By Katy Makin, on 22 September 2023
In our previous blog post we introduced our project to catalogue the archive of Moses Gaster, and looked at some of the letters sent to Gaster on topics as diverse as Sunday trading and Hebrew braille. In the second of our two posts relating to the project, Gaster Project Cataloguer Israel Sandman discusses Gaster’s charitable activities.
From the Gaster Archives: A Glimpse into Moses Gaster’s Charity Activities
By Dr Israel M. Sandman, Gaster Project Cataloguer
Moses Gaster was a multifaceted person. He was the chief rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London, and, by extension, of all Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ congregations under the British Empire. He was a polymath academic scholar, with strong focuses on comparative folklore and linguistics. He was a key figure in the emergence of modern Zionism. And he was a go-to person for Jews worldwide, for help with their various needs and wants.
Charity Appeals to Gaster:
Daily, Moses Gaster received multiple charity appeals, some in the post, and some in person during his reception hours. While he donated from his personal funds to Jewish and other worthy causes, as seen in receipts, lists of donors, and gentle reminders to honour his pledges, what he could do from his own funds was a mere drop in the ocean of need.Royal Asiatic Society
22, ALBEMARLE STREET, W.
March 15, 1900
Received from Dr. Gaster the sum of One Guinea as a donation to the Medical Fund.
Charitable Funds on a Community Level:
Addressing the vast needs faced by people in fincial hardship required charitable funds on a community level. Charitable funds established in the Jewish community enabled Gaster to help the Jewish individuals and worthy institutions that turned to him from Palestine, North Africa, elsewhere in the Near East, India, West Indies, Eastern and Central Europe, the East End of London, the length and breadth of Britain, and elsewhere. We shall examine two such funds, one of which was well established, and another of which was an ad-hoc fund set up to meet a specific need.
Case 1: Gaster Helps S. Edelstein via the Board of Guardians of the Poor of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue:
Shalom Edelstein was a Romanian Jew residing in London’s East End, which at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century was the first place of settlement for many Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. Reading between the lines of Edelstein’s 21 March 1899 postcard to Gaster, written in ornate Hebrew full of allusions to classical Jewish literature, and in which he mentions his ill health, one gets the impression that Edelstein was more a man of the mind than a man of the body, and that he shared interests with his “landsman” Gaster.
כבוד הרב החכם הבלשן
סופר מהיר בלשונות החיות, רב ודרשן
לעדת הפורטוגעזים, בעיר הבירה לונדן,
והמדינה וע”א כש”ת מו[“]ה ד.ר. גאשטער נ”י.
הנני בזה לכתוב למ”כ
את רשומתי, כמו שבקש מאותי, אולי יאבה
לכבדני במכתבו, ומפני כי מעת ראיתי פני
כ”מ, לא נתחדש שום דבר, – רק שאני חלש
מאד, ואנני בקו הבריאה, עד כי בכבדות
אוכל לקום ממשכבי, – לכן אקצר
והנני מוקירו ומכבדו כערכו הרם.
פ”ש, כשמי, – שלום
הן תוי ונוי
17 Winterton St.
Commercial Road, E.
His honour, rabbi, sage, linguist, speedy scribe in living languages, rabbi and preacher to the congregation of Portuguese [Jews] in the capital city London and the [entire] country, and furthermore [possessor of] the ‘crown of Torah’, our Master Rabbi Dr Gaster, may his lamp shine!
I am hereby writing my address [Hebrew: רשומתי or רשימתי] to his honour, as requested by him. Perchance he will desire to honour me with a letter? On account of the fact that since I have seen his honour’s face, nothing new has occurred – aside from my being very weak: I am not keeping in good health, so much so that it is only with difficulty that I can arise from my couch – I will therefore be brief, and say ‘farewell’ [Hebrew: Shalom].
I hereby hold him precious and honour him, in keeping with his lofty worthiness,
Greetings of Shalom, in keeping with my name, Shalom [Peace], being my mark and my charm
[Image, Transcription, and Translation of S. Edelstein’s 21 March 1899 Mostly Hebrew Postcard to Gaster. UCL Special Collections, Gaster Archive, GASTER/9/1. Formerly file 117, item 9]
Multiple Communications Between Edelstein and Gaster:
This was not their first communication. In the postcard, Edelstein refers to their having had a face-to-face meeting; and he notes that Gaster had asked him for his reshuma / רשומה [or: reshima / רשימה], presumably meaning his address. Presumably, this indicates that Edelstein had asked Gaster for assistance; and that Gaster was going to try and help him. Three days later, on 24 April 1899, Edelstein sent another postcard to Gaster, this one in Romanian. Apparently, to help Edelstein, Gaster turned to the charity board of the synagogue of which he was rabbi, the Board of Guardians of the Poor of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue.
The Board of Guardians’ Approval:
Nine days later, on the 3rd of May, Gaster received a memo from the Board of Guardians. They would cover Edelstein’s train fare from London to Liverpool, and his boat fare from Liverpool to New York. However, that cost £5, and they did not have anything additional to offer Edelstein. Although that would mean that Edelstein would arrive penniless in New York, the Board had reason to believe that Edelstein would nonetheless be admitted to the USA. It seems that Edelstein was permitted to enter the United States, for we have a long letter, in Romanian, which he sent to Gaster from New York. Towards the end of that letter, he updates Gaster about a certain D. Gottheil. The Gaster Archive contains letters to Gaster from a Professor Richard Gottheil, relevant to the writing of Jewish Encyclopedia articles and possibly to Zionism; but it is unclear whether there is a link from Richard to D. Gottheil.
London May 3rd 1899
Dear Dr. Gaster,
re – S. Edelstein
With difficulty I succeeded in securing a passage for this man per “Tonfariro” which will sail from Liverpool on Saturday next. The fare came to £5 which includes railway fare to Liverpool so that I have nothing to hand over to the man. I am informed that by this line it is not necessary for him to have a certain sum of money in his pocket on arrival in New York.
