Multiple media outlets have reported that a large number of books and newspapers have been removed from the Hong Kong public libraries.
In addition to the well-known removal of all editions of the Apple Daily (the legal basis of which remains unknown, however), the list of removed books compiled by the media includes works by individuals such as Jimmy Lai, Szeto Wah, Zunzi (尊子), Allan Au, Benny Tai, Margaret Ng, and Roy Kwong. Not all of these works necessarily involve political opinions; they also include travelogues, commentaries on Louis Cha‘s novel, and even romance novels.
The principles of public libraries completely disregarded
From last year’s statistics by HKFeature, which counted 28 books being removed, to the recent statistics by The Collective, the number has skyrocketed to 255 books. And I suspect that the actual number is far greater than this. The logic is simple: imagine you’re an ordinary person with a hundred or so books in your collection. If I were to remove a dozen or so books without informing you, it would be extremely difficult for you to know how many are missing and which ones, even when you are your own librarian. The Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which serves as the “librarian” of the Hong Kong public library, refuses to disclose the list and numbers. It’s even more challenging to compile a complete list, so reporters can only compare by methods like “it was available in the search last year, but now it’s gone.”
The trend of book removal has also spread to school libraries. Although the Education Bureau claims to have “clear guidelines” stating that books should be collected based on students’ learning needs and quality, the actual red lines are unknown. The only thing that is clear is that the authority over any financial budget and even the power to close schools rests with the authorities. Many schools, whether out of self-preservation or bearing humiliation, have chosen to remove books such as “1984,” “Animal Farm,” and even works by Lu Xun, which is absurd and outrageous.
Numerous books are being removed and destroyed without any explanation, causing great distress to book lovers. There have been many high-quality critiques of the government’s unjustifiable actions. For example, Miuyan Lam brought up a written response from the government in 2009 regarding “books related to the June 4th incident in the public library,” which stated, “The Hong Kong public library has always followed the principles of the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto in acquiring library materials, providing readers with a balanced and diverse collection to meet the needs of different ages and sectors of the population for information, research, self-education, and leisure pursuits.” This clearly reveals the deterioration that has occurred over the years.
I personally doubt that I can write a better critique, and even if I could, it would be meaningless to address officials who don’t have to be accountable to the people. My critique is simple: these officials in charge are just childish and arrogant. They have removed even travelogues and Louis Cha‘s commentaries just to demonstrate their power and disregard for others. It’s pointless to talk about the “Public Library Manifesto” to officials who lack any cultural understanding; it’s like playing the violin to a cow.
The so-called “national security” has already been interpreted limitlessly, and now they find even interpretation too troublesome. When asked by reporters, the Chief Executive simply says, “These books are still available in bookstores. If people want to buy, then they can buy.” Never mind that many of the removed books are already out of print. Even if they are truly available in bookstores, if “citizens can buy them in bookstores” can be used as a reason for removal, then what’s the point of having a library? So the library should collect only banned books that are not available in the market?
Hong Kong DeCentral Library
However, upon closer examination of the Chief Executive’s words, I found three insights hidden within.
- These books are not banned; they are simply no longer being collected by the library.
- If you truly want to support these authors and publishers, it’s better to buy the books yourself from “off-the-shelf bookstores” since borrowing from the library doesn’t generate income for the authors.
- Similarly, if you want to preserve these works, buy them yourself. The more valuable the documentation, the more likely the library destroys them.
Inspired by the Chief Executive’s remarks, I have decided to dig into my own pockets and establish the “Hong Kong DeCentral Library” (HKDCL) at hkdcl.org. In Hong Kong, people need to build their own library if they want one. (What about the promise of “no more new projects”?)
For now, HKDCL will focus on one thing: scanning Hong Kong’s physical books, newspapers, and magazines. After all, this task alone could probably take a lifetime. I will purchase a professional scanner and hire part-time workers to digitize books and publications for friends, facilitating long-term preservation and paving the way for further development. For example, with the permission of copyright holders, the scanned electronic files are only one step away from being published as NFT books and sold in “off-the-shelf bookstores.”
Please do not succumb to fear or overcomplicate things. This is not about opposing the government; it’s about doing what the government should do but doesn’t. It is by no means an illegal activity; I respect intellectual property rights, and I am cautious and law-abiding. What HKDCL offers is merely a slightly more advanced service than the copy shops used to be popular in Mong Kok, or if you’re familiar with the United States, you can think of it as Kinko’s (wait, why does that name sound familiar?).
Due to extremely limited resources and various considerations, HKDCL regrettably cannot provide services to the public at this time. If you have any inquiries, you can directly email me at [email protected].
Library and Me
Libraries play a crucial role in preserving human history, culture, and disseminating knowledge. No one would oppose this notion. However, to be honest, how long has it been since you last visited a library?
In my elementary school days, I used to frequent the Lek Yuen Public Library to borrow novels by Ni Cong (衛斯理). Although the library was incredibly small, probably less than 2,000 square feet (200 square meters) from my visual estimation, it fully served its purpose by providing entertainment and knowledge to those who couldn’t afford to buy books or had no place to store them. When I entered secondary school, I was amazed by the opening of the Sha Tin Central Library. It was huge, and I thought I would find any book imaginable there. Returning to the old place in recent years, I couldn’t help but recall the lyrics of First of May saying, “when I was small, and Christmas trees were tall.”
During my time at the Chinese University, apart from U-lib (main Library), I frequented the United College Wu Chung Multimedia Library more often because it housed books related to political sceience. However, compared to libraries, I spent much more time in the Pi Ch’iu Building and computer labs. Although websites were rudimentary back then, it was an era of openness without the Great Firewall or censorship, only pure exchange. If we consider the internet as the “world library,” I can say that I spent my days lingering in the library.
After graduation, I was busy adapting to a different world, and for quite some time, I almost disappeared from libraries. However, since early 2021 when I became unemployed (commonly known as freelancing or full-time writing), besides Hong Kong’s cha chaan tengs and Taiwan’s cafes, the public library has become the place where I spend my time. Some of my recent articles were written in the library.
Public libraries are a microcosm of society. Sometimes, I quickly skim through the newspapers from the current day and the day before, not to seek the truth, but to gain an impression of what the newspapers are saying and how they say it. If that’s not enough, I flip through magazines as well. More often, I write articles while glancing at the people and scenes beyond the screen.
These individuals I refer to as “people” usually represent two extremes: either students in school uniforms or wanderers like me, without a steady job. After all, I go to the library during traditional office hours. Although it cannot be considered scientific statistics, the clothing, accessories, the newspaper they read, the specific section, or even their expressions while reading always give me a rough idea and local information. The remaining newspapers on the shelves are always Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao. Could it be just a coincidence?
Speaking of people, there are also those who visit the library not for the collection of books, newspapers, or magazines. Sometimes, I myself go to the library and never touch any of the materials inside. I don’t even use the government’s Wi-Fi; I just use my own laptop and tethering for internet access. I may be a bit unconventional, but it is common to see people constantly scrolling on their smartphones, engaging in hushed conversations with their companions, or simply dozing off while seated. For them, the public library is just a place with a roof over their heads and air conditioning, like a big banyan tree where people gather. Although it’s hard to call these individuals book lovers, they do have a great respect for this public space and the sacred status of libraries as repositories of human knowledge. At least they are much better than the custodians of erasing human history.
While I don’t want the library, usually quiet on weekdays and easy to find a seat, to become overcrowded, I have limited influence. Therefore, I encourage everyone to cherish our public resources and visit your Hong Kong libraries often. They belong to the people, not the government officials.
image credit: CC-BY edwin.11, remixed.