Guardians of UK's literary jewels at risk in V&A plan to cut key library staff

They are guardians of some of the nation’s most valued treasures, including Dickens’s manuscripts, a Shakespeare First Folio and five Leonardo notebooks. But librarians at the National Art Library in the Victoria and Albert Museum are feeling far from valued themselves, as two-thirds of them face losing their jobs.

Thirty librarians have been told that their numbers are to be reduced to just 10, as part of a major restructuring at the museum.

The V&A hastily informed staff of the plans on 26 February, after the Guardian revealed that large job cuts were feared to be imminent, with curators and conservators in the line of fire.

With everyone at home, as a result of lockdown, the meeting was held remotely. Antonia Boström, director of collections, was among V&A managers who confirmed restructuring plans. The V&A argues that the cuts are necessary due to the financial impact of Covid, and the need to find “£10m sustainable savings per year”.

Previous plans for restructuring have been controversial. The former director, Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, caused outrage with her redundancies programme alongside an advertising campaign headed, “An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached”, although she claimed increased attendances among achievements.

The National Art Library (NAL) is one of the world’s four top art libraries, alongside one in France and two in America. As well as around a million objects in its holdings, its librarians provide access to some two million objects from collections in V&A departments.

The jewels include the Leonardo notebooks, filled with his extraordinary drawings, including diagrams for devices relating to hydraulic engineering, and Dickens’s original manuscript of Oliver Twist.

News of the NAL cutbacks are the first confirmed details of the V&A’s plans. Internal documents seen by the Observer show that the museum’s “curatorial division must find a 20% saving” and that the NAL will have a reduced staff – “a new lead librarian role” and a deputy, supported by only eight librarians, assistant librarians and service assistants.

Another document gives job descriptions, offering fixed-term contracts to staff, even though some have worked there for decades.

Elsewhere, the documents state: “We will transform the NAL Reading Room into a publicly accessible ‘Reading Room of the arts’… The NAL will remain closed to the public for the next 12 months… A root-and-branch review will determine service delivery requirements, responding to a redesigned V&A, public demand and digitisation priorities.”

But one source said: “The library is open to everybody. It’s free… You can request objects and see them in the library on the same day. So we’re very confused as to what they mean by opening up access.” The library’s two main reading rooms are far from large, with a combined capacity of just over 100 people. Before lockdown, they were squeezing in around 120 a day, on average. Academics say that it is often difficult to find a seat.

A museum insider said: “While they’re getting rid of 20 staff now, and closing the library for about a year, those 10 staff who remain – just to maintain the collection while it’s locked away – are still under review. So they may well be restructured again… There’s a huge amount of uncertainty. Why not do the review while it’s open? Instead, they’re shedding a huge amount of experience, making these cuts pre-emptively and rashly, while they haven’t figured out the final way the library will function.”

The V&A said: “Despite emergency support from government, the V&A is facing a £10m annual deficit. So, with deep regret, we have been forced to explore all routes to reduce costs across the museum in order to protect our future. The NAL’s exceptional collection and iconic spaces are fundamental to the V&A. Our proposals would protect and expand its remit in the future, opening the Reading Room to more visitors while increasing digital access for audiences worldwide. Our priority now is consulting openly and meaningfully our staff and trade union colleagues on these proposals, and supporting our staff community through this difficult process.”

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union , said: “The V&A’s decision to make staff redundant and close the NAL, before any review into its future, is both outrageous and short-sighted.”

Category:

prem

Tags:

, , , ,

Comments are closed.