Grave concerns about the future of the BSS Reference Library
Background to Members' Concerns. In the discussion period that took place after the 2012 BSS AGM had been closed by the Chairman, one member asserted that no one had visited the Society's reference library in Nottingham for ten years. There was no time to challenge this quite incorrect statement in the few minutes remaining before the final lunch, but the member went on to ask that the Council appoint an independent person to advise on the Library's future: the Chairman said that Council would consider the matter. Rumours later circulated that for the first time ever the currently elected BSS Council might not be unanimous in its historically strong views about the importance of the BSS Library.
Grave Concerns About the Future of the Society's Reference Library
After the last AGM closed one member asserted that no one had visited the Society's reference library in Nottingham for ten years. There was no time to challenge this incorrect statement in the few minutes remaining before the final lunch. The member asked that the Council appoint an independent person to advise on the Library's future: the Chairman said that Council would consider the matter.
Members should be aware that the value, merits and cost effectiveness of the BSS Library Collection were discussed in detail by an earlier Council as recently as March 2011.
The unanimous conclusion was that the Library is an important affordable facility fundamentally supported by the Objects of the Society. It advertises the Society and is available to the general public and therefore is a vital part of our Public Benefit provision required by the Charity Commission. It is one of only a few collections of general dialling material, books and ephemera publicly available for research in the UK, and it only costs less than 38p per member per annum (1% of a typical subscription). So it cannot possibly represent a significant drain on the Society's annual income and therefore the overall cost of the Library cannot be an issue.
We are concerned because the present Council is attempting to count the visitors to the Society's collection with the implication that this reflects the viability of the Library. It would be ludicrous to assess the worth of any Reference Library simply by its apparent usage because the number of visitors is quite irrelevant to the library's importance and research potential. Measuring visitor traffic demonstrates both an ignorance of the process of academic research and the very practical difficulty of discovering which specific books anybody actually refers to in any library. We can find no examples of academic reference libraries being measured for their importance and viability by simple measures of footfall.
The extraordinary assertion of 'no visitors' is quite untrue. Although there have been relatively few, there have been visitors to the BSS Collection in the last ten years. Indeed the Council itself (including the complaining member!) has until recently met at the library annually and on each occasion Trustees have referred to the collection.
Numerous BSS members, some from abroad, Bromley House members and the general public are known to have accessed the collection. The BSS Librarians are frequent visitors. The Bromley House Trustees appreciate the association with the BSS and have expressed it recently in a generous allocation of space in the prestigious Thoroton Room. They believe that Bromley House with its rare meridian line and scientific past is a very appropriate location for a Sundial Library which also complements their other collections.
Members are also reminded that at no cost the Society also maintains other Reference Collections namely the Mass Dial Archives at York University and the Fixed Dial Archives in Kent. Neither of these unique sets of national records has ever had any significant number of visitors. Are these Collections also candidates for disposal? Many of the important (and valuable) books in the BSS collection are there only due to the generosity of certain members who specifically wished to share their private collections with others. Therefore the BSS Collection cannot be dispersed without impediment or the permission of the donors. Many of these donors would wish to have their books returned rather than see them sold to add to the excess of uncommitted funds held by the Society.
There is no issue of cost, there is no issue of space, the Society is very far from bankrupt, its reserves rise even as membership decreases, the Library and Archives bring nothing but benefit, may we suggest that the Council should avoid this distraction and focus its energy and attention on more urgent projects which develop and reinforce our Society?
Nick Orders, Patrick Powers, Graham Aldred, Gerald Stancey, Nick Nicholls
Possibly because of these (rumoured) disparate Council views, it became clear toward the end of 2012 that, in an attempt to address this outstanding query from the previous discussion, the Council was attempting to establish a count of the visitors to the Society's collection with the possible implication that this might somehow be thought to reflect a measure of the viability of the BSS Collection.
Several BSS Members, and significantly a grouping including both the current and previous BSS Librarians, viewed this situation with very considerable alarm since of course, the importance and value of any reference collection is almost completely unconnected with the numbers of people who may consult it. Indeed, a simple enquiry of the curator of any National Trust reference collection - or any academic collection for that matter - demonstrates this fact over and over again. For example the renowned Dryden Family Reference Collection (held at the NT Canon's Ashby property) has never been consulted for academic research purposes yet the Trust has (rightly in many people's view) no intention of breaking it up or selling it off. Indeed quite the reverse, the Trust is currently expanding and filling available shelf space with yet another Trust book collection. With this almost universal position among reference libraries, many members have asked, how can the present BSS Council even consider an action to disband and disperse the BSS Collection?