would do nothing
for Haham Abohab
[UCL Special Collections, Gaster Archive, GASTER/9/1. Formerly file 118/11]
The Limitations of Working Through the Board of Guardians of the Poor:
In addition to the limits of what the Board felt capable of doing for Edelstein, at the end of their memo, the chairman adds an apologetic side note. He mentions that the Board did not approve a different request, for funding for a certain Hakham (rabbi/sage) Abohab. It is noteworthy that Edelstein was a Central / Eastern European Jew, while the name Abohab indicates a Jew from the Islamic countries. Although the Spanish and Portuguese tradition is more aligned with the traditions of the Islamicate Jews, the Spanish and Portuguese Board approved Edelstein’s request, not Abohab’s. This seems to indicate an objectivity on the part of the Board. It appears that the reason for the Board’s limits in giving was the fact that the Synagogue was experiencing financial difficulties; and in order for Gaster to carry out his wide range and full scale of charitable activities, he needed additional sources of funding, beyond those available through his own congregationLondon E.C., 29th March 5660 1900
The Gentlemen of the Mahamad [executive committee] invite your attention to the Statements of Accounts of the Synagogue, and the Report of same for the year 1899, which have been circulated amongst the Yehidim [members] of the Congregation, & I have particularly to point out that the result of the year’s working shews a deficit of £595.-, and that the Elders have been compelled to sell out Capital Stock to meet this & other deficiencies accrued since 1895, amounting in the aggregate to £1608.-
This position, which is a very serious one, was duly considered by the Elders at their recent Annual Meeting, and they requested the Mahamad to take such steps as they might think necessary, to call attention, in the first instance …
The Ad Hoc Fund for “Our Poor Roumanian Brethren”:
The Crisis of Romanian Jewry:
One additional source of charity funds, independent of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue and its Board of Guardians, is an ad hoc fund that Gaster seems to have created himself. The fund is for ‘our poor Roumanian Brethren’, as described in Benjamin Ritter’s letter to Gaster, accompanying a cheque from a collection taken up in Vine Court Synagogue. At this juncture (around 1900), Romanian Jews were experiencing an unusual level of persecution, and were seeking to leave Romania. From all directions, individuals and institutions were turning to Gaster for solutions and financial help; and Gaster did respond.
The Vine Court Synagogue:
The Vine Court Synagogue was a congregation of Eastern European Jews, in the Whitechapel section of London’s East End. As noted, the East End was the first place of settlement for many Eastern European Jews. Thus, this congregation would have had particular sympathy for the Romanian Jews, as did Gaster, who was a Romanian Jew, and who received many charity appeals from the community of his origin. Gaster’s relationship with the Eastern European immigrant Jews of the East End came to good use in his finding the best ways to help his Romanian brethren.53 Parkholme Rd
Dear Dr Gaster
I am forwarding you a cheque for 23/- which I have collected at a meeting of the Vine Court Synagogue for our poor Roumanian Brethren. I have also paid 7/- for two weeks rent for a family. I have also arranged for the rent to be paid until she is sent away. I hope that will meet with your approval.
The Blaustein (Bluestein) Family and their Relocation from Romania to London:
Another Romanian Jewish party helped through Gaster’s efforts is the Blaustein (Bluestein) family. (The surname seems to have been anglicised from Blaustein to Bluestein.) While it would take further research to try to discover the source of the funds Gaster used to help them, and to piece together this family’s full story and the relationship between all the family members, the partial story that emerges from the documents below is worthwhile in and of itself.
Mrs. Ch. Bluestein was a Romanian Jewish widow. One of her sons had a disability. Gaster had helped the family, and now they were established in London. The son with the disability was gainfully employed. Another son, who was to be married, ‘also earns a nice living’. Mrs Bluestein writes to invite the Gasters to the wedding, and to express her gratitude to Moses Gaster.2 Virginia Place
Lower Chapman Str.
Commercail [sic] Rd E
London March 20 1900
Reverand [sic] Sir
I beg to enclose your invite for my son’s wedding. I hope you will come, as you was always a good friend to me when in need so I am happy to let you know of my joy thank God my son is doing a respectable match – and I hope you will live to see joy by your dear children in happiness with your dear wife I am the widow whom you helped to bring over the crippled son from Bucherst, he is grateful to you as he thank God earns £2 – 0 – – weekly – and is quite happy – and my son that is to be married also earns a nice living. We often bless you for everything & I am pleased to tell you of my joy as well as I did my trouble. With best respect, yours gratefully,
Printed Wedding Invitation Addressed to the Gasters, Sent by Mrs Ch. Bluestein. The Hebrew line at the top is from the prophecy of restoration in Jerimiah 33:11, and is used in the Jewish wedding liturgy: ‘A voice of joy and a voice of gladness, a groom’s voice and a bride’s voice’.
Gaster was heavily involved in charity work, on a scale that required communal funding. Although the Board of Guardians of the Poor of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Gaster’s congregation, provided funding for those beyond their own community, they were too financially limited to finance the full scope of Gaster’s work. Thus, we see that Gaster raised charity funds elsewhere, too. One example of this is Gaster’s ad hoc fundraising network on behalf of Romanian Jewry, which at the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century was undergoing strong persecution. We see how Gaster met this challenge, and we see the sweet fruit of his labour.
Blog post by Israel M. Sandman
By Katy Makin, on 20 September 2023
Deborah Fisher, Gaster Project Cataloguer, shares some of her work.
We have recently started an exciting new project to fully catalogue the archive of Rabbi Dr Moses Gaster (1856-1939) and make the collection more easily available for research. Supported by external funding, the project runs from August 2023 to March 2024, and two project cataloguers will be carrying out the work to sort, list and catalogue Gaster’s extensive correspondence.
The Gaster Papers is the largest and most significant Jewish archive collection at UCL Special Collections. The bulk of it is correspondence between Dr Gaster and a range of individuals and organisations across the Jewish and wider community. It includes both incoming letters and copies of outgoing ones, and comprises around 50 linear metres of material.
Gaster was a Jewish communal leader, prominent Zionist and prolific scholar of Romanian literature, folklore, and Samaritan history and literature, as well as Jewish subjects. Born in Bucharest, he was expelled from Romania in 1885 because of his political activities. He settled in Britain and was appointed Haham (spiritual head) of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community, and later also Principal of the Judith Lady Montefiore College in Ramsgate. He was a founder and president of the English Zionist Federation and played an important role in the talks resulting in the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
The archive also has wider significance beyond Moses Gaster himself and is an important resource for research into late 19th and early 20th century history, both within and beyond the Anglo-Jewish community. Gaster corresponded with a huge range of individuals and organisations: a biographical index of Gaster’s well-known correspondents for the period 1870-1897 includes nearly 400 names, including rabbis; Jewish, Christian and secular scholars; politicians; financiers; doctors and even royalty. He received correspondence from Britain, Europe, America, the Middle East, India, South Africa and Australia.
Letters from the archive
The letters received by Gaster cover a broad range of topics, such as aspects of Jewish law and religious practice, charity appeals on behalf of individuals and organisations, and meetings attended or publications produced by Gaster for various societies including the Royal Asiatic Society, Society of Biblical Archaeology, and Folklore Society.
