Researchers fear that early end to collection loan will hit REF standing

Lancaster must return historical manuscripts five years earlier than expected. John Morgan reports

January 28, 2010

Lancaster University was delighted when it was loaned a collection of rare books and manuscripts, including a Shakespeare first folio and letters signed by Queen Elizabeth I, by a family trust of the former Conservative peer Lord Hesketh.

It proudly announced that the collection would "provide an important resource for national and international scholars in arts, social sciences, geography and biology".

But five years later, the books are being withdrawn. In 2009, the collection's trustees gave 12 months' notice that they were ending the loan, as they are entitled to do under the terms of the agreement.

After the loan was made in 2005, the university said the agreement with the Second Baron Hesketh's Will Trust was "for ten years in the first instance, subject to review".

Robert Appelbaum, senior lecturer in Renaissance studies at Lancaster, said the university would suffer when the books are withdrawn in May this year.

"It will impact on our standing in the research excellence framework, and it will impact on the kind of education we can offer our students," he said.

The REF, which will be used to allocate research funding, will assess resources such as libraries when looking at the quality of a department, Dr Appelbaum said.

"Having access to these kinds of books put us on a level playing field with older universities. It allowed us to provide a quality of resources that wouldn't otherwise be available because we are a newer institution."

He added: "Students at Oxford can look at a Shakespeare folio any time they want to; students in Birmingham can. Students in the North don't have that access."

The jewel in the collection is a four-volume set of John James Audubon's Birds of America. It features life-sized engravings and is housed in its own ornately carved bookcase.

The collection also includes letters on the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots signed by Queen Elizabeth I and one of the first collected editions of Shakespeare's works.

Nicolas Barker, editor of The Book Collector, said it was a "spectacular" collection and estimated the Birds of America edition to be worth £5-8 million.

Lord Hesketh, a former chief whip in the House of Lords, is now chairman of the Conservative Party Foundation, a fundraising group. The collection is controlled by the will trust of his late father, and Lord Hesketh is not among the trustees.

In a joint statement, the university and the trust said the collection "is being returned to its owners later this year as per the terms of the agreement. The trustees loaned the collection as a research resource for the university and visiting academics. Public exhibitions have been held in the university's Ruskin Library in 2006 and 2008. Items from the collection have subsequently been viewed by interested academics in the university's rare book archive and have been the subject of research by a number of scholars."

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