Historic Libraries Forum statement on cuts to staff and services in libraries with Unique and Distinctive Collections (UDC)

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.


Historic Libraries Forum letter to the Royal College of Physicians regarding the proposed sale of books from the Dorchester Collection

Dear Professor Goddard and Dr Bullock

Sale of historic books from the Dorchester Library

The Historic Libraries Forum was concerned to learn of the proposed sale of some of the books from the Dorchester Library Collection to secure the Royal College of Physician’s financial situation. We understand that the books considered for sale may include one of the surviving copies of The Canterbury Tales, a psalter owned by John Dee, astronomer to Elizabeth I, and The Recuyell of Historyes of Troye by Raoul LefÈvre.

These books have been in RCP ownership for over 300 years, thus have survived earlier pandemics and world wars, yet are considered for sale now? These are challenging times for many organisations, but cherry picking particular treasures to sell from an established, donated collection is extremely short-sighted. The value of such books lies in keeping the collection together, where the story of how it was created and that relationship with medical history and the history of the RCP can be properly told.

Pre-Coronavirus the RCP celebrated its historic collections, joining the London Knowledge Quarter. The College hosted a highly successful exhibition of John Dee books which now appear to be among those considered for sale. The collections have attracted visitors to hire the building’s facilities, thus contributing to income generation while in situ. Selling books puts at risk the RCP’s Museum Accreditation, as well as attracting negative publicity and reputational damage, all of which will deter future visitors once this pandemic is over. Losing Accreditation would negatively affect the RCP’s ability to apply for funding grants in the future. Future donors to the RCP will be lost if they see that the College is prepared to dispose of bequests made in the past.

We would be more than happy to offer further professional advice during these discussions. Please do not hesitate to call upon us.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Jill Dye

On behalf of the Historic Libraries Forum


Historic Libraries Forum statement on proposed redundancies at the National Trust

The Historic Libraries Forum is extremely concerned to hear of recent proposals at the National Trust to make sweeping redundancies in its teams of specialist and lead curators across all regions. This will see the loss of the majority of its National Specialists (for furniture, pictures and sculpture, decorative arts, textiles, and photography), including the Libraries Curator Tim Pye and the 1.2fte post of Assistant Libraries Curator. These specialised roles will be replaced with ‘Senior National Curators’ who will be responsible for a wide variety of material objects which fall within their period of interest (16th century, 17th century, 18th century, and 19th-21st century). More broadly, there will be a general move away from specialist knowledge, focussing instead on providing a dynamic visitor experience, one which – surely – must be underpinned by the knowledge and interpretation provided by specialists.

The Trust’s collection of books and manuscripts, numbering some 600,000 volumes housed across 180 sites, is one of international significance which allows us to better understand the lives of their owners. The spectrum of social history which can be seen in the Trust’s properties (from grand stately homes like Blickling in Norfolk to humble farmhouses like Townend in Cumbria) is echoed in the Trust’s books: vast 18th-century Italian plate books reveal tales of Grand Tours and connoisseurship, whilst devotional books read by family servants hint at unexpected links between gentry and their staff. Specialist staff are key if these stories are to be (1) discovered and understood, and (2) presented to the public in the wider context of each property. Great work has been done in recent years to bring books to the fore in many Trust properties, both internally (cataloguing, exhibition and conservation) and externally (through collaborative PhD projects and the welcoming of researchers), allowing a new appreciation of the place of books in our national life over the centuries. The loss of these specialist posts threatens to wipe out that progress.

We realise that, like many heritage institutions, the National Trust finds itself in a worrying financial position. Difficult decisions must be made if it is to continue its most basic work of sustaining the physical landscapes and buildings under its care for future generations. At the same time it must be recognised that expert knowledge has to be central to its work, and that no single curator – however experienced – can have expert levels of knowledge about art history, furniture, textiles and books alike. Without staff who have the necessary expertise to interpret and care for the Trust’s diverse collections, it puts itself in the position of seeming to care little for its own cultural legacy.

Anyone who shares our concerns is encouraged to write to the following individuals at the National Trust: (Director-General) (Director of Culture & Engagement) (Curatorial & Collections Director)

Conferences & events, The Bulletin

Collections care for historic libraries, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 21 June 2019

Over morning coffee, a diverse group of participants assembled, including Librarians, Reading Room Assistants and Photographers involved in digitisation projects. The workshop was led by Edward Cheese (Conservator of Manuscripts and Printed Books, Assistant Keeper) and Monika Stokowiec (Assistant Conservator) at The Fitzwilliam Museum. It demonstrated the wide range of professionals working with special collections who seek a deeper understanding of the preservation of library and archival materials. In my role as Events and Outreach Coordinator at a small but busy independent library in Manchester, I understand very well how important it is for every member of staff in contact with collections to understand the vulnerabilities, the risks and the methods of protecting our precious artefacts.

We were led to our classroom, in this case the Founder’s Library, a gorgeous 19th century library and an ideal space for our purposes. Our instructors started right at the beginning of Western book making. The group was shown the line of progression from the earliest techniques and materials all the way to our modern-day paperbacks. The level of detail was impressive; even parchment, leather and paper making techniques were described. We learned the importance of knowing the inherent qualities and tendencies of materials, as well as the processes they undergo, in order to predict how they will react under adverse conditions.

A holistic and historical approach showed us how the development of printing, the
proliferation of book production and the changing storage implications over the centuries affected, in turn, the ways that books were designed, crafted and manufactured. For instance, clasps were necessary on 12th century books to limit any disfigurement of the parchment leaves within. The small number of books produced at this time also meant they could be stored flat. By the 17th century, with leaves made of paper and the skyrocketing demand for books, clasps had lost their function and books were stored upright to make better use of space.

With a crash course in the history of book production under our belts, we moved on to the various forms of chemical and physical degradation and how they come about. This led to a discussion about working with conservators to prioritise and execute work on collections in ways that are efficient, economical and sensitive to the objects.

After lunch we returned to our work. The afternoon covered handling, cleaning, housing, exhibiting and emergency planning. What a lot to cover in short space of time! But the level of planning and preparation that went into the workshop made this achievable. We even had time to try building our own cleaning stations made of paper, designed to trap dust and debris.

After the workshop we were provided with extremely helpful supplementary guides on cleaning books, building display cradles and planning for emergencies, which we could keep for future reference. Such detailed theoretical explanation and very practical demonstrations, guides and tools would help any person who wishes to enhance their own knowledge and elevate conservation practices at their place of work. In fact, I would highly recommend this workshop for any member of staff working in an organisation with collections at its heart. Speaking as someone with an equal enthusiasm for conservation and engagement, it seems clear that shared understanding incentivises cooperation across disciplines and lays a strong foundation for successful collections care. In any case, what booklover wouldn’t be thrilled to know more about such a fascinating subject?

Aoife Larkin
Events and Outreach Coordinator, The Portico Library, Manchester
BA Art History, MA Contemporary Curating
Currently studying MA Preventive Conservation