The samples below reflect the diverse nature of the correspondence, providing a glimpse into Gaster’s daily life and the tasks and responsibilities he undertook.
Shopkeepers and Businesses
In a letter dated 28 August 1896, Gaster is invited to attend a meeting in support of the Jewish Master Bakers. The Sunday Observance Laws and the Bread Acts of 1822 and 1836 prohibited bakers from baking on Sundays due to the Christian Sabbath, but as Jewish bakers were also unable to bake and sell bread on Saturdays (the Jewish Sabbath), they would only have stale bread to sell during the limited trading hours on Sunday as well as on Monday morning. Many Jewish bakers did bake and sell fresh bread on Sundays in violation of these laws; this met with opposition from Christian bakers, who felt that it gave the Jewish bakers a competitive advantage. This tension led to Christian bakers reporting these Jewish bakers to the authorities, so that they would be prosecuted and fined. The letter below, written on behalf of the Jewish Master Bakers, invites Gaster to a meeting to discuss the matter.
The restrictions on Sunday trading also affected other Jewish shopkeepers. The Gaster ephemera collection contains a flyer for a protest meeting against the “Sunday Closing of Shops and Markets Bill” in June 1906, at which Gaster was Chair.
Gaster was a highly respected scholar and linguist, and as such was asked by the National Institute for the Blind in June 1930 to serve on a commission for the development of a standardised Hebrew Braille code, to replace the regional variations already in existence. Furthermore, Gaster himself had lost his sight by this time, and so it may have been considered a matter of personal interest to him.
Gaster responded that he would be willing to participate in this work, and that he had previously been involved in the preparation of an alternative writing system for Hebrew for blind users, albeit different from Braille.
Ultimately, Gaster does not appear to have been directly involved in the work of the Commission; it emerged that there could only be one English member of the Commission with knowledge of Hebrew, and that position had already been filled. But the National Institute for the Blind did continue to seek Gaster’s advice on the subject in a private capacity, as the letter below shows.
A broader discussion of the history of Hebrew Braille is found in the American Jewish Archives: https://sites.americanjewisharchives.org/journal/index.php?y=1969&v=21&n=2
Blog post by Deborah Fisher, Gaster Project Cataloguer, UCL Special Collections.
Our next blog post later this week will continue to explore the Gaster archive, with an article by Gaster Project Cataloguer, Israel Sandman.
By Sarah S Pipkin, on 7 September 2023
Leah Johnston, Cataloguing Archivist (Records), shares details of the Galton Laboratory archive.
Content warning: This blog includes details of records and objects that relate to racist, ableist and classist beliefs. The ideas within this material do not reflect the current views of UCL.
The Galton Laboratory Records form a collection of archives recording parts of the laboratory’s history, from its creation in 1904, up to the late 1990s. Much of the material was donated to UCL Special Collections in 2011, with some smaller accessions added since then. Over the past year the collection has been fully catalogued and is now all available to view online.
The origins of the Galton Laboratory at UCL can be traced back to 1904 when Francis Galton established the Eugenics Record Office in Gower Street, Bloomsbury. Although the laboratory was not officially part of the university at that time, a connection was formed with Galton endowing UCL with an annual £500 Fellowship of National Eugenics. In 1906 Professor Karl Pearson took over Directorship of the Eugenics Record Office, while still informally working alongside Galton. After Galton’s death in 1911, the residue of his estate was bequeathed to the university, under the condition that it was used to establish a Chair of Eugenics, whose role would be to direct research into ‘those causes under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or morally’.
This early history of the laboratory is recorded in a series of administrative papers within the collection. Included is early correspondence between Galton, Pearson and P J Hartog (the then Academic Registrar), regarding their proposed scheme for a laboratory at the university, plus copies of Galton’s will and related planning for the establishment of a Chair of Eugenics. While these files include high level planning, other papers record more practical decisions, such as plans for the proposed new building. Below is an estimate for blinds to be supplied by James Shoolbred & Co. Ltd, including a small sample of green cloth.
Other series include papers accumulated by the laboratory, records of laboratory publications (such as the Annals of Eugenics, The Treasury of Human Inheritance and Eugenics Laboratory Memoirs), and research working papers.
The remaining series consist of photographs, artwork, audio-visual material, and objects.
Artwork in the collection includes portraits of individuals connected either to Galton, or to the laboratory, alongside early watercolours of scientific specimens and samples. It appears from related annotations that they were either displayed in the laboratory or were used in their publications.
A series of photographs are similarly varied and were also used in publications, displayed in the laboratory, or kept as reference material. Included below is an image of Francis Galton seated on his porch, with his servant standing behind him and holding his pet Pekingese puppy.
This is contrasted against a more recent addition to the collection, which is one of three photographs showing women working in the laboratory in the early 1900s.
Alongside other UCL Library and Culture collections, the Galton Laboratory Records help to form a fuller record of the history of the laboratory and in turn, its legacy at UCL. If you would like to further explore the collection it can now be viewed on our online archives catalogue and by typing ‘Galton Laboratory Records’ into the search bar.
To make an appointment to view the records, or for any queries regarding the collection or the catalogue, please contact us at email@example.com.
By Joanna C Baines, on 14 August 2023
Special Collections has been supporting the new MA in Public History since September 2022. As part of our support, we lead two group projects in Term 2 for Critical Public History, which is the core module all students take. These projects aim to equip students with real-world scenarios and experience, where they deliver an outcome to a client (in this case, Special Collections). Anna Fineman leads the other Special Collections project, which this year focused on creating an informal archive for the new UCL East campus.
My project involved putting information about our Small Press collections – which can be challenging to digitise due to the fact that they’re often still in copyright – online via Wikipedia. Small Press publications contain a wealth of work by artists, writers and publishers often collaborating to make independent works. This year our students James and Yuxuan worked on the 1960s art magazine 0 to 9, creating a brand new page for the title which includes a complete list of contributors to each issue. The page at present is in review stage, having initially been declined in April, so links will be updated on this post when it hopefully gets approved! You can still read the page whilst it is waiting for approval.
Huge thanks to James and Yuxuan who were an absolute dream team to work with this year!
James and Yuxuan:
For this short blog post, we will showcase the benefits of Wikipedia for information creation with student collaboration. We will also highlight some key strengths and pitfalls that come alongside Wikipedia development through the lens of working with the Small Press collection: 0 To 9 Magazine. Almost everyone has used Wikipedia for access to information, but to help ensure its continuation, it needs the support of contributors to help develop new articles.
