Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 29 Jun 2017

The Friends of the National Libraries by Linda Hart

Have you ever wondered why so much of our literary heritage has ended up abroad? (Edward Thomas’s field notebooks, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Wilfred Owen’s letters to his mother – they are all in the USA.) Have you ever wondered whether anything can be done to stop this exodus? The answer to “why” is very simple: money. As for what can be done about it, I recently discovered the answer: join the Friends of the National Libraries (FNL).

The FNL was founded in 1931 to prevent the loss to the nation of books and manuscripts of historical and aesthetic importance. In the decade after World War I foreign buyers took advantage of the fact that many private and public collections over here were forced, for financial reasons, to sell off the literary equivalent of the family silver.  

The idea – still its modus operandi today – is that the FNL raises money through subscriptions and donations, invests it wisely, and has a fund from which it supports acquisitions of (in recent years) the autograph manuscript of the Siegfried Sassoon Archive, the typescript of D.H. Lawrence’s last book of poems (Pansies), a 1661 edition of John Donne’s sermons, the final tranche of the Dame Muriel Spark archive, a Robert Burns’ song, a manuscript letter by Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra, an autographed letter from Charles Dickens.

The FNL makes grants to eligible institutions throughout the UK, from Aberdeen to Exeter (the university libraries), from Wales (the National Library) to Hertfordshire (the Record Office). When an institution applies for a grant, the FNL evaluates each request in order to support the purchase of the most important items that might otherwise leave this country. In 2015, there were 35 grants from the FNL, totalling approximately £160,000. To give only one example: I have recently been able to use the famous Schroder Collection of papers relating to Rupert Brooke, bought by King’s College (Cambridge) Library in 2015 with the aid of a grant from the FNL.  

The FNL does so much more than its name implies. It gives grants to the national libraries, yes; but also to university and college libraries, county record offices, museums, and in recent years to Lambeth Palace Library, Kingston University Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies, Foundling Museum, National Trust, Jane Austen’s House/Museum, et al. Not only individual manuscripts or books but entire archives have been saved for the nation with FNL grants. And the FNL supports the purchase of modern manuscripts, such as the papers of World War II poet Keith Douglas which are now at the British Library.

The FNL has a tradition of arranging visits for its members to libraries and private collections. I recently went on a FNL ‘behind the scenes’ visit to the Bodleian Library, where staff showed us many treasures. Members also attend the FNL’s annual general meeting with its prestigious speakers (in 1933 the AGM speaker was George Bernard Shaw; in 2015 it was the literary biographer Richard Davenport-Hines). The membership benefit I most enjoy is the Annual Report, over 100 pages long, with beautifully illustrated descriptions, written by the purchasing organisations, about the items they are so thrilled to have bought with the help of FNL money.

For further information, go to


Linda Hart was founder (in 1993) and former chairman of the Friends of the Dymock Poets.