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Letters

Vol. 15 No. 15 · 5 August 1993

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The British Library will survive

I am not sure whether Professor Sutherland’s discussion of the British Library’s Strategic Objectives (LRB, 22 July) was meant to be anything more than an amusing side-swipe at an over-designed and oddly-presented document; as a serious analysis of the content of the document, it surely does the Library a disservice. Professor Sutherland manages to repeat some old chestnuts (no one ever suggested the mobile shelving was compacting its contents into waste paper – and doesn’t Professor Sutherland want the Library to ensure that the new building’s fittings are adequate for their purpose?); some unjustified accusations (‘the Codex would seem to be BL 2000’s dirty little secret’); and a series of insinuations against the Library for matters which are, regrettably, outside its control, such as the Treasury’s crass desire to sell off the remaining land at St Pancras.

Professor Sutherland makes great play of BL’s Human Resources Review and many of us would join him in wishing that management-speak had been avoided. But when he attacks, as he seems to do, the policy statements, I am frankly baffled: are we to assume that the Library is wrong to wish to ensure that its staff structure is appropriate for its service goals, and that a ‘long-term manpower planning policy’ is a bad thing? Professor Sutherland finds it ‘sinister’ that the Library’s statement of purpose mentions scholarship, research and ‘enterprise’ – the latter is apparently another dirty word. The fact is, however, that the British Library is a major supplier of information to the worlds of industry and commerce; that function was built into its constitution more than twenty years ago and the Library’s ability to continue to supply services to the academic community depends in no small measure on the profitability of its charged-for services to those customers who can and do pay.

As for the alleged reluctance shown in the Strategic Objectives to acknowledge the Library’s continuing obligations to maintain and develop its collections of printed literature, I can only respond by pointing out that the longest chapter in the document is devoted to Collections, and gives explicit recognition of the Library’s archival role. I have heard as much criticism of the plan on the grounds of too much attention to printed literature and the humanities as I have of too much attention to electronic media, charged-for services and the sciences. I suspect that the Library has actually got the balance about right. Professor Sutherland does raise one issue on which many of us would agree, and that is his worry about overcrowding when St Pancras opens. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to open new library buildings know that they tend to attract increased use, and if that is true of a provincial university library it will be many times more true of the national library. But Professor Sutherland seems to imply that somehow this is the fault of the Library’s management, something which I believe to be quite untrue; he also seems to think it is the excuse that will be used to impose charges on entry to St Pancras, something which, if it happens, is again unlikely to be at the wish of the Library’s managers. The fact is, as Professor Sutherland points out, that the first phase of the St Pancras building will rapidly fill up, with both books and readers, and that is why we should all be doing what we can to persuade the Government that the whole of the site should be reserved for further building. The issue of charging is a separate one, and one on which the Library’s user community is itself divided. Some of the most eloquent arguments in favour of charges that I have heard come from some of Professor Sutherland’s academic colleagues on the British Library Advisory Council, and some of the most persuasive arguments against from the librarian members.

There is similar room for argument on the access question. I would certainly be very disappointed if the Library debarred all undergraduates from entry when they needed it; equally, it seems to me inevitable that there has to be some attempt to dissuade the many thousands of them within easy reach of St Pancras from using the British Library simply as a convenient and comfortable place to work. As a university librarian, I am only too well aware of the inability of most university and college libraries to cope with the huge increases in student numbers that we have seen in recent years, but surely the answer has to be to provide more reading and study places on campus, rather than seeking to subvert the use of a national research library to cover our failure to fund universities properly? In any event, the Library’s managers have, on this issue, taken a considerably more liberal line than some of their users.

Professor Sutherland rightly sounds a warning on the familiar tendency to believe that all the problems of libraries will be solved by some magical electronic solution. Librarians share his concern about the difficulties we already face over copyright, the heavy capital costs to produce the communications infrastructure that will be needed to allow home delivery of information, and the myth of the cheap option. In my reading of the British Library document, however, I see a recognition of many of these problems, and a commitment to finding solutions. Moreover, it is, as Professor Sutherland points out, doubtful whether the present government will back the Library in its attempt to secure legal deposit for electronic media – but we cannot both criticise the Library for trying and at the same time blame the Library (as Professor Sutherland seems to want to do) for a collection of such media ‘unworthy’ of one of the world’s great libraries.

Knocking the British Library is a fashionable sport and one in which librarians have often indulged with as much enthusiasm as some of the Library’s London users. The difficulty with this game is that while we are busy poking fun at the Library, or fighting old battles about the merits of the move to St Pancras, the Library is not getting the support and the constructive comment that Brian Lang and his colleagues both need and expect. If St Pancras cannot cope with the demand, that will not be due to a lack of vision on the Library’s part, but rather because all of us failed to make our voices heard during the years when Government was steadily eroding the original scheme. Like Professor Sutherland, I believe the British Library will survive; and no doubt he, too, is anxious that it should; it is disappointing that mockery should take the place of a serious critique of the Library’s important (and somewhat overdue) statement of purpose.

Brian Burch
Librarian,

Criminal Justice

Ronan Bennett is to be congratulated for a thoroughly impressive piece of journalism, scholarship and self-control (LRB, 24 June). It is not rare nowadays to be moved to shock and anger by a story of inequities in our so-called justice system; what is rare is to be moved beyond shock and anger – to hope – by the scrupulosity with which such a story is told.

Anne Carson
McGill University, Montreal

One wonders what sense of moral or political pressure induced you to allocate roughly ten pages to Ronan Bennett’s essay. A good essay would not deserve the space given and this piece, tendentious and obsessive, is not good. While not doubting that malpractice took place I found Bennett’s reasoning and use of evidence as question-begging as the other side’s. I do not have the inclination to enumerate the objections to his case (my principal purpose is to object to the amount of space wasted) but no doubt you have that catalogue from other readers. I hope you will take note of the objections and the distaste for being bored at such inordinate length.

