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Six feet under — why UWS buried tens of thousands of USyd’s books

Universities care a lot less about books than you’d think

two people burying books Art: Matthew Fisher

In January, Fisher Library was deservedly roasted for shredding a not insignificant number of books. The question on everyone’s lips was intuitive: why not donate them instead?

Perhaps, I submit, because of what happened last time. This is a story about that time. It’s a lot like that birthday when your aunt gifted you a hat resembling a fluorescent bedazzled loofah ft. chin strap, and you — panicked and disgusted — feigned reverence before stuffing it between the couch cushions after dessert. This situation is basically the same, except the loofah is 10,000 perfectly good library books, and the couch cushions are a hastily dug pit next to a cricket pitch at Western Sydney University.

The year was 1995. Western Sydney University (at this point still known as the University of Western Sydney) had just received a donation of around 40,000 books from USyd’s Fisher Library. WSU sorely needed this donation. By all accounts, its nascent library wasn’t cutting it, and students were trekking eastward in search of knowledge. If you’ve ever caught public transport from Western Sydney to the CBD, you can appreciate why people were at best apathetic and at worst apoplectic about having to do it regularly.

So: book shortage meets book donation – what could possibly go wrong? Enter, in the words of a university spokesperson, “some idiot”. WSU lacked the funds to catalogue and store all the books, and so deemed 10,000 books surplus to requirements. An unnamed member (or members) of staff considered the usual options (storage, pulping, stacking books in the library foyer and making the hordes of bookish young nerds duke it out over the thickest tomes) and decided, in the name of “cost-effectiveness”, on mass burial.

Incredibly, five years passed with no-one the wiser – quite literally, given that the library continued to be a sack of shit. Given the sheer mass of 10,000 books and the presumably large size of the hole, it’s difficult to fathom how it remained secret at all, let alone for so long. It calls to mind images of librarians in earthmovers in the dead of night, cardigans billowing as they hasten to cover their tracks before the morning joggers materialise. Whether this is how it happened is anyone’s guess: staff members move on, institutions change, paper trails decay over time. Much like buried books.

Our faith in resurrection was stronger in 2001, though. After the news broke – first in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2000 and again in the Daily Telegraph in 2001, incensed students planned to march to the cricket pitch with shovels to disinter the books in protest. I was unable to confirm whether this actually happened, but a paper conservationist I called got real quiet when I mentioned “five years”, and said the books would have begun to decay in about a week. As WSU sheepishly confirmed in 2001: “they are not in great shape”.

And that, more or less, was the end of that. A small furore lost to time in patchy newspaper records, displaced by bigger news. The story shifted to WSU’s underfunding and staff unrest in face of impending restructure, and the whole book debacle became just a symptom of a larger problem.

USyd, when I contacted them, were pretty firm that this incident has had no impact on their current collection and donation policies. 22 years later, they no longer maintain the records of the donation, and while a few librarians told me they recalled the event, it seems most of those directly involved have moved on.

I tried to clarify the proportion of books that were shredded and saved respectively in the recent Fisher cull. I was told that of the approximately 70,000 books removed from USyd library collections over the past three years, “between 25-90 percent were offered for donation or giveaway depending on the nature of the specific project at the time”.

What does linger, then, is a similar sense of secrecy, and a baffling lack of data. 25 to 90 percent. That’s a lot of information buried.