unclear if other works mentioned will be saved.

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