Wikipedia is an encyclopedia with free content anyone can use, edit, and distribute. It is developed to have a neutral point of view. There are no firm rules, but contributors to Wikipedia must treat each other with respect and civility. For new users, Wikipedia also provides tutorials to help teach the basics. On creating a new page, various templates can aid your creation/development of an article!
Useful features to utilise when creating your Wikipedia page would be your sandbox, which allows you to play around with Wikipedia’s features in a less formal environment. Standardised elements include headings, citations, references and an infobox template.
Note: Although anyone can edit on Wikipedia, on published pages, people will check and edit what you post: Make sure to base your work on reliable sources. You can see a baseline of what reliable sources are from this Wikipedia page.
For our Wikipedia page, we included a brief description of what 0 To 9 Magazine was, some background behind the creators of the magazine, the production of the magazine, and the themes expressed by the contributors to the magazine. We then proceeded to list all the issues of 0 To 9 and more specifics about each issue.
At the bottom of the page, you can find further information about the impacts of 0 To 9 through the Supplements, Impact and Legacy subheadings and the various references.
As we worked on our Wikipedia page, we tried to focus on the magazine’s materiality of language and the distinction between visual art that it defies. We have also created a short video for this blog post, giving more details about the magazine, which you can watch below.
By Erika Delbecque, on 4 July 2023
We are delighted to announce the winners of this year’s Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize, which is open to students from any London universities. The prize is intended to encourage students who collect books, printed and manuscript materials. We received over thirty submissions from a total of nine institutions, with collections ranging from manuals on insect collecting, Penguin editions and books on the Tudors to 1890’s London and theatre programmes.
Because of the high standard of the finalists’ presentations and collections, the panel decided to split the award between the two top-scoring candidates. Emma Treleaven, a PhD candidate at the London College of Fashion, is this year’s winner. Her collection, entitled My Own Two Hands: Books and Ephemera About Making Dress and Textiles Before 1975, focuses on learning materials on making clothes and textiles in domestic settings. Her collection is a way of preserving skills that are at risk of being lost, and she uses her collection to teach herself to make clothing in ways that aren’t taught anywhere outside of these historical printed materials. As the winner of this year’s competition, Emma will represent London at the ABA National Book Collecting Prize 2023.
The runner-up candidate is Ben Baker, whose collection Artistic and Literary Networks of Fitzrovia: 1920-1948 impressed the panel with its ambition and clear focus. His collection explores the eclectic concentration of the so-called bohemian authors and artists who lived and worked in the region surrounding Fitzroy Square in London in the interwar period. Benjamin is studying for a BA Classics at UCL.
Tessa Roynon, a MA Library and Information Studies student at UCL, received a special mention for her collection The Formations of Toni Morrison, 1955-1980, which focuses on the pre-celebrity work of the African American Nobel Laureate.
The other finalists were:
- Grant, Jenny – ‘Read this – and tell others’: Inscriptions and the gifting of Polish books to British friends by the Polish Armed Forces, 1939-45
- Gray, Victoria – Prized Possessions: a collection of 19th- and 20th-century school prize books
- Mitra, Sudipto – Barefoot Ballers: Books on Football in India
- Shanker, Louis – My library, after David
Meet the finalists and see their collections
All seven candidates will be presenting their collections to the public in our UCL Rare-Books Club series over the next few weeks.
On Wednesday 5 July, Victoria, Jenny and Ben will present their collections in person at the UCL Bloomsbury campus. Book your place on Eventbrite and drop in any time between 12.30pm and 2pm.
On Wednesday 16th August, Sudipto, Emma, Tessa and Louis will present their collections. This is likely to be a hybrid event, which you can either join in person at the UCL Bloomsbury campus or online on Zoom. Book your place on Eventbrite and drop in any time between 12.30pm and 2pm.
In addition, Anthony Davis, the benefactor of the award, will be presenting his collection of fine bindings on Wednesday 19th July. He will talk about how he started collecting and show a selection of his book bindings, alongside bindings from UCL. This event is taking place in person at the UCL Bloomsbury campus. Book your place on Eventbrite and drop in any time between 12.30pm and 2pm.
We would like to thank all the applicants and wish them good luck and many years of joy in their future collecting. Our thanks also go to the judges for generously giving their time and, most of all, to the benefactor of the award, Anthony Davis, for helping nurture the collectors of the future with his encouragement, expertise and enthusiasm.
By Sarah S Pipkin, on 30 June 2023
Over the course of Spring 2023 we worked with our UCL Library Services’ colleague Abida S. to take a closer look at MS Mocatta 20: Fragments from the Holy Quran.
I am grateful to have been given this opportunity to take part in a fun project with UCL’s Special Collections team to showcase a 14th century Quran manuscript on the library social media account. The Quran is the holy book for Muslims. To be able to witness first- hand a Quran manuscript from the 14th Century was a special moment. I had this overwhelming feeling of awe and fascination when viewing a piece of history that has been preserved so well for centuries and I was able to read this Quranic Arabic text that is written in an intricate “muhaqqaq” script. This is the same Quranic words that is read today, unchanged.
The Holy Quran is the sacred religious book of Islam. In Islam, the Quran is God communicating with mankind. Reciting the Quran is a religious duty for Muslims, especially during Ramadan. It allows you to connect with the Quran’s message and is a rewarding spiritual practice.
UCL’s manuscript, MS Mocatta 20, is thought to date from the 14th and 15th Century and was previously owned by the historian Fredrick David Mocatta. Upon his death in 1905, the Jewish Historical Society of England deposited his collection with UCL. It is unknown how this Arabic manuscript ended up in Mocatta’s collection, but he may have acquired it as part of his historical research.
The manuscript is written in an intricate “muhaqqaq” script in black ink. This majestic type of script was considered one of the most beautiful, as well as one of the most difficult to execute well. A distinct characteristic of this script is that it’s descending strokes end in a straight, sharp point rather than turning upwards in a hook.
UCL’s fragments include juz’ 19 of the Quran, Surah 25 titled “Al-Furqan, The Criterion”. It is the 42nd Surah to be revealed in the Quran. This juz’, which means part, contains verses 21 to the beginning of verse 62 from Surah Al-Furqan. These particular verses deal with themes of prophethood and resurrection on the Final day of Judgement and the believers’ place in Heaven.
There are small roundels on the pages which are used to mark the beginning of each verse. Verse 21 has a decorative page which indicates the start of the juz’ 19 in this surah. These pages are part 19 of the 30 sections of the Quran. This manuscript fragments are written in ink on paper, with colored symbols and gold leaf detailing. It is unknown why these particular pages did not arrive as part of the complete Quran. However, the condition of this manuscript and signs of wear suggest it was regularly read and transported around.
