British Library to start charging

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The Independent Online

Its archives hold the Magna Carta, Beatles manuscripts and the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Visitors to its fabled reading room in the British Museum included Karl Marx, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw. But the future of the British Library as a world-class, free resource is under threat fromplansto cut up to 7 per cent of its £100m budget in this year's Treasury spending round.

To survive, the library proposes to slash opening hours by more than a third and to charge researchers for admission to the reading rooms for the first time.

All public exhibitions would close, along with schools learning programmes. The permanent collection, which includes a copy of every book published in the UK, would be permanently reduced by 15 per cent. And the national newspaper archive, used by 30,000 people a year, including many researching their family trees, would close.

Scholars, writers and politicians have responded angrily. Award-winning author Margaret Drabble, who is currently using the library for research, said: "It would be a very great mistake and tragic to make cuts. It is a great national institution and it is used by scholars from all over the world."

Ex-Monty Python star Michael Palin, who is a patron of the library, said it was a "precious and thrilling resource" that needs to be looked after.

Since 2001, the library, now based in St Pancras and sites around London, has made savings of £40m and reduced its workforce by 15 per cent.

However, the Department for Culture says the expected cuts will mean that more savings need to be made. A spokesman said: "The cultural sector has had huge real-terms increases in funding since 1997. Clearly, this cannot go on indefinitely."

The plans have also caused consternation in the House of Lords. The broadcaster Lord Bragg said the library was of "massive importance in a society... that depends more and more on information, creativity and brains. It needs to be nourished, not hobbled".

Lord Avebury has written to Gordon Brown, who will preside over the Treasury spending plans, saying: "It is difficult to fathom the mind of a Government that sets out to wreck a world-class public institution, as you would if the British Library is forced to make these cuts."

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