Viewpoint: On the Value of Books

Before Gutenberg books were handwritten. Every copy was unique. In the centuries following the Gutenberg epoch books continued to be objects of great value. Considerable time passed before the establishment of a publishing industry that used mass production to reduce books to the level of an everyday consumer product.

History gives us an insight into the value of books. During the 17th century Sweden made no secret of its ambition to establish itself as a major power intent on conquering desirable areas of the Continent. The Swedish Army fought throughout Germany, Poland, Bohemia (in today’s Czech Republic) and Russia. If these wars had been successful Sweden would be a major power today. This didn’t happen and Sweden reverted to its status as Northern European cul-de-sac. The wars were, however, not completely in vain.When the remnants of the Swedish Army returned home their baggage contained war booty including, among other things, books. These had been plundered from churches and monasteries in Poland, Bohemia and Germany. The books were divided among the larger academic libraries and provincial college libraries. Among the most spectacular was the so-called Devil’s Bible; a medieval manuscript plundered in Prague and presented to the Royal Library of Sweden where it can be seen today in a specially designed showcase.

With the art of book printing largescale production became achievable, but it took time for the possibilities to be realised. European book printers produced small, often expensive editions and books and reading were confined to a small, wealthy and literate group. Literacy rates were low and poverty was widespread.

Today illiteracy is more or less eliminated in the Western World, and this has benefited the growth of the book industry. Literacy is, of course, a necessary – but by no means the only – condition for an indigenous publishing industry. In the West books are no longer a scarce commodity. Space problems are something libraries continually struggle with. In many countries books can be bought almost everywhere: at airports, railway stations or in supermarkets together with the day’s shopping. In other countries the book-trade is more regulated with, for example, fixed-price systems and special merchandising outlets. In the non-Western world there’s a third variation, viz. countries that lack both a publishing industry and distribution outlets, and where literacy is still low, or more or less non-existent.

Our conception of the value of books has, however, not developed at the same pace as the mass production methods which have reduced the book to a mere consumer product – with publishers continually in pursuit of new bestsellers: the new Da Vinci Code or the new Harry Potter. Generally speaking, books, compared with other consumer items, are considered to have an intrinsic value. Many of us feel a reluctance to throw a book away.

Perhaps it’s this attitude that has led to the inception of numerous book donation programmes where used books are transferred from North to South to countries with barely developed publishing industries and distribution channels; where books are scarce and library shelves empty.

It’s quite possible to share the opinion that books are different from other consumer products. Books are the unique result of an author’s intellectual labour, even if they, like other industrial products, are served by mass production methods. But this in no way excuses the kind of behaviour that subjects colleagues in poorer countries to misguided goodwill by sending superfluous, often inadequate, literature to their libraries.

There are no all-encompassing statistics over the total amount of books that are transported in North-South transfers. There are too many actors involved. According to some estimates the numbers can amount to several million volumes annually. An indication of the amounts in question can be seen in the annual reports of established donor organisations. For example, CODE’s (Canadian Organization for Development through Education) Annual Report for 2003/2004 states that 1,1 million books were supplied to more than two thousand libraries. CODE has been promoting education and literacy in the developing world for more than 40 years and has an ambitious, well-developed donation programme. A press release from Book Aid International in November 2006 has the title ‘Book Aid International celebrates 25 million books for readers in the developing world’. Book Aid International – another of the professional organisations in the donation sector has, since its inception in 1954, donated 25 million books. Bear in mind that this organisation started on a small scale and works from the principle that the receiver dictates the selection. Their priority is quality, not quantity.

We know little about the contents of the shipments. Horror stories abound, as do success stories. A comprehensive analysis is lacking. For example, what proportion of a shipment’s contents is useful in the target country? Did they receive the books they wanted and had a use for? Or was the donation counterproductive – weakening an already vulnerable publishing activity? Did the donation cause unnecessary extra work for the recipient library? Would the library have felt pressed to accept a donation they’d rather not have?

Despite the extensive scope of book donation programmes they hardly feature in library discussions; and the subject is rarely present on the programmes of international library conferences. Considering this, it’s hardly surprising that the report published by UNESCO in 2005, Book Donations for Development didn’t receive more attention. The report, written by Mauro Rosi, is based partly on documentation from the 1992 conference in Baltimore, ‘Dialogue of Partners International Workshop on Donated Books’. The conference was arranged by UNESCO, CODE and the International Book Bank (IBB). The report embraces questions of principle as well as practical issues. In the first section Rosi analyses the purpose of book donations. He writes:

Unfortunately the ‘container policy’
of sending large numbers of books, which are often unusable by the beneficiaries, is still very common. The donation of books is all too often no more than a grand gesture without any real impact, because it fails to contribute to the lasting promotion of books and reading in the target countries. It is therefore a matter of considerable urgency to set up training and information programmes for all those who, directly or indirectly, play a role in the donation of books.

Rosi underlines the importance of embodying the entire literary process, ‘the book-chain’ – author, publisher, printer, distributor, reader – and suggests that many book donation projects fail because the focus is only on one isolated part of the process. And he exemplifies: “… it is pointless to produce books if there are no distribution networks capable of delivering them to readers. It is ineffective to train new readers if they do not have reading material to exercise their new skills, or to encourage authors if what they write is not published or remunerated. It is also unhelpful to improve libraries if they cannot count on a regular flow of publications to build their collections. Further, the book donation programme should also include methods for aiding indigenous publishers in the areas of development and learning.

The second half of the report includes practical advice about how book donation projects should be organised. There is a strong recommendation that every donation programme should begin with two considerations: an assessment of the beneficiaries’ needs and an analysis of the best way of balancing the demand and the supply that can be offered.

But, Rosi continues: “In practice,
this planning does not always take place as we recommend. The book market in rich countries produces a great many surplus publications that are expensive to destroy. Some publishers therefore give in to the temptation to use donations as a means of getting rid of their unsold books.”

Book Donations for Development deserves a larger audience. It is invaluable as a starting point for discussion and as a rallying cry. Hopefully it can be instrumental in drawing attention to the whole question of book donations. Perhaps the report could inspire IFLA to take a more active role and even consider developing guidelines for book donations. Above all I hope that the report can serve as an aid to colleagues in poorly equipped libraries to dare to say no to donations which would probably do more harm than good.

Translated by Greg Church