Library joins Keele criticism

December 24, 1999

The British Library has joined academics in condemning Keele University for clearing itself of improper behaviour over its sale of rare mathematics books to a private dealer for Pounds 1 million last year.

This week British Library heads accused Keele of taking a "selfish action" that "may have seriously damaged the atmosphere of trust" between donors and institutions by selling 1,400 items, including books from Sir Isaac Newton's library.

In a letter to Keele vice-chancellor Janet Finch this week, British Library chief executive Brian Lang criticised an internal investigation by Keele's audit committee, which concluded the university was legally entitled to sell the collection, that staff involved in the sale "acted with probity and in good faith" and that there was "no evidence Keele was short-changed on price".

Dr Lang said the committee failed to address some of the most serious issues in the case. By selling the collection to Simon Finch without ensuring the books would be kept in the UK and not be split up, the university had shown "disrespect" towards the intentions of the donor, the late Charles Turner.

Through this "selfish action of selling the bequest" Keele may have "seriously damaged the atmosphere of trust that must exist in order to enable gift-giving to institutions", the letter continued.

Dr Lang said he did not think the audit committee's report had exonerated the university, and there were still questions to be addressed about the sale.

The British Library was "astonished" it was not consulted when Keele tested the market for the sale. The audit committee failed to comment on the fact that the British Library had to ask Keele to return a Pounds 10,000 preservation grant, awarded on condition it would be returned if the collection were sold.

Dr Lang says: "I believe questions remain over the sale and that Keele did not act in a manner expected of a responsible higher education institution."

Keele University said it had not yet received the letter and declined to comment.

The British Library and British Museum settled a wrangle this week when they agreed to share equally the George Bernard Shaw Fund, worth about Pounds 7 million. It was bequeathed in 1950 to the British Museum's Reading Room, but a tussle ensued when the library split from the museum in 1972.

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