It was at this juncture that several concerned members wrote to the BSS Bulletin Editor to express their alarm. Their letter was published in the March 2013 Edition and it can seen in the panel opposite.
The Rumbling Continues!
The member who originally raised this matter
at the 2012 post AGM discussion has replied in the June 2013 Edition of the BSS
Bulletin and suggested that further comment should be sent to the Secretary
rather than continuing to use the BSS Bulletin. Whilst this might indeed be
pragmatic it does not allow those who may have concerns to see what others
feel and so adjust their submitted comments accordingly. It is therefore the
intention of this page to accept and publish opinions on the issues so that
everyone may judge the importance of the BSS Library Collection for
themselves. Please write to the
webmaster with your views.
Comments received so far on some of the points raised in the member's response in the June 2013 Bulletin. These will be updated as more material is submitted.
1. " I was interested to read the Letter to the Editor in the March Bulletin with the rather contrived defence for the library, nevertheless it is a serious issue to be set against the other activities of the Society, and counter arguments can be found".
Comment: Few would surely regard the earlier published concerns as 'contrived'? The BSS Collection represents a sundial-related resource which is more freely available to members than the same works would be in the national libraries. The books and other material - a few of which are rare - may be handled and examined whether for research or not without the need for any proof of academic status. Indeed the availability of such access is a major benefit of Society Membership, it is a significant reason for joining the Society rather than relying on the Internet and, from what can be judged so far, a large majority of members appear to feel the library is an important asset.
2. "The writers mention that the library features in the Objects of the Society in the constitution ....However, the very existence of the library is entirely optional.... In other words, these activities are not mandatory and are at the discretion of the Society and without prejudice to any other activities that may arise".
Comment: Actually, the original letter did not say that the BSS library 'features in the Objects of the Society'. It only said that it is 'supported by the Objects of the Society'. The fact that the concept of a library was envisaged in the 1992 Constitution reflects the desire of the Society's founders to establish such a library and emphasises its importance as a key goal right from the time of the establishment of the Society. This has of course been heavily underscored by the number of gifts of books that BSS has since received from members and from members' estates.
3. "The writers have stressed the charitable benefit, but because the Charity Commission is not directly represented on our Council, it has no role in our management and it is for the Society to decide how best to create public benefit".
Comment: The Commission is indeed not directly represented on the Council - and it cannot be. However it does have a major role in the running of the Society. The Council is by law subservient to the Commission. Like any charity, the BSS Council is required by the Commission to adhere to Charity Law, to Charity Guidance and to Best Practice. This isn't simply to decide how best to create public benefit, it is (amongst many other requirements) how to ensure that we demonstrate sufficient public benefit in each of our activities. Neither the Trustees nor the membership can vote to cease to be a Charity, yet should the Society fail to demonstrate 'sufficient' Public Benefit at any time it immediately ceases to become charitable with all the consequences that that would bring. The law on Public Benefit is shortly to be updated and actions that could reduce the level of it, at this time especially, need very careful consideration.
Comment: The comments made by [the complaining] member appear to show a misunderstanding of charity governance. It is not about minimising the cost of all parts of the charity's activities - or even that all activities should make a profit. It is about all aspects of the charity's activities contributing sufficiently to the benefit of the public; whether they be BSS Members or not.
4. "For the visits to the library, the writers point out that "'the Council itself (including the complaining member) have until recently met at the library annually...". However, the writers omit to say that Council members were obliged to visit the library to hold Council meetings!"
Comment: The statement was only made to underscore the fact that it was simply not true that no one had visited the collection in ten years. Visiting is visiting regardless of how that might be arranged! There has never been any aspect of compulsion in Council attendance. Council Members always voted to visit the library well before each of their meetings there and most if not all looked forward to meeting up there. Indeed many stayed on afterwards to look through the collection and to see the changes and additions that had been made since their last visit.
5. "Accessibility by the general public is not easy, for example our website mentions the library, but goes on to say that a print version of the catalogue is available to members only, and must show formal personal ID to be checked against the current BSS membership list when visiting the library".
Comment: Bromley House Library is one of 30 independent libraries in the UK and it currently charges £80 a year per person/family for public membership. Free access to BSS Members is therefore an exceptional bargain and an exceptional public benefit in the Commission's eyes. Entry procedures for BSS members are actually easy and very similar to those for the library's public members. The entry procedure is not significantly different to that operated by any private library that holds rare works on a variety of topics.
