University bins books

As only around 1000 books have been saved, it appears that well over 20,000 have been shredded.

A photo of some books in a bin ready to be shredded. Books in a bin ready to be shredded. Image: Nick Bonyhady

As an institution with roughly 60,000 students and thousands of researchers, the University of Sydney has over 2.5 million books and multimedia items in its libraries.  Earlier this year, the USyd library system culled close to 25,000 of these books (about a per cent of the current total) in an attempt to reduce duplicates and under-borrowed items.

Director of Library site services, Coral Black, told Honi earlier this year that “we need to balance the space [used] for collections and…space for student study” and that “after redeveloping, there should be space for around another 200 desks”. Yet, the desk space in Fisher has remained largely unchanged.  The question of when and where these new desks for students will appear is thus uncertain – if they ever do at all.

Although moving low-use books from the library seems justifiable, the action of shredding tens of thousands of these books was not received well by the University community. The library initially stated that “the sheer volume and logistics of repurposing that many books was financially impossible”. Yet in response to an Honi article in January, the library tweeted that it was “working with the Chancellor’s Book Committee, SRC and others to re-home these items”.

In the time since, a Co-Education Director of the SRC, Jenna Schroder, said “the SRC has taken on around 250 of the books (particularly ones about China) to re-distribute to interested students”.  Moreover, the University Library has recently agreed to store almost 600 of the books originally destined for the shredder until they can be donated to the Vice-Chancellor’s Book Fair, held in September every year. As only around 1000 books have been saved, it appears that well over 20,000 have been shredded.

The process of removing underused books and duplicates should, per best practice, be undertaken every year.  Over the past few years, the USyd library system has culled titles from the medical, dental, architecture, veterinary and agricultural libraries. A greater proportion of those books were donated to students or repurposed than in the recent Fisher cull because there was a smaller volume of materials.  However, this disposal process has not been undertaken at Fisher Library for over five years, which is why such a massive number of books have been set aside. Had the University actually conducted reviews of the Fisher library collection on a yearly basis, it seems they would have been able to avoid the logistical issues that arise from having to repurpose 25,000 books.

The library currently also has a little-known off-site, commercial storage facility used to manage low-use but unique materials. These books can be recalled for students if requested through the library’s online borrowing system. Honi is unsure as to the capacity of the storage and whether it would have been possible to store the books destined for shredding—at least until students were able to gain access to a list of titles and perhaps request items that they were interested in — but the potential at least appears to have been there.

Honi approached the University of Sydney Library for further information about the shredding and storage process, but the Library declined to provide a response.

It is jarring for an institution that boasts of its “world class research facilities” to shred so many academic texts, all the more so because, with better collection management, those books could have gone to a new home.