London — Hundreds of scholarly works destined for the shelves of Britain's most prestigious libraries and universities may be destroyed - by order of the government.
The books - from Argentina - have been impounded under the total embargo on Argentine imports imposed in April 1982 at the outset of the Falklands conflict. So many volumes have piled up in recent months that customs officials at Dover have said they may have to be pulped - or even burned.
British academics are about to join battle with the authorities to try to rescue the books, some of which are described as rare and may be irreplaceable. ''The situation is absurd,'' says a distinguished Latin American specialist who prefers not to be named. ''Destroying books would be more appropriate in a dictatorship like Argentina than in a democracy such as ours.''
The scholars have an ally in Labour member of Parliament Tam Dalyell, who is demanding urgent action by Parliament to save the volumes. He warns of a major row if the books are destroyed before MPs have an opportunity to debate their fate when Parliament reconvenes next month.
Mr. Dalyell learned of the ban when a librarian came to him in tears and told him that some very rare volumes he had ordered had been seized and were going to be burned. Mr. Dalyell commented: ''I thought book-burning had gone out in the 17th century - with the exception of the Nazis.''
Many academics are grateful that Mr. Dalyell has brought the issue into the open. Others would have preferred a less outspoken champion: Mr. Dalyell has been a persistent critic of the government's Falklands policy - and some academics fear that may work against their cause.
But their own discreet attempts to get the books exempted from the Argentine import ban have come to nothing. Letters to the ministers concerned, including the education secretary, Sir Keith Joseph; the minister of trade, Paul Channon; and the arts and libraries minister, Lord Gowrie, all brought the reply: The ban was government policy and had to be respected - no exceptions.
The Department of Trade, which issues import licenses, informed each library and university in turn that it could not do so for books from Argentina. The department gave them 28 days to instigate legal proceedings - or have their books ''condemned.'' Another option open to the scholars: pay for the books to be shipped back to Argentina. None has yet taken up the offer.
Among the institutions affected by the ban are London University's Institute of Latin American Studies, the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, the universities of Essex and St. Andrew's in Scotland, and the British Library - the national library of the United Kingdom.
The world-renowned Bodleian Library in Oxford tells a particularly sorry tale. Customs men are holding six volumes of a 15-volume set of a 19th-century publication; the other nine already sit on the Bodleian's shelves. A library spokesman says it has taken a Buenos Aires bookseller years to find the books. Now, in the words of customs officials, they may be ''disposed of.''
The other books involved cover all kinds of subjects. Some deal specifically with Argentine claims to the Falklands; others are works of poetry, history, geography, and archeology that are needed for undergraduate study courses and academic research.
Anthony Loveday, secretary of the Standing Conference of National and University Libraries in London, commented bitterly: ''There has been no discrimination. The ban is total and it's being applied without intelligence - like all general bans.'' Political experts say the government is working against its own interests by upholding its ban on books. As Mr. Loveday said: ''We're the first to acknowledge the facts of life of international relations. But if you're studying political and economic affairs, then it's as important to understand the Argentine as the British viewpoint.''
The standing conference has drawn attention to a glaring inconsistency in the government's approach: Newspapers and periodicals are not affected by the ban.
There are even more absurd aspects of the policy. At the height of the Falklands crisis, Foreign Ministry officials were ringing the Institute of Latin American Studies for information, hoping it had books that they did not. Now, they're stopping the same books from coming in.