Imperial War Museum library breakup

29 January 2015

Letter from Peter Mandler to the Director-General of the IWM raising concerns about the proposed dispersal of the Imperial War Museum Library.  Similar letters have been sent to the Chair of the Board of Trustees and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport.

On behalf of the Royal Historical Society, which comprises over 3,000 Fellows engaged in advanced historical research, I am writing to express the historical profession’s concern over the proposed dispersal of the Museum’s Library.  As you know better than anyone, the IWM is a world-class resource for historical research into conflict in the modern world, for members of the general public who are taking an exceptional interest in this subject, not least during this centenary period of the Great War, and for the professional historians whom I represent.  You also have a world-class library and archive staff who have provided wonderful service to our members and to the public, and have rightly invested in recent years in improving the service available to all enquiring parties in your Research Room.

We all understand that the Museum, like all publicly-funded services, is under severe fiscal pressure at this moment.   But we also trust that public institutions are doing their best to protect ‘front-line services’ in this period of stringency.  The Library is surely a front-line service of this kind.  It is not merely a reference library, duplicating materials held elsewhere.  It has many rare and unique possessions, which are properly part of your irreplaceable collections.  Furthermore – and this applies more to members of the public even than to our professional members – its reference materials are themselves an integral part of your archival collections.  That is to say, it is impossible to understand the archival collections without using them in situ alongside the reference materials.  This is why books form the majority of all materials requested in your Research Room by members of the general public, and why most users of documents also use books at the same time.  While professional historians might at a pinch make several trips to different places to consult reference, book and archival materials, it is precisely members of the public who cannot easily do this, and who cannot thus make any effective use of your archival collections without the presence of a reference library.  Even so, specialist researchers too need to consult disparate materials side-by-side;  this is why major archives retain their reference libraries.  It would be a matter of great concern if the IWM chose to depart from this practice, a short-term cut that would substantially impair the utility of one of your greatest assets.

I appreciate that running a library doesn’t come cheap – it needs specialist staff itself and a decent budget to keep it current.  (Running down the collection would be not much better than dispersing it.)  But I’m sure you would never contemplate dispersing unique archival holdings, and our case is that the reference library forms an integral part of those holdings, without which they are incomplete.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Mandler

Return to RHS News page