Decisions on libraries must be an open book
The Ombudsman found the city’s libraries threw away as refuse or for recycling more than 3.5 million materials over the past six years. But neither the reasons for the disposal or an analysis of the nature of the materials were recorded
If a satisfaction rate of 82.4 per cent by users is any guide, our public library service appears to be outstanding. Behind the rich collection of 14 million items, however, lies a wealth of management issues. From arbitrary acquisitions to questionable disposals, there is much room for improvement.
Credit goes to the Ombudsman for putting the spotlight on what normally goes unnoticed by library users. It was found that more than 3.5 million library materials had been thrown away as refuse or waste paper for recycling over the past six years. But neither the reasons for the disposal or an analysis of the nature of the materials were recorded, according to the watchdog’s investigation.
The problem was further compounded by the robust acquisition policy despite declining loans. The Ombudsman took issue with the annual HK$100 million spent on new collections under an inexplicable policy of “acquiring at least 700,000 items a year”, despite an 18 per cent drop in borrowing over the past eight years.
The policy, dating back to the 1990s when the libraries were managed by members of the two municipal councils, instead of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department today, may sound a bit arbitrary. But the libraries cannot be faulted for buying more books despite drops in loans in the internet age. What matters is to procure what the public needs and wants according to clear guidelines and procedures. Those are, regrettably, lacking at present.
Libraries do need to get rid of damaged or obsolete materials regularly to maintain a current collection and to make room for new items. But it is important that it is done in a judicious and accountable way. The lack of guidelines and transparency in our public libraries makes it hard to judge whether the disposals are justified or not. In any case, the materials should not be discarded as trash or waste paper for recycling. Alternatives like donations and charity sales should be considered.
Libraries are treasuries of knowledge and culture. We hope officials will not arbitrarily spend taxpayer money on publications that no one reads, but trash others recklessly. Until there is higher transparency and accountability, such an impression may prevail.