Historic books under hammer

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CASH-STRAPPED Wigan Council was accused of jeopardising national treasures today as five precious tomes from its library collection went under the hammer.

Fears were also voiced that the Latin books - some of which are the UK’s only copies of the work and date back more than half a millennium - could be lost to the country at the Bonhams auction.

The titles, which include Brevis annotatio in errores scribentium S. Augustinum fuisse eremitam, while not specific to Wigan borough, are deemed to be priceless to historians.

Katie Flanagan, chairman of the Historic Libraries Forum, said: “These are incunabula (books printed before 1500), other early printed books, some of which are the only known copy in the UK.

“We realise that the council is in a serious situation in the current economic climate, but the sale of the books risks them going overseas and/or into private hands, thereby losing access to them by the general public.

“The ideal would be for them to be sold by private treaty to a university library in this country, therefore ensuring their future care and accessibility.”

But Pete Gascoigne, executive director of culture at the council, insisted that the books were not linked to the borough’s heritage and that the money would be put to good use.

He said: “Wigan Council have been, and still are, facing huge reductions in government grants totalling £65m over four years. In 2011, we restructured Wigan and Leigh’s library service, saving £1.1m while at the same time retaining as many libraries as possible for the communities they serve.

“Part of this new way of working required the installation of some self-service machines and other modernisation technology to ensure this year-on-year saving.

“In order to fund this one-off, payment a decision was taken to sell some antiquarian books that are have received little or no public interest since they were acquired and are not intrinsically linked to the borough’s heritage, in that, they contain no information relating to Wigan or its people.

“This sale will mean Wigan and Leigh retain a relevant modern library service for the people of this borough - not one where books sit on shelves gathering dust because they are of no relevance or interest to the majority of its people.

“In advance of the council’s cabinet making that decision in August 2011, a report was published and widely circulated locally. The report attracted considerable public attention and the cabinet meeting was lobbied by a number of people with concerns about their local library.

“However, no concerns were raised about the proposed sale.

“This comes as little surprise as while some of the volumes are listed on ISTC, there had been no requests to view them for more than 20 years.

“Accordingly, should they at auction be purchased privately I feel that there is actually very little tangible loss to the public domain.”