I appreciate how I was given access to a Special Collections archive of a 14th Century Quran manuscript. It not only allowed me to interact with a historical, significant religious holy book that is key to my Muslim identity; but it also introduced me to the traditional format of manuscripts from the past and the physical material and finish of one. Access to Quran manuscripts from the past is so important to keep awareness of traditional manuscripts and religion alive and to appreciate and understand the culture of religious manuscripts.
Thank you again to Abida for her research into MS Mocatta 20! Portions of the juz’ have been digitised, and our collections are open to anyone to come and view. For details on how to make an appointment to view items in our collection such as MS Mocatta 20, check out our “visiting us” page.
By utnvsea, on 28 June 2023
More than a decade ago, the family of Eleanor Jacques discovered a cache of papers hidden in a handbag in a garden shed. On the envelope was written ‘Letters to be destroyed’ and upon opening them, they found handwritten letters to Eleanor from George Orwell, who had been her next-door neighbour in Southwold, Suffolk.
At an event in 2018 to celebrate the discovery of these letters, another sensation was created when an audience member announced that she had at home letters from Orwell to her aunt, Brenda Salkeld, also a Southwold neighbour.
There had long been rumours of the existence of these letters amongst Orwell scholars, who hoped to uncover more correspondence with these long-standing female friends. Through serendipity, both sets emerged with a year and were purchased by Richard Blair, Orwell’s son. The letters have now been placed in the Orwell Archive in UCL Special Collections, catalogued and digitised for public access, with the kind permission of the Orwell Literary Estate.
What is so special about the letters?
The letters span a long range of time, 1931-1949, and continue throughout both of Orwell’s marriages – to Eileen in 1936 and Sonia in 1949. They reveal new details about Orwell’s life in the 1930s – including his overlapping romances, his love of ice skating, and his struggle to write and publish his first novels. They also show that the two women, whom he met while staying with his parents in Southwold, had a profound importance in his life lasting long after his romances with them appear to have ended. Eleanor would go on to marry one of Orwell’s best friends, Dennis Collings.
In a letter to Brenda in 1940, four years into his marriage with his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, and as a German invasion appeared imminent, he wrote: “It’s a pity … we never made love properly. We could have been so happy. If things are really collapsing I shall try and see you. Or perhaps you wouldn’t want to?” Orwell also wrote to Brenda from his hospital bed (at University College Hospital), sending his last letter four months before his death in 1950, just as he was about to marry his second wife, Sonia Brownell.
The letters also reveal something of Orwell’s writing practice. D.J. Taylor, who helped to track down the letters and has just published an updated biography of Orwell, said:
“In terms of improving our understanding of Orwell’s work, I have a strong suspicion that his letters to Eleanor reminiscing about their country walks at Southwold may have inspired similar passages describing Winston’s affair with Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
The collection is also notable for the playful drawings Orwell added in the margins of his letters to Brenda, something that is rarely found in his other correspondence. They include images of Billingsgate Fish Market, windmills and the infamous ice rink.
The bulk of the letters have not been publicly available before.
The George Orwell collections at UCL
The George Orwell Archive has been a cornerstone of UCL Special Collections for over 60 years. Deposited by his widow in 1960 and built up over subsequent decades, it is the main resource for Orwell scholars around the world. Comprising manuscripts and typescripts, diaries, notebooks, letters, photographs and family material, including the papers of his two wives, Eileen and Sonia. UCL also holds substantial book collections relating to Orwell, including books owned by him and rare editions of his works.
By Vicky A Price, on 26 June 2023
The last year has seen Special Collections’ Outreach programme go from strength to strength. We have welcomed school and community groups to a wide range of activities, especially at our new campus at UCL East, and exciting plans are afoot for next academic year. That said, it is always beneficial to look back at triumphs and celebrate them when you can. The upcoming anniversary of George Orwell’s birthday (120 years!) is a great opportunity for us to celebrate something that took place last summer at UCL’s Bloomsbury campus with a very special delivery partner, The Orwell Youth Prize. This new short film does just that:
Delivering a Summer School to Year 12 students from around London is always a brilliant way to explore our collection at UCL Special Collections, as it gives us the chance to spend quality time with young learners and offer them an extended opportunity to engage with the collection. This was a particularly special project, as The Orwell Youth Prize had worked with us to bring in professional, trailblazing journalists, who could share contemporary experiences and advice on becoming a journalist. Alongside this, we were able to present Orwell’s experiences (as represented in the UNESCO registered Orwell Archive), make meaningful comparisons with our guest speakers’ experiences and find present-day applications of Orwell’s principles and journalistic outlook.
Finding the right partners to collaborate with, who share similar goals and who can offer something unique to our programming, is often an essential part of our work in the Outreach team. While this way of working can require careful planning and meticulous, consistent communication, the success of this summer school is testament to the huge potential rewards.
Tabby Hayward (Orwell Youth Prize Programme Coordinator) also recognises the benefits that Special Collections brought to their programme; “We were delighted to work with UCL Special Collections on this Summer School, for so many reasons. At the Orwell Youth Prize, we’re always trying to find new ways to get young people excited and inspired by the life and work of George Orwell, and his profound continuing relevance today. Special Collections provided the fantastic opportunity to share the Orwell Archive with the Summer School participants, allowing them to get up close and personal, exploring manuscripts, diaries and photographs. This direct experience really helped the participants to develop a deeper understanding of Orwell as a man and a writer, and we felt very lucky to be able to offer this. We were also so pleased that some of the Summer School participants went on to enter the Orwell Youth Prize this year, bringing everything together. It felt like a really fruitful and productive partnership and we’re looking forward to more collaborations in future!”
One very special output from this Summer School was participants’ writing. We are delighted to share some excerpts with you from three participants’ pieces in this blog. We asked our Year 12 cohort to find a topic that they were passionate about and to write a persuasive, argumentative piece that spot lit their own voice, using Orwell’s principles of clarity, directness and language economy:
Never Again by Jafa Bin-Faisal (a piece about the persecution of the Uyghur people in China)
After hearing about the immense economic influence of China, it’s perfectly understandable to feel hopelessly underpowered against a country with the second highest GDP in the world. But remember, a fire that engulfs a whole forest begins with a small spark, and it is our efforts right now that will provide the fuel for this spark to begin. We need to pressure our government into taking real action against the CCP, and this can be done through two main avenues: petition and protest.
Petitions are a great way to get issues being discussed in parliament, and it tells the government that the British people care about the welfare of the Uyghurs. In this age of social media, it’s easier than ever to increase awareness and gain signatures for these online petitions. Protests are another impactful way to visually show and physically impose pressure on the government, as it shows that we the people are willing to use our free time and use it to speak out against this injustice. Protests are already being organised, and just by marching, you are strengthening the legitimacy and impact of the message and movement.
