Historians debate charges at IWM

Historians debate charges at IWM

Historian Antony Beevor [pictured] has said the Imperial War Museums (IWM) are "completely right" to introduce charges for researchers, but first world war historian Dr Jonathan Boff of the University of Birmingham has warned it could negatively impact academic research. 

The IWM has revealed that it does not now plan to close its library as had been feared, but money-saving measures will include staff losses, service cutbacks and a “nominal” charge for its research room, the amount of which has yet to be confirmed. The research room offers access to documents, sound archive, published items, digital resources and the War Artists Archive.

Beevor, whose new book Ardennes 1944: Hitler's Last Gamble (Viking) will be released in May and who has used the archives at IWM, said the news was not “as bad as it had looked” when the restructure was originally announced last year. “I think they are right to introduce charges for researchers,” he told The Bookseller. “They are offering a service. I think more and more institutions should be able to charge some sort of nominal fee.”

Historian Amanda Foreman, who has also used the library for research for her books, said if it was a “choice between no charges and no library, and charges and a library”, she would rather have the latter. “We live in the real world and everyone is scrabbling for money,” she told The Bookseller. “We have to be innovative, we need to transform our anger and work together to find a viable and economic solution. I don’t know what that is but I am willing to sit down and discuss fundraising ideas. I am happy to do that with the museum.”

Stuart Proffitt, publishing director at Penguin Press, said of the changes: " This is deeply regrettable, and will be a significant constraint upon authors writing on military subjects. But the IWM, like other publicly funded bodies, is in an extremely difficult situation and I am sure it has considered its options very carefully."
Boff, a First World War historian and lecturer at the University of Birmingham, whose last book was Winning and Losing on the Western Front: The British Third Army and the Defeat of Germany in 1918 (CUP), said that although the decision not to close the library was a relief, "the imposition of a charge, even a 'nominal' one, remains a concern. This will negatively impact academic research, since neither universities nor funding bodies are likely to be willing to subsidise the IWM by paying a fee. A charge would also deter our students, most of whom have no external funding and yet will face even higher costs. Up to a hundred War Studies students from the University of Birmingham alone each year could find the independent research which is such an important part of their degrees affected by any fee."

IWM also announced there would be some cutbacks to service levels at its library and some job losses across the whole organisation, with numbers yet to be confirmed. Foreman said the problem with losing staff was that you “also lose a vast depository of knowledge”.

“You lose that human capital,” she added.

The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), which wrote an open letter last year expressing its concern over the possible closure of the library, welcomed news that the library would continue. Mark Taylor, director of external relations at CILIP said: “We’re pleased to hear that the Imperial War Museums will continue to provide library services that support the public and researchers. This decision, and the significant concerns that have been raised about the library’s threat of closure, demonstrate the importance of research libraries to furthering our knowledge and understanding, and providing opportunities for learning and creativity.”

However both CILIP and the Prospect union, which started a petition against the possible closure of the library, have  expressed concerns about the loss of library staff. Taylor said: “We wait for further details about the IWM’s consultation with interest, especially about the role of skilled, knowledgeable and professional staff to manage, shape and deliver library services to support the museum’s aims and purpose.”

Prospect negotiator Andy Bye said: "If IWM is to provide for, and encourage, the study and understanding of the history of modern war and “wartime experience”, it cannot do so without the wide range of materials held in its library – nor indeed the 220 years’ of collective experience of the library staff whose jobs are threatened.”

IWM will announce later this year the full details of the changes, including the number of staff being made redundant.