Manchester City Council has given more details on how it came to dispose of around 240,000 items from its reference collection, and how material was chosen.
A Freedom of Information request, made by the Friends of Manchester Central Library after communication with Manchester City Council’s head of library and information services Neil MacInnes, revealed that 240,000 items – including books, leaflets, pamphlets and more – have been withdrawn from the Central Library’s reference collection.
Campaigners say this is around 40%-50% of the library’s collection, and while it called the criteria used to weed out stock “plausible”, it said it could not imagine such a large number of items meeting that criteria.
The general reference collection was reduced as part of the move to Manchester Central Library’s new £50m premises a year ago, with some of the items donated to other institutions, such as two philatelic collections given to the British Library, and others sold to a local company which then sold the material on further or recycled it.
The move to a new Manchester Central Library gave the “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to review the library’s general reference collection “which had been amassed over the decades”, Manchester Council’s executive member for culture and leisure, Rosa Battle, told The Bookseller.
The council’s criteria for stock editing says material considered for withdrawal had to meet certain conditions, such as that there was a later edition available, that it was “too badly damaged or has deteriorated too far to be of any further use to library staff and customers”, that its content is out of date, or that the “content of the material is no longer relevant to, or supportive of, the library’s collections or its stock policy”.
The type of general reference material which was withdrawn included paperback editions where the library held a hardback copy, “coffee table” books, material now available as an electronic resource, and foreign language information material, the council told The Bookseller.
Battle said the process of reviewing material was “painstaking”, and added: “The team ensured that the depth and breadth of the general reference collection was good across all subject areas."
But the Friends of Manchester Central Library said that while the criteria used to weed stock was “plausible”, it was “simply ridiculous to suggest that there were 240,000 volumes which met them: a generous estimate of the numbers of books that would have fitted this criteria would perhaps have been between 20,000 – 30,000”.
The group has previously accused the council of wanting to reduce library stock due to space considerations, with the council countering these claims by saying that the new Central Library has more shelf space.
The Friends of Manchester Central Library said: “In terms of book disposal, the key point must be the huge numbers involved, the actual proportion of the total stock. Discarding half of the non-fiction stock can never be described as ‘vital housekeeping’ or ‘routine stock disposal’. Neil MacInnes and his team continue to trot out the same tired platitudes to avoid answering questions of real importance.
“All library staff acknowledge the necessity for appropriate weeding of stock – a proportion of old stock must be discarded to make way for new. But this is not what has happened here - it is perfectly obvious now that Central Library has re-opened that the books were ‘weeded’ to fit the shelf space available. And this question remains unanswered – why was sufficient shelf space not incorporated into the new design? It is difficult to understand why options other than the loss of so many books were not considered.”
A high-profile campaign, led by the Friends of Manchester Central Library and including poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and writer Jeanette Winterson, was held in 2012 to stop the library’s disposal of books, with campaigners hailing it a victory when the council halted its plans.
But the council said it never completely stopped the process of removing some stock, but simply paused it temporarily to give people a better understanding of what was happening.
The library continues to acquire new reference material and material for its special collections, the council told The Bookseller, and is also still in the process of cataloguing a number of items, including 7,000 from before 1850 which were not on the card catalogue and which were discovered during the process of cataloguing and sorting through the collection.
For the first time in the history of the library, all items published pre-1850, plus the special collections, rare books and treasures are housed in secure, fire protected, environmentally-controlled vaults.
The new Manchester Central Library was refurbished and extended to bring it up to 21st century standards, with the Grade II-listed building's heritage features restored and new areas, including a media lounge and business library, added. MacInnes has previously said that the aim was to create a “world-class modern library, improving access to this gem of a building and the treasures it houses”.