8.0043 Threat to Early Modern Books Collection (NZ) (1/94)

Tue, 31 May 1994 20:42:51 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 8, No. 0043. Tuesday, 31 May 1994.

Date: Tue, 31 May 1994 10:57:13 +1200
From: Glyn.Parry@vuw.ac.nz


It has just been revealed here in Wellington that New Zealand Treasury
officials are circulating a secret discussion paper proposing to sell the
thousands of early modern printed books in the Alexander Turnbull Library,
a division of the National Library of New Zealand. Alexander Turnbull left
about 55,000 books to the nation in 1918, including many early modern books
and a particularly strong collection of John Milton's works, which has been
subsequently developed and is believed to constitute the fifth-ranking
Milton collection in the world. Turnbull did not establish any kind of
trust for the books because he relied on subsequent Governments to respect
his wishes. Later bequests by New Zealanders and overseas donors were made
under similar conditions, mainly when the Turnbull Library was an
independent collection before being absorbed into the National Library in
1965. It is now probably one of the finest early-modern research
collections in the southern hemisphere, containing about 16,000 titles.

New Zealand Treasury officials have been behind the precipitate selling of
state assets for the last decade, as part of the monetarist policies
pursued by successive governments of both left and right. Initially the
justification, apart from economic theory, was the need to reduce high
overseas debt inherited from populist attempts in the 1970s to establish
import-replacement industries and fund an overly-generous state
superannuation scheme. Overseas debt is now diminishing as a proportion of
GDP, the government is running increasing current-account surpluses, and
the economy is growing at more than 5% per annum. However, while the
number of saleable assets is diminishing, the number of Treasury officials
looking to sell them is not, and, apart from the prospect of realising
several hundred million $, a further justification for the proposed sale is
that the Turnbull collection is a 'non-New Zealand' heritage. This
argument reflects the recent creation of 'Kiwi Nationalism', for in line
with its new economic structure New Zealand opinion-formers are
self-consciously seeking to reshape the country's identity as a Pacific and
even Asian nation, independent of its previous close ties with Britain.
Yet, since 80% of the population is of European origin, and a large part of
that percentage can trace its origins to the British Isles, the collection
is obviously an important part of New Zealand's heritage in the same way as
Maori *taonga* or cultural treasures. Concerned groups are also arguing
that the collection is in any case of global as well as national
importance, because of the historical significance of early printed books
and the ideas they contain, and that they are not ours to sell but under
our stewardship for future generations. Milton's arguments against
censorship and for personal freedom and liberal education are particularly
ironic in this instance.

At present the proposal is officially described as merely a 'discussion
document', but that is of course a traditional way for governments to test
the waters, to discover whether an idea generates sufficient opposition to
prevent the sinister policy being subsequently implemented. Therefore I
ask all scholars subscribing to this list who are concerned by the
proposal to write to the Minister in charge of the National Library, Roger
McClay, protesting at this act of historical philistinism. I believe that
international protests will be particularly effective since a major
argument of the opponents of the proposal is that selling this country's
treasures will make it the laughing-stock of the international community.
The Minister's address is:

The Honourable Roger McClay
Parliament Buildings
New Zealand
fax: 64-4-473-3698

You can also write to the Prime Minister of New Zealand:

The Right Honourable Jim Bolger
Parliament Buildings
New Zealand
Fax: 64-4-473-7045

I would appreciate it if those who do write to either of the above would
e-mail me a copy of their letter. Many thanks in anticipation.

Dr Glyn Parry, History Department, Victoria University of Wellington, PO
Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand Fax: 64-4-471-2070, e-mail

Dr Glyn Parry Tel.: (04) 472 1000 x 8363/ or 385
History Department Fax: (04) 471 2070

Victoria University of Wellington 'the recognition of ignorance is
PO Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand beginning of education'