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Concern grows over future access to UK war library

Research librarians have added their voice to concerns about the future of the Imperial War Museum's library following reports that some of the museum's collections may no longer be accessible to researchers.

In a statement sent to Research Fortnight on 17 November, David Prosser, director of the consortium Research Libraries UK, said that continued uncertainty over the collections’ future was a “grave concern”. 

"The big fear is obviously what happens to the collections and ensuring that they remain accessible to researchers," he says. “If those collections either go somewhere en masse or are split up, that’s going to have implications on the ability of researchers to get access to them.” 

The museum has almost 18,000 individual collections of private papers written primarily by British and Commonwealth service personnel since 1914. It also houses the official British records of the Nuremberg trials.

Prosser’s comments follow a press release by the Prospect union on 4 November, which claimed that up to 80 jobs were threatened because of an annual deficit of £4 million in the museum’s accounts.

The union is petitioning the UK government to reverse “current and future cuts” to the museum’s annual operating grant-in-aid. The petition had more than 7,000 signatures at the time of writing. 

In a statement, a museum spokeswoman said that none of the museum’s sites would be closed, but confirmed that the institution was "considering changes to how core collections are accessed". She added that: "a programme of digitisation of these collections is in train" for those unable to visit the museum in person.

The spokeswoman also said that the museum planned to reduce net expenditure by £4 million a year, and that it would achieve this by saving costs and increasing its commercial income. 

“The consultation period for the organisational restructuring element of the Imperial War Museum’s change programme has now begun,” the statement said. “We are working closely with those who may be affected by the change proposals and will continue to do so until the end of the year. Any announcements regarding changes at the museum will be made early next year (2015).” 

An article in Saturday’s Financial Times reported the museum as saying that it intended to continue managing the library’s core collection, and that all collection items would be accessible to researchers, but by appointment only. Items being managed by the museum but that have not been formally accepted into its collection might be transferred to other institutions, according to the report. 

The museum recognised the threat posed by potential cuts to its grant-in-aid in its corporate plan for 2014-17. The plan said that “major challenges” were posed by potential lower levels of government funding as well as what it calls a “huge increase” of £1 million a year in its employer’s pension contribution from 2015-16. 

Prosser said that the loss of any archive resource would be particularly resonant this year, in the centenary of the first world war.

“My impression is that museums and libraries up and down the country have looked at the museum’s collections to help inform their local exhibitions on the centenary of the first world war,” he said. “Losing that resource at this stage would be ironic to say the least.”