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McKitterick, David, (ed.) Do we want to keep our newspapers?London: Office for Humanities Communication, 2002. xxvii, 108 p. (OHC No 15). ISBN 1 897791 16 X. 15.00

Unedited version of papers and conference materials available respectively at:

A book that is beautifully published and comfortable for one's hand should be a pleasure for a book lover and a librarian. However, this one, despite being both, raises contradictory feelings. It deals with a controversial problem of the library, publishing, and culture; that is, human reality. On 12-13 March of 2001 the Institute of English studies at the University of London together with the Institute of United States Studies and the Institute of Historical Research organised a conference Do we want to keep our newspapers? In this nice but moderately-sized volume the papers presented at the conference are published. British and American (as well as one from Belgium) journalists, publishers, and librarians passionately and intelligently discuss the policy of many research and even national libraries to discard collections of old newspapers. The immediate event that brought everybody together was the discarding of certain American newspapers by the British Library.

I was educated in the best traditions of old bibliography and book history. I perceive any story about destruction of any printed item by a library as a nightmare. I would forgive an uneducated or unaware person who might not know what s/he did, but librarians should know better. My brain was a receptive soil for every argument about the value of the cultural heritage, responsibility of libraries and museums towards future generations, the impossibility of replacing destroyed artefacts, etc. Besides, the authors present their cases in brilliant styles and support them by intelligently selected facts. Despite the fact that I am an ardent supporter and the champion of the preservation of the old newspapers or any other printed matter, I do not belong to the people who would believe any published word.

One can find three kinds of presentation styles in this volume. Conditionally I would name them: journalistic, academic and realistic. Most of the authors using first two styles find very strong arguments against the adopted policies and ways by which libraries get rid of the old publications, mainly newspapers. The journalist would use any fact that supports their passionate opinions without shame or verification. The usual complaints of libraries about the lack of storage areas, financial and human resources, as well as their reliance on new media are dismissed as irrelevant. The scholars would be equally passionate and persuasive, but more critical and would try to take into account various factors that help to understand the situation. The third style is used mainly by librarians who definitely are the insiders and understand the background of the problem discussed from the point of harsh reality in which they have to make decisions. Unfortunately, the stance they take is quite defensive and may not sound convincing to an outsider.

We also face a much broader issue here and it was touched upon in the conference. The policy of acquisition and preservation of the collections is not only the matter of the libraries. The ardent Nicholas Baker describes very vividly how secretly the libraries take and implement their evil decisions. In fact, he himself belongs to a very rare species of a society member who is interested in what libraries are doing, at least in one area (but not in any other). It is a tradition to accuse librarians that nobody knows what they are doing or how. For some strange reason nobody questions the essential indifference of communities, governments, or intellectuals to the missions and work of libraries, despite the fact that quite a significant member of them use their services. It takes someone like Baker - not only concerned and emotional but also powerful enough to attract attention to library practices. And once attracted that attention circles around just one issue - this time around preservation of the old newspapers. This problem definitely can be solved by uniting the efforts of various institutions as several of the participants demonstrated, though it will not be easy. The broader issues - like who should formulate library policies, how countries and communities should ensure proper implementation of these, - were also on the agenda of the participants, mainly librarians and scholars. The passionate paper by Baker provides some practical recommendations on half of page 31 (compare this with the other fourteen pages about the brutal treatment of prints in libraries).

The problem will become increasingly acute as we are facing not only multiplication of paper editions of the same newspaper, but also different versions of it appearing on the WWW. If we take seriously the arguments of the participants about a unique value of the unification of media and content and the absolute necessity to preserve the original (and I do), we should also ensure the preservation of electronic copies as a cultural heritage. Who is responsible for this? How should libraries deploy diminishing resources to meet the increasing demands for preservation and access, for more elaborate and sophisticated services, for an increasing range of documents, etc.? To some extent it used to be the responsibility of a library to define its priorities. The priorities also were defined by governments (funding or not funding some initiatives), businesses (seeing a possibility to make a profit, like publishers, computer or digitising companies), municipalities (defining the interests of the local communities), and others. As the case of the newspapers in the British Library and others proves, this is not always in the best interests of the community and may even be against the public interest. There are no easy or ready answers to these problems, though the ways to address them are also indicated in some papers.

At the end, I would advise the libraries to acquire the book and the librarians to read it. To read it and to build an equally passionate discourse around other sore issues of library reality that could attract the attention of the public and policy makers.

Elena Macevičiūtė
Högskolan i Borås
March 2003

How to cite this review

Macevičiūtė, Elena (2003) Review of: McKitterick, David, (ed.) Do we want to keep our newspapers?London: Office for Humanities Communication, 2002.    Information Research, 8(3), review no. R094    [Available at: http://informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs094.html]