Brexit, immigration and our libraries

On Monday in an open letter to British voters 103 Vice-Chancellors from UK universities wrote to express their “grave concern” about the impact of a possible UK exit from the EU on universities. I couldn’t agree more, but from my perspective as the Librarian of an academic library that specialises in Central and Eastern Europe I would like to highlight the contribution that librarians from across Europe and beyond have made and continue to make to the development of our academic libraries in the UK. If a vote for Brexit tomorrow is followed by the promised clamp down on immigration there is a real risk to our ability to recruit staff with the specialist knowledge and linguistic skills that we need to maintain and develop library collections that allow us to study the world beyond the UK’s borders. That is potentially very damaging to both research and teaching across the UK.

Every day in my own library I can see the enormous contribution that staff from outside the UK make to our work. As I do not wish to embarrass current colleagues I will go back in time a little, and focus on three of my predecessors as Librarian of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies.Between 1934 and 1972 the School had three librarians: Sergei Yakobson, from 1934 to 1940; Leo Loewenson, from 1940 to 1956; and Heinz Schürer, from 1956 to 1972. All three were refugees, and all three escaped Nazi Germany for London in the early 1930s. The most prominent of these was Yakobson. Born in Moscow in 1901 in a Jewish family, he emigrated first to Berlin in 1918 and earned a PhD in European history there, before leaving Berlin for London.  Helped by the then Director of SSEES, Sir Bernard Pares, and supported by the British Fund for German Jewry who provided £250 a year for his salary, he took on the role of Librarian at SSEES and went on to transform and professionalise the Library. The then Secretary of the School, Dorothy Galton, said of him “although his allowance for buying books was minute, Dr Yakobson classified the chaotic library and laid the foundation of an important collection which has continued to expand ever since.” By 1941 Yakobson was again in difficulties in London as an “enemy alien”, so he moved to the US, where he worked for thirty years at the Library of Congress, advancing by 1949 to become Head of their Slavic Division.

Yakobson’s successor, Leo Loewenson, was from a German Jewish family but was brought up and educated in Moscow. Following the Russian Revolution he settled in Berlin where he was first a school teacher and then an academic. By 1934, like Yakobson, he too had left for London, and again it was the SSEES Director Sir Bernard Pares who helped him find work teaching Russian. When the Second World War broke out he too was an “enemy alien”, and he spent some time interned in a camp on the Isle of Man, where he taught Russian to fellow internees. Again it was Pares who finally arranged his release and appointed him to work in SSEES Library. While the School staff were moved out of London he stayed to look after the Library, then housed in the newly built Senate House alongside the Ministry for information. He is remembered for his devoted efforts to rescue the many books that were damaged in the air raids of May 1941. Following the war he concentrated on building the collection, so that by the time he retired in 1956 it numbered 50,000 volumes. His obituary, by George Bolsover, says of him:

“the Library of the School was the centre of his life, and he furthered its interests with a devotion usually reserved for one’s nearest and dearest. He had the true scholar’s passions for books coupled with extensive bibliographical knowledge, particularly in the Russian field, and he made full use of both to the library’s lasting advantage.”

SSEES Library’s holdings were to double again under Loewenson’s successor, Heinz Schürer. Born and brought up in Leipzig he was awarded a PhD and a qualification in librarianship before leaving for the UK. Once here he found work in a number of libraries, including the LSE. In his time as librarian at SSEES his priority was to expand the number of exchange arrangements with libraries across Eastern Europe and by that means he was able to expand the collection very significantly. By the time he retired SSEES Library had 12 staff and 110,000 volumes and was well on the way to being the best collection of Slavonic and East European material in the UK.

Schürer was the last of the so-called enemy aliens to manage SSEES Library, but throughout its 100 year history the Library has benefited incalculably from successive waves of migration, whether caused by war, or persecution, or simply by the freedom of movement and opportunities made possible by the EU. SSEES is an extreme example because of its specialist nature, but most academic libraries have benefited on a smaller scale whenever they have needed help with material from abroad. I am not aware that anybody has ever documented the impact of immigration on our libraries, but it must be a story worth telling, and something we should do our utmost to retain.


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