The University of London is considering merging the Warburg [art] Library with its main collection. Anyone who’s taken even a day of classes at the master’s level in art history knows the idea of this unique library. Though its history has been romanticized, the Warburg is a true scholars’ collection: completely open-stacks, completely on-site, completely subject-specialist selected, completely scholar organized. Modern academic libraries can no longer sustain this kind of arrangement and it would be unreasonable to expect them (us!) to do so. But every university should invest in one subject collection in their library holdings where physical discovery and insight can happen.
The Warburg Library history is right out of a G. K. Chesterton novel. Aby Warburg, a psychologically unstable but brilliant cultural historian decided to forgo the riches of his family business (same extended family as today’s Warburg Pincus Investments), if only he would be allowed to research and study his own topics and create a library, unhindered. Warburg’s intellectual method was the study of the migration of classical learning and the recurrence of myth in visual arts, a vogue of scholarship more or less passed. His idea, however, that humanistic intellectual connections are based on discovery–on a certain amount of caprice–is (re)proven every day. The Warburg Llibrary, first in Hamburg and then in London, spawned the greatest–and most singular–art scholars of the twentieth century. In addition to Warburg himself, Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Gombrich, Fritz Saxl, Hugo Buchthal, Edgar Wind, Ernst Cassirer, all trace their intellectual careers to the mode that established this library. A Google Scholar search shows over 500 references (mostly scholar’s appreciations in book introductions) to this library.
But it’s hard to show the value of this on a provosts’ spread sheet. Large academic libraries (save one that I know of) gave up browsing years ago because they couldn’t house all their books together. Some disciplines didn’t miss it but others, such as anything connected with image study, took a loss. The question is, can the University of London afford to keep a unique art scholarly library open for the sake of a whole discipline? Should it even try?
The Warburg is the opposite of that bellwether of academia, the MOOC. It’s neither massive, nor online, nor publicly open nor a formal class. I’m excited about MOOCs, I think they’re a great idea. However, if the Warburg is dismantled, we’ll only one day end up re-inventing it because of its necessity for a certain kind of scholarship. That, ironically, was, broadly speaking, the phenomenon of what Warburg studied.