The Landscape Institute Library & Archive is under threat of dispersal

“Without a library and archive at its heart a learning institution becomes no more than a trade union for its members.”

Charles McKean, Professor of Scottish Architectural History, University of Dundee.

With this phrase, Professor McKean defines the impact on a learned institution should it be separated from its cultural heritage, and specifically what could happen to an institute of practising and academic professionals that has established a reputation out of years of experience and debate.

This is the situation facing the Landscape Institute which represents Landscape Architects, Landscape Managers and Landscape Scientists; those concerned with the environment and working to conserve, develop and plan better places for us to live in, work in and enjoy, sometimes even celebrate. In the UK, membership is just over five and a half thousand, including those practising abroad, corporate members and other professional institutions. For each landscape architect in the UK there are some twenty architects.

The Landscape Institute was granted Royal Chartership in 1997, a coming of age some sixty years after its birth and a huge achievement that owes thanks to the group of twelve who looked forward into the future in 1929. Sylvia Crowe was made a Dame in 1973, Geoffrey Jellicoe was knighted in 1979, and is to be recognised in 2009 by a Blue Plaque that will go on to his former home in Grove Terrace, Hampstead. Peter Shepheard was knighted in 1980 and former librarian Sheila Harvey became an MBE in 2008 recognising over forty years of service.

The Landscape Institute holds the largest single current and historic collection of books, journals, articles and original design drawings dedicated to landscape architecture in the UK and includes original drawings prepared by some of those founder members. The Institute Archive holds over 3,000 drawings and is complemented by a library that gives context to this body of work; what was happening at the time, what was the Government policy of the day and what Landscape Architects were doing to address significant Environmental Challenges.

Today members, and indeed anybody else researching landscape issues, have free access to this remarkable resource. It is used by a diverse range of researchers, from students studying the subject to academics from all over the world, but for how much longer?

In late 2008 members were informed by the Landscape Institute that, ‘due to a financial crisis facing the Institute’, there would have to be cuts in expenditure “across the board” of the Institute’s operations. One such cut was to consider disposal of the Archive and Library, and the archivist was made redundant in January 2009.

In November 2008 a quorate of members called for an Extraordinary General Meeting to request the Institute reconsider the idea of disposal and to raise awareness (to the Executive) that members strongly valued the archive and library and wished it to remain intact, including staff, as an integral element of the organisation.

The EGM was constituted for 22 January 2009; some 150 members attended, including three past Presidents and a number of Fellows. This remarkable gathering attracted members from far and wide, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, north England and demonstrated the passion and high regard held for the work of both the Archivist and Librarian.

Past President Hal Moggeridge (OBE, VMH) delivered an heroic address which was received in determined silence by the Executive. He presented the chief executive with a rare copy of a booklet he had written and researched at the LI library, recording the origins of the Landscape Institute and the International Federation of Landscape Architects. He encouraged the chief executive to read the booklet and then safeguard it in the Institute library for future reference.

The vote went in favour of saving the Archive, the Library and the staff post. But this does not guarantee that these are safe because Trustees have the final say.

The prospect of dispersal of these invaluable collections aroused the attention of a broad church of supporters, including President of the GHS, Lady Lucinda Lambton; past president, Sir Roy Strong; Christopher Woodward, Director The Garden Museum; Christine Lalumia, Deputy Director The Geffrye Museum (GHS Council member); Ed Bennis ; Sheila Harvey MBE; Charles Birnbaum, The Cultural Landscape Foundation and Inga Grimsey, Director of the RHS.

Discussions with ‘potential recipients of the Archive’ revealed that whilst some might be willing to take on curation of the Archive (in fact a few would ‘bite off our hands’ to get hold of it), each of these organisations urged LI members to lobby the Institute for retention of the Archive and Library as it is the cultural heart and collective memory of Landscape Architects everywhere.

So: whither the Landscape Institute? We can sit back and allow this to happen or, in the words of aesthete Sir Harold Acton: “fight the philistine”. We have a choice and it is our choice, as members of the LI, to fight.

In 1895 The Royal Horticultural Society sold its library whilst facing a financial crisis, they are still today buying back books that once formed a part of its collection then. As is known by free thinkers the world over the disposal, deliberate or otherwise, of a Library or Archive is undertaken by the philistine for fiscal or other reasons. It does not benefit advancement, understanding, peace or knowledge; values that are irreplaceable.

Dominic Cole,
an extract from a letter to his fellow LI members

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Painswick Roccoco Gardens, the Red House, Photo © Joab Smith