6. "The cost of the library is quoted as £150 a year (Newsletter 0 61. September 2011), and whilst this is not a huge sum, one of my concerns is that the money could well be spent elsewhere".
Comment: It will surprise many that the future of the prestigious BSS library might come to hinge on a belief that £150pa could be better spent elsewhere when that sum gives all BSS members free access to all of the library's content not just the BSS Collection. The ability of any BSS Member to see, touch and read rare works on dialling and related subjects - and even all the other unconnected works held by the library - makes this small sum very, very worthwhile. Not only that but for that sum the BSS collection is maintained, insured and secured in near ideal conditions. This annual sum should be compared with the £500pa or more that BSS spends on archiving and the £800 or more spent annually on independent examination of its accounts. £150 for an academic collection that encourages membership and which covers full librarian and insurance services is very good value indeed. For that also to be in a building with its own meridian line is amazing as well as apposite.
Comment: Even to contemplate the break up of a collection of long term loans, gifts and bequests such as this just to save £150pa sends an extraordinary message to the membership about the permanence of society 'ideals'. The Society has accepted and currently still does accept, loans and gifts of collections of dial images (slides as well as photographs) which have been meticulously formed over many years. These provide a valuable record of changes in the condition of dials in the UK as well as enhancing the Society's Register. Is the Council soon to dispose of these collections too? After all they together cost more to maintain than the library. Why should anyone now gift or bequeath anything to the Society?
7. "Such questions will surely be asked by the current Council which is reviewing all our activities to examine what is most beneficial in terms of attracting and maintaining new members, together with outreach to schools, external advice, etc. If the library was to be closed, then disposing of the books will have to be handled carefully, but let us not put the cart before the horse. To summarise, the best argument for retaining the library is to use the 'intellectual' approach as if we need the library to keep up with our national learned institutions. At a more mundane level, it is just a means of (expensively) storing the books that we own. The public benefit element can be discounted because the numbers involved are utterly insignificant compared with the major benefits we achieve elsewhere".
Comment: The Society currently has an extraordinarily excessive level of reserves; enough, in fact, to fund the library at its present rate for over 500 years! [Ed: To be fair and using the data from the very latest filed (2012) accounts and without having to sell any of the library's contents, this figure is currently 378 years but the thrust of the member's argument is unaffected!]. It just does not need the capital that would accrue from liquidation of the library - whether or not that would be legally possible (and available to the Society) given the way in which bequests, loans and gifts have been made to it on the understanding of near-perpetual availability to members. The library already figures highly as an incentive to membership and not just for its 'intellectual' aspect. Not only that but it is incorrect to suggest that Public Benefit can be discounted. That comment is a little misleading on the matter of the need for Public Benefit in charities. Public Benefit has to be apparent and available in everything the charity does, whether or not it is ever taken up by the public. The test of a sufficiency of Public Benefit is made on its availability not on its take up. A bit like the case for a reference library really.
Comment: The BSS library is largely a library of individual collections which chart the ascendancy of BSS under the chairmanship of Chris Daniel. Indeed its very existence with its eclectic mix of the loans and gifts of gnomonic books and documents was one of the reasons why our application for affiliation to the RAS was accepted. They much liked the way in which a wide variety of dialling related material was collected together, something which is not the case in academic collections like that of the RAS. It is this that makes the BSS library both unique and a real attraction to those contemplating joining the Society. The library most certainly should be retained and dare one suggest, even be expanded.
Comment: The [complaining member's] implied advocacy of dismantling the BSS Library is certainly something to be most vigorously resisted but in an odd way he has possibly helped the society by drawing attention to the fact that any Council of elected trustees can, by a single vote amongst themselves, make a dramatic change to any of the charity's assets or practices. This of course is possible even though a huge majority of the membership might be opposed. Simple consideration shows that with the present seven members of Council, dispersal of the library could be effected on the whim of only four trustees! Indeed, in a worse case scenario where only the constitutionally minimum-sized quorate Council of four trustees might attend a meeting, such a dramatic change could be effected with the vote of only two trustees and the Chairman's casting vote. That is surely wholly unacceptable and as a part of their review, the present Council must take steps to enact a 'rule for the conduct of their business' that ensures that a two thirds majority of the society's membership in a postal vote must approve any dramatic change to any established society practice or asset like the library. As of the end of 2013 this has not even been considered let alone enacted.
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