Don't bury the books in the garden

Anna Pavord passionately opposes a scheme to rusticate the Royal Horticultural Society's collection How will non-drivers or students get to Wisley? The magnificent Lindley could become a library without readers
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The Lindley Library, at the top of the Royal Horticultural Society's offices in Vincent Square, Westminster, has the best collection of horticultural books, paintings and periodicals in the world. Sitting between its comfortable bookcases, you ca n browse happily in gardening magazines of the 1820s and 30s or lose yourself in an original edition of Redoute's Les Roses, one of the most expensive books ever produced.

The library, valued at £10m, has been built up over the past hundred years by a society that has always considered the cultural aspects of gardening as important as the practical. Although it is used chiefly by the RHS, the library is open to all - a condition laid down by the Carnegie Trust, which financed the last major refurbishment.

Now it has outgrown its nest. The society's archives have swallowed up their allotted space in the basement; room on the shelves is running out. The library's new computer is balanced on a window-sill. This world-class libraryneeds more space. The big question is: where?

There are three possible solutions: expand the library in the present building, take over another building close to the present headquarters, or move the library to the RHS garden at Wisley, in Surrey, where the society is planning a new scientific centre. The RHS Council decided at its last meeting that the Wisley option was to be preferred. This is disastrous.

The decision follows the recommendations of a report, The Future Home of the Lindley Library, by Martin Harvey, project manager at Wisley. The version of the "full report" that is officially available for inspection is not complete. Omitted, for instance, is paragraph 1.4, which reads: "Throughout the above deliberations the library committee and librarian (at Vincent Square) have consistently opposed plans to move the main library to Wisley." And what happened to the 1990 survey results contained in An nex C of the Harvey report? In the survey, RHS members were asked: "Would you use the library if it was located at Wisley?" Only 4 per cent said "Yes".

The main problem is access. Wisley is three and a half miles from the nearest railway station. It is in the part of Surrey that, unless you are local, means tangling with the A3 or the M25. How will non-drivers or students get to Wisley? The attraction for the society is that land at Wisley is free. If the RHS did not already own Wisley, there would be no conceivable reason to rusticate a library of the Lindley's status to this inaccessible spot. But it will of, course, add prestige to the planned new Centre for Horticulture, Education and Science. Only at Wisley, says the society, could it put up a purpose-built library that will meet modern standards of conservation.

Given the disasters that have overtaken the purpose-built university library at Cambridge and the ongoing saga of the British Library at King's Cross, it can hardly be axiomatic that a new building will make a better home for a library than an old one. Of course the books should be well cared for, but at the last conservation audit at the Lindley Library no serious concerns were raised - conditions are not ideal, but they are adequate.

Photographs present a problem, as they need to be kept in the equivalent of a deep freeze. But provision can be made for special categories such as these in any building, new or old. The allure of the clean sweep, a grand building with your name emblazoned on the entrance, should not obscure the fact that there are other ways of doing things.

But think of Wisley's visitors, says the RHS. Won't it be wonderful for them to have the library on tap? Perhaps. But attendances at Wisley are falling, and more than half its visitors come at the weekend. The Lindley Library is open, at the moment, fromMonday to Friday, 9.30 to 5.30. No provision for weekend staffing appears in costings of the Wisley option.

The other pro-Wisley argument is that the society will be able to attract the necessary finance to rehouse the library only if it is part of a new building. Yet the National Heritage Memorial Fund would not in principle be opposed to financing an old home for the new Lindley library.

So why can't the library expand in its present building? It could if administrative departments of the RHS moved to Wisley instead, but there is little enthusiasm for that idea.

Nobody pretends Vincent Square is ideal. The roof leaks and the building is wildly expensive to maintain. The odd thing is that the RHS has promised, in the event of the library going to Wisley, that it will maintain a reading room at Vincent Square. Andthe reading room will be stocked with reference works and gardening classics; it will be more spacious than now, and link readers by computer with the main library. The society has even promised to bring books up from Wisley if they are ordered in advance.

As sops go this is a good one, but it sounds expensive. The Wisley option begins to look like a rather costly way of storing books that most people will prefer to have brought to them in London. And the costs of staffing and servicing a reading room do not appear in the balance sheet for the Wisley option. But then, none of the costs quoted in the Harvey report appear in the report that the society has made available to its members.

That leaves the third option - another site in London, close to Vincent Square. As it happens, this has been quite a lively area over the past couple of years in terms of properties coming on to the market. Now fate has delivered up a building in the shape of the former police station in Rochester Row, close by the RHS headquarters. It is the right shape for a library, a generous ground floor with not too many storeys above needing expensive reinforcement. It will be on the market as soon as the police have found new stables.

Sir Simon Hornby, the new president of the RHS, dismisses the Rochester Row option as "Brent's hobby-horse". Option, possibility, hobby-horse - it depends on your point of view. Since Dr Brent Elliott is the society's own distinguished librarian, membersof the society may feel his hobby-horse might at least be accorded the status of a possibility. They may even wonder why the society dismisses it as "too expensive" before there are any costings to be compared with the Wisley option.

It is clear that Wisley needs the Lindley Library rather more than the library needs Wisley. Without it, Wisley's projected new scientific centre will be a showcase without any jewels. With it, though, the magnificent Lindley runs the risk of becoming a library without any readers.