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Funding cuts threaten free access to library

PUBLISHED: 16:49 09 February 2007 | UPDATED: 14:27 07 September 2010

As the world's richest man jetted in to visit the British Library, a campaign began to stop the government pulling the plug on the national body's coffers. Katie Davies reports on the effort to keep the British Library free for all

As the world's richest man jetted in to visit the British Library, a campaign began to stop the government pulling the plug on the national body's coffers. Katie Davies reports on the effort to keep the British Library free for all

MICROSOFT mogul Bill Gates stood on the doorstep of the British Library last week to unveil a project that gives visitors free online access to Leonardo da Vinci's work.

But at the same time, it emerged that the Euston Road institution was looking for its own philanthropist after the government announced imminent funding cuts.

As a result the library may have to charge admission to its reading rooms - a move that has been met by a furious backlash from the nation's greatest scientists, authors and academics.

British Library chief executive Lynne Brindley said: "It is clear the cuts indicated will have far-reaching and highly deleterious implications for the British Library's services and reputation as a world-leading research library.

"If applied, they will fundamentally weaken our stewardship legacy for future generations and destroy a truly world-class institution in the UK."

The department for culture, media and sport has told the library to draw up a spending plan on the basis of having five to seven per cent worth of cuts in the financial year 2008/09.

As well as charging for access to research rooms, the library's plans include cutting back on permanent collections, ruining the library's history of owning a copy of every book published in this country.

A statement from the library spelt out the catastrophic effects of such a move.

"We will have to cut our spending on research journals and books, which will undermine 250 years of collecting and damage the UK's position in the world research ranking. Thirty thousand current readers will no longer have access and the growing popular use of newspapers as primary sources for sports and family history research will develop no further."

A government spokesman tried to downplay the threats saying many institutions were drawing up similar plans and it was yet to be seen who would suffer most.

But he admitted the department was preparing for losses.

"We are waiting for the chancellor's statement on the future funding. Arts and culture generally has had extremely good settlements over the last six or seven years and that level cannot continue indefinitely - so we are preparing for a hard settlement."

In parliament, questions are already flocking to the chancellor's door with Hampstead resident Lord Bragg and local MP Frank Dobson criticising the move.

Poet Laureate Andrew Motion is also opposing cuts together with Gospel Oak's Michael Palin.

Palin told the Ham&High: "Any imposed reduction of the services offered by the British Library would be very sad news for a world-class institution."

The latest edition of the friends of the library's newsletter had comments from users angry at the proposed changes, with contributors ranging from serious academics and postgraduates to an increasing number of undergraduates.

User Paul Clark wrote: "Conditions for study in the reading rooms have certainly been deteriorating recently and the British Library won't continue as a world-class institution if things aren't put right."

In December 2005 the library was forced to ban ink pens in the rooms after an increase in readers defacing books and in August 2006 £70,000 worth of maps were stolen from the reading rooms.

If prices go up, it is unsure who will still be able to use the rooms with fears that the older arty community will be replaced by only those rich enough to fork out for costs.

But whatever the outcome, the institution in which Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital (when the library was housed at the British Museum) seems to be heading for a break from its own history.

katie.davies@hamhigh.co.uk


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