We are alarmed by the growing number of reports about large, often publicly funded, cultural and heritage institutions with libraries holding nationally or internationally important unique and distinctive collections (as defined in RLUK 2014) proposing to make library and archives staff redundant. Whether or not a consequence of many staff in specialist libraries being furloughed over the last year, the proposed redundancies highlight a concerning perception of library and archives staff as being “non-critical” to the mission of the parent organisation.
Library and archives staff fulfil an essential role in managing collections to internationally recognised standards, safeguarding collections for the present and the future, and providing intellectual (whether digital or physical) access to those collections to their colleagues as well as the wider public. The obligation to manage, safeguard and provide access to collections is particularly strong where those collections are held in trust for the nation.
Without the specialist skills and knowledge that library and archives staff bring to an organisation, there is an increased risk to culturally valuable UDCs being neglected or worse: sold and dispersed for short-term financial gain. It reduces the capacity for curators to interpret objects with complex histories in their care, which in turn risks a severe loss of opportunity for the public to engage with these histories and objects.
We fully understand that in the current financial climate, adversely affected by the global pandemic as well as Britain’s exit from the European Union, difficult decisions must be made by cultural and heritage organisations of all sizes.
However, we would call upon the leaders of these institutions to carefully consider the severe and possibly irreparable loss of specialist skills and knowledge the cuts to libraries and archives staff and services would create, as well as the risk to national and international reputation that would follow from significant UDCs being neglected or sold.
We urge leaders to work with recognised professional bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, the Archives and Records Association, and the Museums Association, as well as smaller specialist organisations such as ourselves to understand the full implications of proposals beyond immediate financial savings.