Cardiff Considers Selling 18,000 Books. Residents Debate: Smart Move or Desecration?
By Michael Stillman
A battle over rare books is taking place today in the city of Cardiff, South Wales, UK, that is significant because it raises the most vexing of issues regarding libraries and old books in this new world. The city of Cardiff would like to auction some old books from its central library, as many as 18,000, dating back as far as the 15th century. Some residents are appalled by the plan. They have formed a group to stop the sale. To them, the plan would strip their community of its history, and turn Cardiff into a second-tier place for historical research.
The City Council announced its plan to sell antiquarian texts from its library last month. It did state that it would retain some of its most important items, including its manuscript collection and some notably important Welsh works. However, others, as many as 18,000, could be available for sale. They will not quickly flood the market with books, but a group of 139, including a Shakespeare Second Folio, might be put up in a first sale. Bonham's would host the sale. Over the coming years, the city would continue to review the remaining 18,000 to determine which should be sold.
The reasons for the proposed sale are ones common to many libraries all across the world that are not really designed to be rare book libraries. Maintaining valuable texts under conditions necessary to avoid deterioration is costly, while few people ever bother to consult them. Now, as more old texts are scanned and become available digitally to anyone with an internet connection, the potential use of these old books diminishes even more. The cost-benefit analysis does not look good. Meanwhile, the library has lots of other expenses necessary to update it to 21st century needs. Not only would a sale save the library money, it would add substantial sums to its coffers to modernize its services. Estimates are that the first auction could take in as much as £3 million, or over $5 million in US dollars. The Cardiff Council has pledged that all funds realized from the sales will be returned to the library.
Cardiff University has expressed an interest in some of the material, particularly that of local context. However, it has nowhere near the funds to purchase it all. If the books go to auction, they will likely be dispersed to both institutions and private collectors, and many if not most will probably end up far from Cardiff and South Wales. A piece of that area's cultural heritage will be gone forever. On the other hand, the library may be financially empowered to provide new services that will bring a younger generation inside its doors. In a changing world, where libraries often find themselves under great pressure to justify the tax dollars spent on them, this could be the difference which enables it to survive.
In a victory for those opposing the sale, it was announced late last week that 32 books in the Welsh language or of Welsh interest have been withdrawn from the sale. That is probably a good thing, as it would be sad to see books of primarily Welsh interest depart Wales. That still leaves the vexing question of what is the right decision for regular libraries possessing collections of rare but rarely used old books. This difficult choice will be faced by many libraries in the increasingly technologically oriented years ahead. I would not like to be the one making these decisions.