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Hong Kong environmental issues

Hundreds of thousands of books in Hong Kong thrown away as libraries slammed for ‘wasteful practice’

Leisure and Cultural Services Department told to justify spending about HK$100 million to meet its annual procurement target of “at least 700,000” items

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 September, 2017, 7:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 1:15pm

Libraries in Hong Kong are spending more public money on books, but hundreds of thousands of them are ending up on the scrapheap every year, a government watchdog has found.

This was among 10 inadequacies highlighted in an investigation by the Office of the Ombudsman on Tuesday. The watchdog slammed the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), which runs the public libraries system, for being unable to justify its annual procurement target of “at least 700,000” items.

It also urged the department to review its “wasteful practice” of throwing items taken off shelves into the rubbish rather than donating them to charities or holding book sales.

The department spends about HK$100 million to meet its target, which it claims is based on standard items per capita and procurement guidelines by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions.

“The LCSD has been unable to explain clearly the rationale of this 700,000 target. In fact, it has acquired more [than 700,000] items annually over the past eight years with the highest being 24 per cent [more],” said Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing.

“Without understanding the rationale behind the target, it is difficult for the public to monitor whether the quantity of library items acquired is appropriate.”

Lau pointed out that there was a clear misallocation of resources given that the total stock of public libraries had increased by 17 per cent over the last eight years, while the number of items the public was borrowing had dropped by more than 18 per cent.

“It is necessary for the LCSD to carefully analyse the reasons behind the drop in number of books on loan and see whether the quantity and category of library materials to be purchased need to be adjusted,” Lau said.

She also urged the department to introduce measures that would “properly coordinate” the procurement of library materials to loans, which the department failed to record until 2015 – when the inquiry was launched.

The watchdog also pointed out that “hundreds of thousands” of withdrawn library materials were disposed of as waste paper for recycling or refuse every year. Lau said even though the materials were damaged or outdated, “their value in terms of culture and knowledge should still be much higher than that of waste paper”.

The department said it had already started implementing some of the recommendations.

Secretary for Home Affairs Lau Kong-wah, whose bureau the LCSD comes under, on Tuesday said the department would study the report carefully, particularly suggestions dealing with withdrawn books.

“I appeal to those in the community who need books to approach the department,” he said.

On the procurement side, Lau said there was room to look at whether certain indicators about book use could be revised, taking into account factors such as digitisation and what books people bought or read.

Peter Warning, a library and information management expert at the University of Hong Kong, said most libraries procured large profiles of titles from wholesalers for cost efficiency reasons.

“There is a degree of specialisation in titles. Collections are designed to cater to the needs of a wide spectrum in society,” he said. “But if demand is falling, there will be a need to change the way you do things.”

Warning agreed with the watchdog’s recommendations and suggested networks of libraries collaborate more in planning, collecting and making items more accessible and readily available to the public.

He cited an example of Singapore’s libraries taking an approach of sending withdrawn books to libraries in Myanmar, albeit at considerably high shipping costs.