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Dolores Janiewski

An Induced Amnesia

Ray Bradbury once asked: “Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.” According to Bradbury, the removal of books is a way of inducing amnesia. It carries out euthanasia on history itself. New Zealand cannot build an identity by discarding the many volumes that discuss our ancestral pasts or our diverse heritages and cultures. How will we navigate into the future?

Tossing out books New Zealanders have read in libraries across this country since 1939 erases vital parts of our memories and intellectual her- itage. The National Library’s current policy assumes we already know what we need to know, but recent experience suggests otherwise. Did we know anti-Islamic hatred would result in a murderous attack in Christchurch in March 2019? Isn’t it possible we can learn about the source of that evil by reading a 1922 book about the Ku Klux Klan that may soon be discarded?

When we are cut off from international travel, reading can substitute for direct experience. There are 15,000 books about travel and 80,000 historical texts in the National Library. And as for building bridges, there are 60,000 works of literature there, to teach us empathy with people in distant places.

The National Library is behaving as if New Zealanders do not need to read George Orwell, Mahatma Gandhi or books about Islam or Scotland. Aristotle is on the ‘unwanted’ list along with books about apartheid, environmentalism, civil liberties, Omar Khayyam, rugby, cricket, and the Impressionists. Books in more than 50 languages might be thrown away.

It’s also, and mostly, about the cost of storage and the Department of Internal Affairs not wanting to pay for it. Their warehouse in Whanganui is no longer fit for purpose but instead of getting another warehouse, it has decided to get rid of the books. And then there is the notion that NZ stories are only told in NZ publications—a form of inward looking nationalism or insularity, a polit- ical decision about NZ identity which the Minister (Department of Internal Affairs) refuses to refute. Ironically, the Department also does passports.

And yet these threatened books constitute tangible evidence of our intel- lectual formation and of our evolving ‘sense of place’ in the modern world. They must remain in their national home, the National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga, in Wellington.


Dolores Janiewski is an Associate Professor teaching international history with a focus on the Cold War. Her most recent book is Private Security and the Modern State: Historical and Comparative Perspectives (Routledge, 2020). Parts of An Induced Amnesia have appeared in Victoria University’s ‘Ideas Room’.