David Sandblom
Gweru, Zimbabwe

Disinformation

It is understandable that Phillip Knightley (LRB, 8 July) should be resentful of Deadly Illusions because the documentation from the KGB archive on which it is based sweeps away the previous works on the Cambridge Five, his included. But it is irresponsible and unhistorical to dismiss this first declassification of Soviet intelligence records as ‘disinformation’. Especially galling to Mr Knightley, no doubt, is that he failed to take into account the adage that old men forget when he interviewed Kim Philby in 1988. What the KGB Philby file in Moscow reveals is that the vast sums paid for Mr Knightley’s interview and subsequent biography promoted geriatric confusions and even personal deception.

Significantly, Mr Knightley does not dispute the veracity of the material that Oleg Tsarev and I used to write our book. Our disagreement over the role of Arnold Deutsch is a matter of interpretation. This turns on Deutsch’s history of the London residentura, in which he specifically credits Orlov with the idea of getting Philby to recruit his friends Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. What cannot be disputed is that Orlov’s contemporary reports to Moscow in the KGB archives refer not only to his very personal involvement with Philby, but also to his direction of Maclean and his decision to recruit Burgess, whose flagrant homosexuality offended the more fastidious chiefs in Moscow.

Not surprisingly, Mr Knightley’s self-serveing digression into his heroic efforts to avoid falling into a KGB trap neglects certain crucial facts. If the truth be told he must concede that he repeatedly tried to get access to the mother-lode of Soviet intelligence files through consultancy agreements with a number of Western publishers who signed up memoirs from former members of the KGB and their associates. But as they and Mr Knightley soon discovered, Messrs Prelin, Kalugin, Modin and Borovik could not obtain any of the still-classified archives which were inherited intact by the Russian Intelligence Service. That I had been able to obtain documentation from the KGB files was serendipitous and unusual, but what aspect of the last three years of Russian history is not? Also in contrast to a journalist such as your reviewer who would have tried to keep his access exclusive, a historian has a large obligation. It is a matter of public record that I assisted the Russian Intelligence Service to establish a partnership with a major American publishing house that has brought other scholars into a project which will draw on the KGB archives to write the intelligence history of the Cold War.

However uncomfortable for Mr Knightley, the truth is that he tried to get exclusive access to former First Chief Directorate records. Now that he has failed, he is retaliating by attempting to disparage the first book based on KGB archival files. While authors must anticipate some of this childish fury from their competitors, Mr Knightley takes his to the extreme by directing his spleen at the US Government. His aside that the CIA is co-sponsoring this research is worse than absurd: it is stupid. What possible public-relations benefit could the CIA obtain from the story of a man who deceived the US investigative services for nearly twenty years? The American intelligence veterans, whom I consulted, were fascinated by the Orlov case. But there was no escaping that its revelations were also painful to them.

Mr Knightley carps about typographical and editorial errors, but he omits to state that they appeared in an uncorrected manuscript which he was shown by a Sunday newspaper for whom he acts as an adviser on intelligence matters. A more diligent reviewer ought to have taken the trouble to read the published edition of Deadly Illusions, where we did note (page 467) the death of Lona Cohen (Helen Kroger) on 29 December 1992.

John Costello
New York

Phillip Knightley writes: I did not dismiss Mr Costello’s book as ‘disinformation’. The heading was put on the piece by the LRB and there is more than one way of thinking about its meaning. I did, however, say that there had to be something in this publishing venture for the KGB. Mr Costello himself is well aware of this because he says that his former CIA contacts warned him ‘that the KGB never acted without having an operational objective.’ I reflected on what the objective might be in this case. For example, Mr Costello used to believe that any suggestion that Philby was an ideological convert was a KGB-promoted myth. Mr Costello’s access to the KGB files has changed his mind and Philby is now ‘the ideologically-driven young Englishman’. Could achieving this public about-face by a well-known Western historian have been one of the KGB’s objectives? In short, if Mr Costello believes that the KGB’s motive for opening some of its files is purely altruistic, then he will believe anything.

The meaning of Mr Costello’s sentence about ‘vast sums paid for Mr Knightley’s interview’ with Philby is unclear. If he thinks that I paid Philby for my interview in 1988 then I can only repeat what I have said many times: Philby did not ask for any money and I paid him not a penny. Not do I have a consultancy agreement with any publisher. I wrote an introduction to George Blake’s autobiography. I helped Oleg Kalugin write an outline for his proposed autobiography. I may write an introduction to a new biography of Philby.

I did not try to get exclusive access to the former First Chief Directorate records. My dealings with the KGB have been as I set out in my review. I did not approach it. It contacted me.

I was not shown an uncorrected manuscript of Mr Costello’s book. The Los Angeles Times sent me a bound proof copy, the LRB provided the British published edition. Mr Costello is correct about the death Lona Cohen – a late insertion in the source notes, but not the main text, of his book. The other errors, repetitions and infelicities I noted in my review are all to be found in the published edition of the book.

Elementary

There may in fact be a fairly simple premise upon which Rupert Thomson has constructed his novel Air and Fire (LRB, 8 July). On Baja California’s east coast, in the town of Santa Rosalia, founded by French mining interests in 1885 to process copper ore discovered in the nearby hills in the 1870s, there exists a curious church, Iglesia Santa Rosalia. Constructed of large sheets of galvanised iron, this prefabricated church was thought to have been designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) for display at a world’s fair held in the United States in the early 1890s. How it made its way to Santa Rosalia is conjecture.

David Rosenthal
Rectortown, Virginia

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