Imperilled archive seeks new fearless champion

August 2, 2012

Some of the UK's leading research-intensive universities are bidding to take over a celebrated collection of women's history resources.

The Women's Library, operated by London Metropolitan University, is widely regarded as one of the UK's leading specialist archives, attracting 30,000 visitors a year.

But the university is seeking a new home, custodian or sponsor for the collection because it cannot continue to cover its £500,000-a-year running costs, and wants to concentrate resources on student services.

Since the announcement in March, more than 6,500 people have signed an online petition to save the library. Comedian Sandi Toksvig and novelist Shirley Conran have also backed the campaign.

London Met has released a shortlist of the institutions preparing to bid for the archive, which includes thousands of books, pamphlets, letters and memorabilia documenting women's lives over the past 400 years.

They include the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics, the University of Warwick, the University of York, and York St John University.

Manchester City Council and the University of London's Senate House have also expressed interest.

A committee overseeing the transfer has said the collection must be kept together and retain its brand identity within any other library.

Bidders must also ensure that it is open to the public, rather than being restricted to academic use, and proposed staffing levels should match or exceed current arrangements.

However, the library's curator, Gail Cameron, said she was disappointed that the selection criteria did not include a commitment to keep the library at its current Whitechapel home.

Instead, the archive needs only to be "housed in a central and easily accessible location in the UK", according to the committee.

"We are waiting to see what the various consortia propose, but it seems likely it will move out of the current building," Ms Cameron said. "That is a real shame because it was purpose-built only 10 years ago, receiving about £4.5 million of lottery money and several bequests.

"Staff have worked on that collection for years, and those experts will be lost if staff do not move with the collection."

Paul Bowler, deputy chief executive of London Met, said the university was happy for any bidder to take over the running of both the building and the collection.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com.

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