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The Warburg should be saved, not strangled

London University seems bent on betraying the terms on which it set up a great cultural institution

    In December 1933, two small steamers sailed from Hamburg, paid for by the textile magnate and collector, Samuel Courtauld, and the politically influential Lord Lee of Fareham.

    They were loaded with the 80,000 books of one of the most extraordinary libraries created in modern times - by Aby Warburg, the scholar member of the Jewish banking family.

    He had developed a revolutionary way of looking at philosophy, science and art that excluded nothing: neither astrology nor alchemy, neither fortune-telling nor magic, nor any of the aspects of the past that modernity had relegated to the bin of intellectual dead-ends. The motto over the library was simply "Mnemosyne" - Memory. This library was to become the Warburg Institute.

    To understand the special nature of the Warburg, you have to know that the library, where readers can roam around the bookstacks, is at the heart of its approach to ideas, to Geisteswissenschaft.

    The books are arranged according to Aby Warburg's idea of "good neighbourliness". Related books are on shelves near each other to avoid rigid and narrow ways of thinking about the past. Thus, secret codes are near emblem books, books on heraldry, the art of memory and shorthand. It is internationally famous among the many scholars who use it today, not only for the breadth of thinking it encourages, but also for facilitating research. One eminent Italian said: "Here I can get done in one week what takes me a month elsewhere."

    The Jewish scholars who came over with the books, and those who congregated around the library after its arrival in Britain, were to be among the 20th century's most influential art historians: Fritz Saxl and Ernst Panofsky, Rudolph Wittkower, Ernst Gombrich, Frances Yates and Michael Baxandall.

    The Warburg Institute was made official in 1944. It was scarcely a wealthy moment in British history, yet the University of London, recognising "the world-wide reputation in its special field of culture and research which the Warburg Library has already established", signed a trust deed by which it accepted the gift of the books by the Warburg family, and agreed to maintain and preserve it, provide it with a building and keep it adequately equipped and staffed.

    So why is the university now trying to change the terms of this deed (in ways as yet undeclared) and imposing conditions on the Warburg that place its survival as an independent institution at risk?

    In 2007, it raised the space charge it imposes by £500,000 to £650,000, which eats up half the Institute's annual £1.3m grant so that, to keep within its budget, it now runs at a deficit of over half-a-million. The reason for this, says the university, is that the Warburg is an open access library, which means that it incurs a charge eight times higher than that for restricted access institutions.

    But this reveals that the university has utterly failed to understand the special nature of the Warburg. Against the explicit wishes of its director, Charles Hope, the university has "converged" the administration of the famous library into London Research Library Services, which will be appointing the next librarian, who will no longer be a scholar-librarian - again, indispensable to the nature of the library.

    These are straitened times for everyone, but such moves smack more than anything else of the need London University feels to centralise and manage the small number of research institutes that still remain under its control. Instead, it should stop penalising the Warburg, respect its obligations under the trust deed, and help it launch a fundraising campaign. It has a great treasure under its roof, and scholars around the world - not to mention the Warburg family - are watching.

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