CHAD AND STACY: THE PARADOX OF INCELS by Zara Hossain (a piece about misogyny and the internet’s power to amplify it)
The pitfall to such circles [online Incel forums] begins on mainstream sites like Youtube; the algorithm may begin with simple, innocent videos like “how to be more attractive to women,” or “dating tips,” or “how to be more masculine”, but these titles quickly open the door for more extreme content which is blatantly misogynistic. These videos tend to encourage men to embrace masculinity to an extreme degree, such as by asserting their power over women, refusing to be a “beta”, a term used to describe a man who is cowardly, especially in situations which involve approaching women. These videos depict a power imbalance between man and woman, as the man is urged to always be in control of the situation, to never let emotions cloud judgement and to never show signs of weakness. In contrast, women are portrayed as a homogeneous identity where every woman is only attracted to men who are strong, unemotional, in control, or “alpha.” In this “alpha” dynamic, the man is urged to be the leader of his pack and to me a role model for other men; thus in itself isn’t a bad thing; many such circles focus on men’s fitness and confidence, and can be healthy spaces for personal growth; but too often than not, these spiral into internalising extreme perceptions of gender roles, and lead them even deeper into the rabbit hole.
Is Colonisation Still Relevant? by Aya Mohamed (a piece about the importance of recognising the history of colonisation across the world and its influence on modern life)
Finally, why is it so important we acknowledge the relevance of colonisation and for that matter, history as a whole? In 1984, Ingsoc (the government of Oceania) was able to retain control over its citizens by rewriting history to fit its own narrative. “Who controls the past, controls the present.” Without knowledge of our past, we’re unable to make valuable judgments about our present. Those in power who manipulate information are able to not only influence what we do and what we say, but also what we think. It’s vital we never forget our roots, so that we can shape the branches of our future.
The Summer School also acted as a spring board for the creation of our first free digital education resources that feature the George Orwell Archive. Check out our film and written resource, intended for Year 12 and 13 students.
By Sarah S Pipkin, on 23 June 2023
The following was adapted from text written by Erika Delbecque and Tabitha Tuckett for the 2023 exhibition catalogue Hidden in Plain Sight: Liberating our Library Collections. The Main Library exhibition Hidden in Plain Sight is open until December 2023 and is open to the public. For more information, visit UCL Library’s Exhibition page.
Since 2021, we’ve run the Liberating the Collections volunteer project. Volunteers search our catalogues for Rare Books related to marginalised voices, including examples of historical LGBT+ writers in our collections. The items identified by our volunteers illustrate diversity of sexuality and gender identities present in our collections, while also highlighting the difficulty of applying modern notions of LGBT+ identites to authors who predate them.
One example is Katherine Philips (1632-63). She was one of the first female poets whose work was published during her lifetime. We have several editions of her poetry in our collections, including the 1669 edition of Poems by the most deservedly admired Mrs Katherine Philips.
Philips wrote vivid poems about friendships between women, interpreted by some critics as examples of lesbian poetry. One of her poems, “To my Lucasia, in defence of declared Friendship.” begins:
O My Lucasia, let us speak of our Love,
And think not that impertinent can be,
Which to us both doth such assurance prove,
And whence we find how justly we agree.
Before we knew the treasures of our Love,
Our noble aims our joys did entertain;
And shall enjoyment nothing then improve?
‘Twere best for us then to begin again.
The debate on whether Philips’s work should be read as such points to the difficulty of applying modern notions of sexuality and sexual identity to historical authors.
Charlotte Charke (1713–60) lived and worked as a man for much of her life, defying some of the career limitations for women in eighteenth-century England. Her autobiography A narrative of the life of Mrs Charlotte Charke … Her adventures in men’s cloaths records her experiences. To contemporaries she was notorious, but her works in our collections have received little attention until recently.
We use she/her pronouns when describing her as those are the pronouns she used to describe herself.
Charke acted on the stage in male roles, ran a puppet theatre staging political satire and worked in the traditionally male jobs of a gentleman’s valet and a farmer. Unfortunately she paid a price for doing so: frequently short of money, she was estranged from her father and two husbands, against whose affairs and gambling debts she rebelled. Only towards the end of her life, as a writer, did she find success with this book, an early example of a published autobiography written by a woman. We might be tempted to apply anachronistic terms of gender identity to Charke, but the survival of her autobiography at least enables us to read about her life in her own words.
During the eighteenth century, English guidebooks claiming to describe the dangerous temptations of London life to the innocent and respectable reader became popular. They enabled a vicarious exploration of illicit or unconventional sexual behaviour and gender that did not endanger either author or reader. The midnight spy … exhibiting .. bagnios, jelly houses .. and other places of midnight resort, focusing on London’s nightlife, includes an account of jelly houses and bagnios – restaurants and bathhouses that served as brothels where men could pick up both women and other men for sex, although the text does not clarify whether it describes homosexual or heterosexual activity.
Publications of this sort sold well and critical reviews from 1766 mention that passages of this book had been re-used from previous similar titles. Such comments suggest that this may not have been the most up-to-date account of London nightlife during time of rapid change in the capital as the Industrial Revolution began.
These items were indentified by Isobel Goodman (2021 Liberating the Collections volunteer), Chris Fripp (Liberating the
Collections pilot-project researcher 2019–20), and Michael Niedzwiecki (2022 Liberating the Collections volunteer). Thanks to their work, we can highlight these items and ensure they are no longer hidden on our shelves and in our catalogue.
If you would like to see these items for yourself, they are on display in the Main Library until December 2023.
By Ching Laam Mok, on 24 May 2023
At UCL Special Collections, we look after collections that, as a whole, tell a larger story about our shared history and culture. Some items may have a high monetary value, but many like the 1970s workbooks preserved in our Baines Archive, collectively help us understand the history of education.
Preserving history doesn’t depend on past collectors. Student Book Collectors play an important role in capturing a snapshot of history. Collections like the 2020 winner “Books that Built a Zoo” allow us to understand the intersection between children’s literature and animal conservation. “Read my Genders: A Trans for Trans Collection” captures the voices of modern-day transgender writers and advocates.
But you don’t just have to take our word for it. Chelsea Collison, Learning and Engagement Officer at LSE Library, has written about her favourite collection and how it helps her better understand history.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m the Learning and Engagement Officer at the London School of Economics Library where I work closely with the curators to tell the stories of the collections to a wider audience. I do this via workshops schools and public events for university students and beyond. I specialise in using learning outside of the classroom to increase public awareness, appreciation, and curiosity for heritage, history, and nature.
