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The Strange Rise of Semi-Literate England: The Dissolution of the Libraries.


W. J. West. Duckworth, 1991. 7.99[pounds].

This attractively produced book -- or rather pamphlet -- consists of 52 pages of cogent and well-informed polemic on the subject of the mindless dispersal of stock by public and institutional libraries, followed by a list of 292 libraries that have sold off books that have subsequently come into the author's possession, and a list of 260 former library books acquired by the author in the course of his investigations.

The two outstandingly disgraceful instances of library dispersal noted by Mr. West are the London Borough of Brent's disposal of 105,070 books in the 1980s, partly in order to enable a new library to be built on the site of the warehouse containing the library system's reserve collection, and Derbyshire County Council's disposal of the Mackie Memorial Library, a unique nineteenth century collection relating to the development of the cotton industry. In the latter instance Derbyshire County Council belatedly attempted to buy back volumes from second-hand dealers as these were required for a Heritage Centre the council had set up before the book dispersal was ordered. Mr. West does not pretend to supply a list of such large-scale blunders, but other examples are known to this reviewer, and probably to most readers of Contemporary Review.

Mr. West's list of books previously owned by libraries contains four that are not possessed by the British Library. Others are scholarly works which, though out of print, still regularly appear on undergraduate reading lists at university. Others again appear to be the kind of item that one had thought a library system's Local History Collection would have been desperate to hang on to. One ex-library book purchased by Mr. West from a second-hand dealer was published in 1699 and two others in the eighteenth century: Mr. West does not say how much he paid for them, and was of course in no position to state how much of what he paid ended up in library funds, but it need hardly be pointed out that books so old are very rare, and irreplaceable, and ought not to be dumped by libraries on the open market. Mr. West's lists are an appalling demonstration of the sheer unprofessionalism of today's public and institutional librarians.

Mr. West's argument that |the rise of semi-literacy and the dispersal of libraries are inter-related' is probably the weakest part of this pamphlet. It is difficult to accept that the population is less literate than it was fifty years ago, when more than three times as many books are being published as before the Second World War. On the other hand British society is still very much less literate than it might be, and on Mr. West's evidence the efforts of Britain's professional librarians to improve the situation can best be described as trahison des clercs.
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Author:Harvey, A.D.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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