Peter Finch, Chief Executive of Academi:
Is the decision by Cardiff Council to auction off some of its ancient and valuable book stock a harbinger of larger change to come? I think so. If the book trade hasn’t yet hit the sort of hurricane season that the world of finance has then it is only a matter of time. The digitisation of everything from bestsellers to the documents which define your personal identity are not just around the corner but actually upon us.
Recently the National Library of Wales announced its ten-year plan to digitise a large section of its holdings and to make the results instantly and universally accessible online: books, artworks, documents, letters, maps. Its previous plan to digitise entire runs of twentieth century Welsh periodicals is almost complete. This has been managed despite storms of protest from original authors. These have yet to abate.
All this poses the big question: Do we need original manuscripts when virtual ones allow the world and its uncle slick and searchable access at will?
Old books, and in particular those from the dawn of print, cannot simply be put onto a shelf and called up from the stacks for any casual visitor to handle. They need to be preserved with care, viewed under controlled conditions, repaired, conserved, de-foxed, cleaned, pressed, boxed, have their rot excised and their bindings mended. All that takes money. Cardiff says it is already overstretched and simply cannot find the resource to care for the 18,000 antiquarian volumes, maps and original manuscripts it has decided put up for sale.
The yard sale it proposed has been replicated at libraries elsewhere and not just in the UK either. Libraries, once eternal guardians and repositories of our cultural heritage, can now be seen engaging in Fahrenheit 451 style stock clearances. Get rid of these dirty things. They are mere containers. Their content is that which matters.
It’s a point of view. Many don’t share it.
What troubles me is that conservation and research are developing arts. Who’s to say what the future may be able to extract from an original document actually handled by its original author. More than could be got from a digital replica that’s for sure.
Cardiff Council has since backtracked slightly and are in discussions with Cardiff University about the preservation of at least some of the Welsh-interest component of its soon to be flogged-off holdings. All will not be gone. Just a lot of it.
How much of the past should we preserve? Certainly not everything. How do we make choices? Not that Cardiff were intending to make choices. There were no proposals to digitise and thus release the original as surplus. This was shelf clearance. And it’s not that this kind of thing hasn’t happened before. Check the stacks at Bute’s once great library at Cardiff Castle. Empty. Did you spot the stock leaving? Me neither.