Warburg Institute: library saved from Nazis awaits its fate

Collection could be broken up in legal action over 1944 deed of trust

June 19, 2014

Source: The Warburg Institute

Looming threat: the Warburg Institute’s 350,000 volumes could return to Hamburg or be absorbed into Senate House

The future of a “unique and extraordinary” library saved from Nazi Germany lies in the balance after the University of London launched a legal action to challenge its deed of trust.

The Warburg Institute, which holds about 350,000 books in its Bloomsbury premises, was originally established in Hamburg by Aby Warburg (1866-1929), an intellectual whose brilliance has been compared to that of Sigmund Freud.

Born into the German-Jewish Warburg banking dynasty, he famously forfeited his right to a share of his fortune on condition that his younger brother Max would buy him any books he required.

Four years after Warburg’s death, the collection of about 80,000 books, many rare Renaissance volumes, was moved to London as Nazism took hold in 1930s Germany. However, the University of London is now seeking to challenge the status of the deed of trust it signed in 1944 when accepting the collection.

That document promised to maintain and preserve the collection “in perpetuity” as “an independent unit” – a pledge that now appears onerous as the Warburg runs a reported £500,000 annual deficit.

Representatives for both the university and the Warburg Institute were due to appear in a court in London’s Rolls Building this week after efforts to negotiate a compromise over the past five years have failed.

A judgment on the validity of the 1944 deed, which is barely more than a page long, is expected in the autumn. If the university were to succeed, many Warburg supporters fear that the institute’s volumes would be divided up among Senate House Library shelves.

That would mean the loss of the institute’s “open stack” arrangements, in which almost all books are accessible to researchers, unlike the book-by-request nature of larger university libraries. “Working in the Warburg’s open stacks is vital to the research of scholars in many humanities fields and from many countries,” insisted Anthony Grafton, Henry Putnam university professor of history at Princeton University.

“No university library would be able to sustain this tradition at the same level, [so] if a transfer of the collection should take place, the pressure to amalgamate it with other materials and allow parts of it to circulate would be acute,” he added.

Professor Grafton meanwhile raised concerns over the future of the “highly skilled librarians” at the Warburg, which also has a small number of academic staff who supervise arts and humanities graduate students each year.

Further, there is speculation that a court defeat would mean that the collection would return to Hamburg where much of the Warburg family is still based. The US-based branch of the Warburg family are also known to have taken a keen interest in the case.

A university spokesman said that the Attorney General, who has been asked to resolve the Warburg dispute, has “indicated that a court hearing is his preferred course of action”.

“The university respects this view” and looks “forward to the court providing clarity”, he added, saying it could not comment on “an immensely complex set of legal arguments in advance of any judgment”.

Peter Mack, the Warburg’s director, declined to comment, as did the institute’s legal counsel.


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Reader's comments (1)

This article refers to "the book-by-request nature of larger university libraries." The Cambridge University Library is one of the two largest university libraries in the UK, but nearly all its collections are open-stack.