The St Bride Foundation Library, which dates from 1895 and has a historic collection of printing trade and typographical materials, will open on a limited, paid-for basis only from now on, instead of having weekly opening days for visitors.
Meanwhile its library manager, the only member of library staff, has been made redundant.
The chair of the Historic Libraries Forum has warned the Foundation's chief executive Glyn Farrow that the move could put the charity's legacy at risk; but Farrow has called the intervention "ill-timed and unhelpful".
The library, near Fleet Street, London EC4, contains the collections of master printer William Blades, type founder and historian Talbot Baines Reed, and John Southward, a technical print journalist. It previously opened its Reading Room one day a week for all visitors, and on two further days for pre–booked appointments. Its visitors, numbering 80,000 a year, include postgraduate researchers, senior scholars, and some undergraduates, and visitors from the US, Australia, the Far East and elsewhere.
The library closed on a temporary basis last December. However the library manager will depart this month, as will a workshop manager who ran courses in letterpress, book binding and other traditional skills at the Foundation's printing workshop, meaning the library will not now reopen in the same form.
Farrow told The Bookseller the library was going to have to open on a sessional basis only "for the foreseeable future." He said: "We always have funding applications in the pipeline but it's a hard slog at the moment getting money. We're trying to honour all existing commitments, and I would never do anything to jeopardise someone's current research, but we can't take a lot of new researchers – it's not possible at the moment. If a scholar says they want to visit, it's going to cost them x hundred pounds a day, because I will have to buy in the service to come in and run it [the library]."
In a letter published on the Historic Libraries Forum website, Liam Sims, the chair of the forum committee, has told Farrow the forum is "extremely concerned" at news of the redundancy of library staff. He wrote: "The printed, archival and object collections of St Bride Library are of international importance….It is important not just to scholarship but to the wider public that St Bride Library's collections are properly conserved, cared for and made available, which is best done by professional staff. There is no substitute for the kind of care that regularly employed professionals can deliver; and that is the kind of care that a collection as large and complex as St Bride's needs and deserves."
Sims asked for reassurance that the library's collection would not be disposed of, saying: "We have noted in recent years the gradual reduction in access to the collections at St Bride, with reduced opening hours, charges for readers' tickets, and so on. We appreciate that St Bride is under considerable financial pressure, just like many other charities and heritage organisations. However the library service and staff appear to have been singled out for cuts when other aspects of your operation 'all remain vibrant and fully active.'"
Farrow told The Bookseller that the public dissemination of the letter was "ill-timed and unhelpful", saying: "I have exactly the same concerns as he [Sims] has and I'm grateful to him for putting them in writing. I will be writing to him asking for his help in applying for funds. But he didn't have the courtesy to pick up the phone and speak to me before writing this [public] letter and I find that very irritating."
Farrow emphasised: "Let me make one thing absolutely clear – we are not planning to dispose of any of our collection at all. We do try and dispose of duplicates – but we are not getting rid of anything."
He added: "We are not just a library. A lot of people think the library is the be all and end all, but we have a conference centre, theatre and bar, all sorts of activities, and they've been underwriting the cost of the library for years. We can't underwrite that loss any more. We have to find a different business model and get the whole thing on a sustainable basis - either get corporate sponsorship for a number of years, or develop a revenue stream ourselves."
The St Bride Foundation was established in 1891 to provide a social, cultural and recreational centre for London's Fleet Street and its print and publishing trade. On its website, the charity says: "At the heart of the Foundation is an unparalleled library of print, media, communications and design, believed to be the largest in the world – but its remit is becoming even more broad and exciting. With a renewed educational programme, a vibrant fringe theatre and a wide gamut of seminars and events, St Bride Foundation is reaffirming its status as a major London hub for the creative arts."
The charity has been outspending its income for the past five years, according to accounts filed on the Charity Commission site.
The most recent accounts, filed to end June 2014, show an income of £886,000 but spending of £1.05m. Of its spending, half (£526,100) was listed under Income Generation and Governance, and half (£527,700) under Charitable Spending.