Where in the world ..

Britain's university libraries are home to a historically rich and frequently surprising treasure trove of artefacts from every corner of the globe. Matthew Reisz conducts curiosity-driven research

May 7, 2009

Where can one find photographs of an ill-fated Welsh settlement in Patagonia? The original of one of the most important documents in Czech and Reformation history (while they have to make do with a copy in Prague)? The complete records of a pioneering gay theatre company? An edible tribute to the founders of Britain's Social Democratic Party?

And what about the extraordinary snapshots of changing British life and attitudes revealed by the pioneering Mass Observation project? This was set up in 1937 by three young men - Tom Harrison, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings - to create "an anthropology of ourselves", through the use of paid investigators and a panel of diarists who recorded their thoughts and responded to regular open-ended questionnaires. Since the founders were poets and surrealists as much as scientists, they sometimes opted to address such bizarre themes as "the private lives of midwives" or what people were doing on the 12th of each month.

Although Mass Observation in its original form faded away in the mid-1950s (even if some diarists just kept on writing), it was resurrected in 1981. A team of self-selected observers are still issued with several annual "directives", asking for their views on, for example, the menstrual cycle and the National Lottery (1996) or body piercing and public libraries (1999). The material generated has proved endlessly fruitful for sociologists and historians, while also forming the basis for numerous popular and academic books.

These objects and documents rank among the more striking and unusual treasures of Britain's university libraries. Such libraries also, of course, own many other beautiful and valuable things, over and above the books and electronic resources essential for everyday study, teaching and research. There are manuscripts from across the globe dating back to the Middle Ages and earlier (such as the Mingana Collection of Islamic, Christian and Jewish material from the Middle East at the University of Birmingham). There are papers relating to leading literary and political figures, including the Samuel Beckett Collection at the University of Reading and the D. H. Lawrence Collection at the University of Nottingham.

Some academic libraries have acquired major ready-made collections, such as the books assembled over 150 years by the Manchester Medical Society (now in the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester) and the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King's College London. Others operate as centres for material crucial to the study of local history.

These resources are fascinating and vital for scholars and have helped all the libraries mentioned gain the coveted status of Designated Collections from the Museums, Libraries and Archives (MLA) Council. But they are also pretty much what one would expect to find in academic libraries. In these pages, we avoid such familiar territory - the early editions of Chaucer and hand-written drafts by the War Poets - to highlight a selection of haunting photographs, surprising objects and sheer oddities.

Our choice of highlighted items is inevitably arbitrary and deliberately excludes Oxbridge, where ancient foundations have given colleges an unfair advantage in building collections. Some of the items illustrated here have good claims to be historically important or are being painstakingly restored to form an essential research resource. Others doubtless languish in dusty basements, neglected and unconsulted, although always available when someone wants to study suffragettes or slavery, Soviet war propaganda, changing attitudes to gypsies or how missionaries moved house in the Sudan. Even those seeking the holy grail of human life - the nature of happiness - may find insight at the University of Sussex library.

Above:

When time stopped Shrapnel-damaged watch of a British soldier who was badly wounded near Gavrelle, France, in 1917 and invalided home. The Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds was founded by Peter Liddle to collate material relating to individuals' experiences of the Great War. It now includes many evocative objects and the personal papers of more than 4,000 men and women who lived through the conflict, supplemented by material from some 500 people relating to the Second World War.

Left:

Rich secrets The 1730-1830 papers of the Lascelles, a prominent Yorkshire family, were recently deposited at the University of York's Borthwick Archives by Lord Harewood. Among much else, they reveal how the fortunes of the gentry were often inextricably bound up with the slave trade. It is a miracle that the papers have survived at all. Although they were shipped back from the West Indies when the slave trade was abolished, most were stored with a London accountancy firm and destroyed during the Blitz. Only those left to decompose in an old tea chest at Harewood House, the Lascelles family seat, are still extant. Restoration work is now taking place at the Borthwick Institute with the help of a grant of £44,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Left:

Spot the Welshman Lewis Jones with members of the Tehuelche people of Patagonia, c 1867. In 1865, Welsh settlers sailed from Liverpool on board the Mimosa and founded a colony known as Y Wladfa. Jones was one of the leaders and advance guard who negotiated with the Argentinian government and prepared the territory for later arrivals. He went on to launch two Welsh-language newspapers. This is the earliest known photograph of the native inhabitants of the region and forms part of the Bodiwan Papers at Bangor University belonging to the Reverend Michael Jones, a major promoter of the Patagonian project.

