The British Library yesterday issued questionnaires to its users asking their reaction to the possibility that it might for the first time in 250 years charge for access to its reading rooms.
The first reading room at the new St Pancras building opens this autumn. It will be the humanities reading room, the equivalent of the famous Round Reading Room at the British Museum.
Yesterday Brian Lang, chief executive of the British Library, said there was no current plan to introduce charges, and there was no possibility of charges being introduced in the near future, as the last board meeting confirmed its support for the tradition of free access.
But he added: "In view of the very severe financial constraints under which the library is currently working and the uncertainty of future government grant in aid, the board requested the library management to conduct research into the subject without further delay."
The questionnaire proposes a range of annual charges for regular use of the British Library and asks users to indicate which prices they believe to be "reasonable", "expensive" or "so expensive that you would no longer visit the library".
The range extends from pounds 50 a year to pounds 700 a year, going up in pounds 25 jumps. The research findings will be presented to the British Library board in July. The budget for the new St Pancras building has risen from an original pounds 116m to pounds 511m.
Reaction among regular users showed that the research is likely to find a hostile attitude to charging.
Brian Lake, secretary of the Regular Readers Group, said yesterday there had been no consultation with the group before putting out the questionnaire. He added that there would be international ramifications.
"If American academics are charged here, will the American Library of Congress start charging people from Britain?" he asked. The historian Lord Thomas of Swynnerton said he was opposed to charging for regular usage. Ben Pimlott, biographer of the Queen and of Harold Wilson, has lent his support to Mr Lake to oppose charging in talks with the library management.
The historian Lady Antonia Fraser, who has used the British Library reading room for 43 years, said: "I think that citizens of this country should unquestionably have their rights to visit freely great collections which have been built up for them."
The novelist Malcolm Bradbury said: "It is a world class research library. It should be available to scholars on the principle of their research."
Pay to view: the price of progress
Charges for admission at many sites were stopped during the late 19th century when a popular consensus gathered pace that visits to places of culture and God should be free.
The case for charges at cathedrals was made in a Heritage and Renewal Report by Lady Howe which urged the richer cathedrals to raise more funds from visitors to help themselves and poorer sites..
However, a Which? report has roundly condemned charges at many sites saying they are too expensive and give poor value.
Five that charge
Victoria and Albert Museum: Introduced pounds 5 admission charge for adults (pounds 3 for OAPS, free for under-18s and students) in October citing the "increasing seriousness of the Museum's financial position".
Westminster Abbey: Charges pounds 4 to visit the Royal Chapel and Poets' Corner. Admission to cloisters and knave are free though tour groups are charged pounds 4 per head to enter the abbey. Considering a flat charge to control numbers which were around 2.5m last year.
Ben Nevis: Highland Council has agreed to invite walkers who struggle up Britain's highest mountain as part of charity hikes to pay an unspecified amount. The money would help fund guides for the increasing numbers of charity climbers, gather litter and clean toilets.
Ely Cathedral: Receives 101,000 visitors every year. Introduced charges 10 years ago: pounds 3 for adults, pounds 2.20 concessions. "Charging has enabled us to break even," said a spokeswoman.
New Forest: 95 per cent of visitors go by car and the chronic congestion from the annual 9.5m vehicles has led to plans to introduce car parking charges. Plans have prompted protests by shopkeepers and villagers.
Five that are free
Royal Courts of Justice: Site of the High Courts and the Court of Appeal and home to more than 70 courts. Visitors will be subjected to a routine bag search.
National Gallery: Houses 2,000 paintings from 1260 to 1910 and receives five million visitors every year.
Giant's Causeway Centre, Bushmills: Opened in 1986 and now attracts 400,000 people each year. Displays on the history and formation of the causeway, tales about the giant, souvenir shops and tea-room.
Hampton Court Gardens: Access to the deer park and all areas apart from the Privy Garden and the maze. Most popular gardens in the country with 1.2m visitors annually.
York Minster: Visited by 2,250,000 people annually. Suggested donation is pounds 2.Reuse content