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Library of Australian science and Fenner Archive closed

A decision to close an Academy of Science library of scientific manuscripts and personal papers has upset scientists and left the future of the collection in limbo.

Australian Academy of Science president Andrew Holmes, of Melbourne University, confirmed the closure of the Basser Library and Fenner Archives, in the well-known Shine Dome.

The library had closed in May 2015, with the librarian finishing in September, and decisions still being made on where to house the collection of documents, he said.

Faced with a limited budget, the academy had "developed a very rational process for ranking priorities". Maintaining the library and archives was a lower priority than other projects, including a drive to get more women into senior positions in science, he said.

The Basser library was opened in 1962 for collections related to the history of Australian science. It holds scientific books but also manuscripts, journals, lab notes, photographs, diaries and correspondence from individual scientists who have used it as a repository for their own papers, often on retirement, and archives from learned societies. Papers of the Australian Institute of Physics and the Geological Society of Australia are among the largest collections.

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Professor Holmes said a taskforce was now considering the future of the documents, with the hope that the National Library or the National Archives would agree to take some of the collection. Learned societies had been offered their records back.

"The range of answers vary from "we didn't know they were there", to "these are important we'd like to have them back", to "these are important but we'd like you to make sure they are properly maintained and archived for the future"," he said.

"The worry for those who have expressed concern is that we might be abandoning a body of knowledge and that, I want to assure everybody, is not the case. Our taskforce is charged with making sure that they do this in a way that doesn't involve any compromises."

Historian Ann Moyal, who began the collection, expresses major concern about the closure in Tuesday's Canberra Times, saying the decision, marked by secrecy, had caused an outcry among fellows of the academy, historians, archivists and societies whose records were held by the library.

There were no available outlets for the manuscripts and the cost of removal would far outweigh the cost of keeping them in situ, she writes.

Professor Holmes would not say how much the Basser Library and Fenner Archives cost to run, but said there had been a part-time librarian, plus the need to accompany people seeking access to documents.

"The number of visits were relatively modest in relation to the resources required to sustain that accessibility," he said.

"... In a tightly constrained financial environment the ability to service relatively few but not unimportant accesses to our archival collection was costing us a lot of money in relation to what we had to spend on other priorities."

The academy has closed access to everyone except people writing biographical memoirs of recently deceased fellows of the academy.

Professor Holmes said the taskforce, which included the National Library, the National Archives, science historians, archivists and librarians, was expected to make recommendations by mid-year.

But he hoped the change would make the archives more accessible.

"I want to assure you and everybody else that the archives will be well handled and well kept and we hope more accessible," he said.

The academy, which has offices in the adjacent Ian Potter House, would maintain the Shine Dome for meetings, lectures and education programs.

The 2013-14 annual report says the library holds 233 sets of manuscripts, some a few sheets of correspondence, others amounting to many hundreds of items.

The library is named after Sir Adolph Basser who donated £25,000 for its establishment.

Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated the Academy of Science library was part of the Australian National University. It is not.

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