Outside of work, I enjoy exploring the outdoors whether in the urban parks within London or further afield during travels outside the city. Growing up in Florida, I spent my formative years playing in the waves on the eastern coast, hiking through swamps and tree canopies, or paddling around the crystal blue springs. These memories along with an early job as an educator at a natural history museum have developed a deep feeling of awe and wonder for nature in all its forms.
If you were applying for the Anthony Davis Book Collection, what would you submit?
If I were applying for the Anthony Davis Book Collection the theme would be women in natural history. In what has historically been a male dominated field, it’s important to learn about the women who have contributed to biodiversity sciences despite the many social and cultural barriers they were up against. Examples includes works by Mary Anning, Rachel Carson, and Maria Sibylla Merian (to name just a few!). I have a particular interest in scientific illustration as I’m always impressed by the level of observation skills and detail required for creating something that is scientifically accurate and not just pretty. Of course, I also enjoy these works because they are also beautiful and serve as inspiration for my own artwork! Although natural history is not something that is a specialty for LSE, there are still some gems on this topic to be found within The Women’s Library collections! Some other examples can be found on the Biodiversity Heritage Library Flickr page.
How do you choose what to add to your collection?
I would want to build a collection that would represent a wide range of ecological biodiversity within the books and illustrations (botany, mycology, entomology, etc.) but also a diversity of the women represented. I would place special interest in books that highlight geographical areas that are special to me including Florida, and now England, which have both experienced high levels of environmental degradation meaning many of species represented in older books and illustrations may now be extinct.
What does this collection mean to you?
To me, this collection would tell two hidden stories, one of people and one of place. The story of people would highlight the often forgotten or unknown women of science and their important contributions to the field. The story of place would highlight impacts of environmental degradation and climate change by showcasing illustrations of species that no longer exist in these places we have come to call home.
Thank you very much to Chelsea for talking to us! If you’d like to learn more about LSE’s Library collection, visit their website.
If you have a collection of books, postcards, leaflets or other print items that tells an important story to you or a subject your passionate about, consider applying for the Anthony Davis Book Prize! Details of how to apply, and more examples of other books collections, are available on our blog.
By Sarah S Pipkin, on 5 May 2023
Colin Penman, Head of UCL Records, writes about a newly uncovered item in the UCL Records collection.
In the timely way that these things can happen, I recently came across an official souvenir programme for the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in May 1937:
As this is the last time there was a coronation of a king and a queen consort –Charles III’s grandfather and grandmother – it has been interesting to compare the occasion with Saturday’s event. The procession and liturgy are very similar, these things changing little over time. There will be new music and prayers, and the much-publicised ‘Homage of the People’. But some elements of the ceremony date back to before the Norman Conquest, for example the Presentation, when the king is ‘presented’ to the four points of the compass.
The programme itself is quite a lovely thing, a lavish 36 page quarto booklet with decorative embossed card covers, glassine protective sheets, and nice watered-silk end papers. It seems to be bound with cord rather than staples – you can see it here at the centre pages, which show the route of the procession:
Interestingly, on the right hand side, just above the compass, is the ‘Site of New Waterloo Bridge’, not completed until the middle of the Second World War, largely with women’s labour. We can compare this route with a London Transport map which can be found in the Gaitskell papers in Special Collections, showing the route of Queen Elizabeth II’s procession in 1953:
Not much between them. King Charles, on the other hand, will simply travel up Whitehall and down the Mall to get back to Buckingham Palace:
Image from gov.uk
The programme for George VI’s coronation includes a coloured, embossed title page:
and another showing the emblems of the king’s Dominions, which definitely wouldn’t look so crowded in today’s equivalent:
This is followed by a poem by the Poet Laureate, John Masefield, very much of its time: ‘Make wise the councils of the men who sway / The Britain here, the Britains far away’. There is also an interesting essay on the ceremony itself by the Garter King of Arms, the full order of service, and a genealogical table showing the king’s descent from William the Conqueror. The latter can’t compete for splendour with UCL’s own MS ANGL/3, a giant 15th century roll, 10 feet long, showing the supposed lineage of the kings of England all the way back to Adam – you can see a video about MS ANGL/3 online. However, the lineage in George VI’s programme is presumably more accurate.
I don’t know how or why we ended up with this item. It was found in a box of uncatalogued College archive material, where it obviously doesn’t belong. It’s accompanied by a card from the Vicar of St Peter, Vere Street, and a copy of his sermon, so perhaps there’s a clue there:
I have no information so far on Minos Devine, but hope to find a connection to one of our existing collections. If not, this will be an interesting addition to our London History collection.
By Tabitha Tuckett, on 3 May 2023
This post was written by Caroline Kimbell, Joint Head Of Commercial Digitisation And Licensing at UCL Library Services
Following the digitisation of UCL’s 18th century treasures (currently in production) we turn next to a new module for ProQuest’s Early European Books, comprising 515 works of Judaica, roughly half in Hebrew, half in other European languages.
UCL’s Jewish collections are of national significance, and the majority of this project is drawn from the Mocatta collection. Books and pamphlets published before 1700 are in scope, and include 10 Incunabula, the oldest from 1470. EEB to date only includes 164 Hebrew books, but aspires to provide a comprehensive Jewish history resource.
Our contribution includes works in 10 languages besides Hebrew, including Catalan, German, Aramaic, Italian and Greek alongside English. The places of publication represented reflect early modern Jewish Europe, with major centres in Amsterdam, Venice, Antwerp, Prague, Krakow, Berlin, Geneva, Salonika and Istanbul. The module is heavy on hefty, high-status books, many bearing elaborate metal clasps and fine bindings. There is, inevitably, an emphasis on religious texts – Torahs, Psalms and lamentations, prayers, religious and ritual works, theological commentary and Jewish history. 50 works by first century Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus are included, and the module will therefore represent early modern Judaism from the inside.
However, inevitably, much of the collection represents the Christian world’s responses to Judaism. From 1656 we find “A view of the Jewish religion: containing the manner of life, rites, ceremonies and customes of the Jewish nation throughout the World at this present time”, a French “Histoire des Tvrks et d’un Juif; avec discovrs de l’entier banissment des Juifs du Royaume” and an account from 1655 of “a great council of Jews assembled in the plain of Ageda in Hungaria”. There is widespread fascination with Jewish daily life – one account from 1656 promises to describe “their doings at night when they come home”.