Above:

Meaning of life Between 1937 and 1940, much of the research for the Mass Observation project took place in Blackpool and Bolton (sometimes called "Worktown"). Along with a major photographic study, a team of investigators recorded people's conversations and behaviour in a variety of settings - in the street, pub, cinemas and churches, at work and on holiday. An additional technique was the survey in the form of a competition, as in this example from 1938.

Left:

Showing their mettle Enamelled brooch, designed by Sylvia Pankhurst and presented to Mary Ann Rawle, after she was held in Holloway Prison for attending the second Women's Parliament, c 1907. Rawle's papers about her work in the women's suffrage campaign and the Independent Labour Party are held by the Women's Library at London Metropolitan University.

Right:

Don't forget the kitchen sink Equatoria, 1930s: Mr and Mrs Riley, missionaries, setting off from Lui to Yei with their furniture and baggage. The Sudan Archive at Durham University Library is the most important outside Khartoum. It was originally set up in 1957 to hold the papers of British officials based there during the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1899-1955), although it was subsequently extended to the Mahdiyyah (1885-98) and post-independence periods. It now also holds material from Egypt, Palestine, Transjordan and neighbouring African states. The archive consists of around 850 boxes of papers relating to more than 300 individuals, from the Governor-General to ordinary soldiers, medics and clerics; more than 1,000 maps; over 50,000 photographs; objects, films, recordings and associated printed material.

Above:

Building a better future Banner of the Morlais Lodge of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), c 1960. The South Wales Miners' Library, which forms part of the largest coalfield collection in Europe, was created by a partnership between Swansea University and the local branch of the NUM in 1973. It incorporates material from nearly 30 miners' institute libraries - testimony to their long commitment to working-class education - as well as banners, posters and pamphlets.

Right:

Changing the face of British politics The Social Democratic Party (SDP) challenged the traditional dominance of Labour and the Conservatives when it was launched in 1981 by high-profile dissident Labour MPs known as the Gang of Four. The SDP Archives at the University of Essex include administrative records, policy papers, speeches, newspaper cuttings and videotapes as well as startling marzipan busts of leaders David Owen (shown here) and Roy Jenkins.

Left:

If you'll just come this way, Madam Galician gypsy mother and child being escorted away by two policemen, c 1911. The Gypsy Collections at the University of Liverpool incorporate the complete archives of the Gypsy Lore Society, which was set up in 1888 - founders include the explorer Sir Richard Burton and Archduke Joseph of Austria-Hungary - based in the city for most of the 20th century and closely linked with the university. Among the highlights are several thousand photographs of gypsies from across the world, many of them prints in their original albums, glass negatives or lantern slides. Along with images of wagons, horse fairs, music-making and the dignitaries of the society, a number focus on the experiences of Galician or "Coppersmith" gypsies within Britain.

Right:

Czechs confront the Pope In the year 1415, 450 Bohemian and Moravian nobles complained to the Pope about the treatment of Jan Hus, a religious reformer who had been burnt at the stake for heresy. A crucial document of its time, the Bohemian Protest remains central to the history of the early Reformation and the forging of Czech national identity. The only surviving copy was acquired by William Guild, the principal of King's College, Aberdeen, and bequeathed to what was then the College of Edinburgh (which became the University of Edinburgh) in 1658. A facsimile was recently created by the National Archives of the Czech Republic in collaboration with the university and their Scottish counterpart.

Below:

Challenging stereotypes Gay Sweatshop was a pioneering theatre group that set out to offer alternatives to stock images of homosexuality prevalent on the main-stream stage. Although it was often short of funds or mired in controversy and at one point split into separate men's and women's companies, it survived for most of the period from 1975 to 1997 and has many landmark productions to its credit. The company's archive is now held by the library at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Left:

Hitler on the rack The German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 generated huge quantities of propaganda posters savaging Hitler and making powerful appeals to Russian patriotism. Most were simply destroyed afterwards, but a major collection was presented to the University of Nottingham by Professor Vivian de Sola Pinto when he returned from war service. Along with 37 printed posters, the library holds 129 huge posters produced under the auspices of the Central Soviet Telegraph Agency (TASS) in Moscow, which were designed for maximum public impact and printed in runs of 1,000 or more. Many draw on the traditions of the 19th-century lubok (popular print) as well as the imagery of icons and cartoons. In 1992, a microform edition of the posters was created.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments