Keele brought to book

January 15, 1999

The Turner collection, formerly held by the university library at Keele, represented one of the most important research resources in its field outside London, Oxford and Cambridge. The results of a lifetime of dedicated book collecting, it is rich in the sources for the study of its subject. The dispersal of the collection, or its loss to this country as a research resource, would indeed be a matter of profound regret to the British Library and to the wider library and research communities.

The British Library regards the recent sale as unfortunate. It is very regrettable that the library had no knowledge of the sale before it took place. We have not been offered items from the collection for purchase nor been privy to any decision-making relating to its future.

Our only formal role in such matters is to advise government, when requested to do so, on the possible issue of export licences for particular items using very specific criteria. This only happens, of course, once a sale has gone through. For obvious reasons, such advice is sought and offered in confidence but we have made known our views about the possible dispersal of the Turner collection, or its export, through the appropriate channels. We have also expressed our concern that the criteria applied to the evaluation of export licence applications have not yet been extended to allow consideration of collections as a whole.

The important point here is the dispersal of a collection that offers a "critical mass" of material on a particular specialist subject. Sadly, this is merely the latest in a long series of similar cases in which public institutions in this country have disposed of rare books and special collections they no longer regard as central to their purpose. Such an accumulation of research materials as the Turner collection should surely have its own dynamic, suggesting, for example, possible programmes for study or research. The slow depletion of the nation's bibliographic resources, with the missed opportunities it represents, is a trend that concerns us deeply.

As a footnote, in 1998 the British Library awarded Keele University a small grant to catalogue items from the Turner collection. We have informed them that the conditions under which this grant was made have been breached by the sale. I understand they have taken immediate steps to refund the amount they received.

Graham Jefcoate Head, Early Printed Collections British Library

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