Why I oppose charges for researchers at the Imperial War Museum

It was with relief that I found out a couple of weeks ago that the Imperial War Museum is no longer planning to pack up and close its library. This was quickly followed by disappointment, when I realised it was now, instead, toying with introducing ‘nominal charges’ for visitors to use its research room. They haven’t provided any numbers, but it worries me that this figure could mean tens or hundreds of pounds.

I know tough choices have to be made in this age of austerity, but why is serious scholarly study the one area the Imperial War Museum has decided to single out for extra charges?

One argument I’ve heard is that those who use the Research Room, to look at the Museum’s unrivalled collection of documents, oral histories, and printed material, end up profiting from it. This might hold true for a tiny number of historians and novelists, who have hit the bigtime on the shelves of Waterstones, but for most academics, it is not the case. I’ve now written a number of academic publications, based on the globally recognised collection of private papers that the Imperial War Museum holds. Despite spending months or years on this research, I’ve never received a penny of payment for it, from either the academic publisher or the institution for which I’ve taught at the time. Recently things reached a new low, when one publisher wouldn’t even give me a free a copy of my own work.  The tiny amount of money I’ve made from this research, by giving lectures or writing for newspapers or magazines, hasn’t come close to covering my costs.

This is, of course, my choice. If I can’t afford it, or if I’m not good enough to sell enough books so I can live off the royalties, perhaps I should quit. Maybe I will, or maybe I’ll have to dispense with those wonderful servicemen’s diaries, letters and memoirs, which I love to immerse myself in, and design my next research project around another archive, one that will incur fewer costs. But what of the long-term effect on military history, if others follow suit? The subject will end up either, at best, being even more elitist (there is, already, a rather moneyed and white feel to it) or, at worst, the breadth and depth of our understanding and knowledge of modern warfare will start drying up.

And it is not just academia that will suffer. With a subject that generates so much public interest as the two World Wars, our books and journal articles, which are stringently peer-reviewed for their accuracy, are often plundered by other historians, museum curators, novelists, and scriptwriters, to add depth and insight to their work.

Apart from these practical implications, there is also a principled objection to this latest proposal; a principle which, I should have thought, the Imperial War Museum would hold dear. This year, we are a hundred years on from the First World War and seventy years on from the end of the Second World War. More and more of those who lived through the Second World War are currently disappearing from our world. This is precisely the time when the Imperial War Museum should be doing all it can to ensure their voices continue to be heard. Introducing a daily fee cannot be a fitting way to remember them.