The saddest thing about this story is the quotation from Pete Gascoigne, executive director of culture on Wigan council, which demonstrates a disappointing (but sadly not necessarily unexpected in a council official) lack of understanding of the issues at hand. I'm cross enough about it that I'm going to look at a couple of his points in detail.
[A] decision was taken to sell some antiquarian books that are have received little or no public interest since they were acquired and are not intrinsically linked to the borough’s heritage, in that, they contain no information relating to Wigan or its people.It's very narrow-minded to believe that a collection of books is "not intrinsically linked to the borough's heritage" simply because their content is not related to the area. The ISTC records 82 incunables (pre-1501 printed books) in Wigan public libraries, and the ESTC a further 83 early printed books from the UK (or other English-speaking countries) or in English. This isn't a bad haul, especially of incunables: one wonders what the story is behind their arrival in the Wigan public library service. There's quite likely a story behind their ending up with this library, and that story might well demonstrate that they are, in fact, "intrinsically linked". What if, for example, an important local businessman collected them and donated them to the town? That would surely demonstrate a link.
This sale will mean Wigan and Leigh retain a relevant modern library service for the people of this borough - not one where books sit on shelves gathering dust because they are of no relevance or interest to the majority of its people.
I say "what if" as it's not straightforward to find out much about these books. A quick look at the library catalogue doesn't reveal any records for early printed books, the ESTC records don't include any provenance information, and I haven't tracked down a printed catalogue either. One fears that there's no good record of what's held at all.
This lack of documentation might just explain why the books are (or were) "have received little or no public interest since they were acquired". It doesn't take a genius to realise that if no-one knows that something is in a library, no-one will access it. The onus is on the library service to promote its collections. Yes, records on ESTC may attract the attention of a few serious scholars, but that's only one rather small segment of a much larger potential audience, and even they might not make the effort if you've no information at all on your library webpages.
Promoting collections take time, expertise, an understanding of what you've got. But it's enormously worthwhile in the long-run, and provides benefit to institutions and communities far beyond the special collections corner of the library.
Other public libraries (Manchester springs to mind) are doing great things in using their special collections in exciting ways as part of " a relevant modern library service". Yes, Manchester library is bigger and more obviously historic than Wigan. Dustiness and neglect isn't the natural state of old books: the responsibility to sweep away the dust lies with councils and library managements.
*It's worth nothing that £5,000 is quite a lot of money for a 16-page book, but it's not necessarily all that much money for a 500+-year-old book, and it's only a drop in the ocean of money required to implement self-service machines in one or more libraries.