In 17th century London, as today, sensational language drove book sales – epitomised in one title – “wonderful and deplorable”. In this vein, we find “the Counterfiet Jew” assuring readers that “It would fill to much paper to describe all the lyes, forgeries, hypocrisies and slights of this miserable wretch”. There are many individual conversion narratives – most famously those of Eve Cohan and Theodore John, the latter baptised at the German Lutheran church in Little Trinity Lane – just one sign that London has always been a Global City. Pamphleteers skirmish back and forth on the subjects of naturalisation, conversion and protestant conformity: one Mocatta pamphlet from 1693 recounts an atheist “apostized from the Christian religion [who] died in despair”.
Writers and readers were also fascinated by cabalistic practice, Jewish medicine, magic and folklore. In MOCATTA 1666 L4 we find an account of “how the Persians were strucken with blindness, when they attempted to rifle the houses of the Jews and spoyle their goods”. In 1653, we find Robert Filmer explaining “the difference between an English and Hebrew vvitch” (always handy to know) and from Cornwall, the story of “Ann Jeffries… who was fed for six months by a small sort of airy people called fairies”.
English travel narratives from Europe and the near East tend decidedly to the picaresque – from 1699 we find “Two journeys to Jerusalem. : Containing… a strange and true account of the travels of two English pilgrims… and what admirable accidents befel them in their journey to Jerusalem, Cairo, Alexandria… beautified with pictures.” Other descriptions cover the Caucasus, the Tartar mountains, Morocco (“The present state of the Jews… in Barbary”) and recount the miraculous raising of the dead by Nathan the Prophet, earnestly evidenced as “the true copy of a letter sent to the East-India Company”. More sober accounts of the pan-European world of trade and business include, at MOCATTA 1678 M1, letters between merchants in London and Amsterdam.
Evidencing everyday co-existence and mutual curiosity, many books here navigate between languages and cultures – there are bi-lingual dictionaries and Henry Care’s invaluable “The Jewish calendar explained” from 1673. Many of the works here use the Jewish calendar: 316 equates to 1556, 448 to 1688 for example. Date formats and the right-to-left pagination of Hebrew books pose particular challenges for digitisation and on-screen navigation, but contributing a dedicated Judaica module to such a reputable, international online resource as EEB will enhance UCL’s global reputation for Jewish studies. UCL library users already enjoy access to EEB, and the collection will be available from launch in 2024. For more information on the Mocatta collection, which supplies the majority of content for this project, see the Hebrew and Jewish Rare Books webpage.
By Nazlin Bhimani, on 26 April 2023
UCL Press’s Paper Trails: The Social Life of Archives and Collections and the University of Stirling’s Oral History of the Pandemic Project are pleased to invite contributions on the broad theme of Creative Responses to the History of Covid-19. Since 2021, researchers at Stirling have been interviewing the University’s staff and students about their experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Inspired by the playful approaches of ‘creative history’, the researchers at Stirling have now produced a highly innovative history based on their oral interviews. Co-produced by academics, archival staff, curators, and students, with creative input from artists and musicians from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, this history will be presented on Paper Trails in the form of written text, film, animation, and music.
The editors of Paper Trails – a collaborative, peer-reviewed, open-access BOOC – now invite researchers from across the higher education, archive, and museum sectors to submit new proposals for additional contributions to a special edition on Creative Responses to the History of Covid-19. In addition to the Stirling history, this edition will showcase the diverse ways in which these sectors experienced, recorded, and interpreted the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The deadline for proposals is 19th June 2023, and the deadline for submissions will be 20th October 2023. Contributions may be submitted to the following streams and can be in a variety of formats and lengths:
- Research Stories: full-length research articles.
- Co-Production: outputs from projects in which non-academic, undergraduate, and postgraduate audiences collaborate with others to create new work based on research collections.
- Collection Profiles: shorter, descriptive or narrative pieces that highlight collections of interest.
- Engagement: Reflective pieces that focus on a broad range of engagement activities.
Paper Trails is edited by Andrew Smith, Director of Liberal Arts, Queen Mary University of London, firstname.lastname@example.org. The University of Stirling Oral History of the Pandemic Project team is led by Stephen Bowman (Lecturer in History, email@example.com), Rosie Al-Mulla (Archivist, firstname.lastname@example.org), and Sarah Bromage (Head of University of Stirling Collections, email@example.com).
By Sarah S Pipkin, on 20 April 2023
The following is by Rozz Evans, Head of Collection Strategy and co-chair of the Library Liberating the Collections Steering Group. It was originally published in the introduction to our 2023 Exhibition Catalogue “Hidden in Plain Sight: Liberating our Library Collections” and has been slightly edited for the purposes of the blog.
UCL Library Services holds a rich and diverse range of collections containing almost two million printed items (alongside an extensive digital library). These collections comprise both Special Collections (a term that we use broadly to describe our rare books, archives and records) and Teaching Collections. As Head of Collection Strategy, I work closely with our Head of Special Collections, Sarah Aitchison. We are responsible not only for the development, care and curation of our collections, but also for ensuring that we prioritise our effort and resources in the form of money, staff and space. An important aspect of this is our commitment to uncovering the hugely diverse material within our existing collections, enabling us to give a voice to those who have been historically less visible.
As an institution, UCL has been very public about its commitment to addressing issues around Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) for some years. Arguably the most high-profile work has been around eugenics, UCL’s part in its history and its enduring impact.
However, institutional effort goes far wider than this. For example, UCL was one of the first institutions in the UK to set up its Liberating the Curriculum project in 2016 to improve the inclusivity and diversity of its reading lists. One of the outcomes of this was a community of practice, bringing together colleagues from across the university who are working in this area; this now has a broader remit than the original project.
It is this group that inspired the name of our Library Liberating the Collections Steering Group (LLTC), which we set up in July 2020 to plan, monitor and oversee our work in this area. We have developed an action plan based around three key themes of Description and Visibility, Collection Policy and Communication and Engagement.
‘Liberating’ is a term that already has currency in UCL and beyond. It conveys an active approach to this work and its broadness demonstrates how this group is working to uncover, identify and promote a more inclusive collection in relation to all under-represented voices. This means that although there will be specific projects in the realm of decolonisation, for example, the remit is broader than race and racism. We feel strongly that it is important not to use terminology such as decolonisation as a shorthand for wider issues around diversity and inclusion.
UCL Library Services’ collections were initially built from departmental libraries, gifts, donations and bequests, supplemented by some purchases. In the library’s earliest accessions registers it is clear that the focus was on generating teaching collections and filling shelves. This meant that there was no strategic approach to developing a collection, and therefore was primarily reflective of the status of donors. This is very different to how we acquire material today. This involves a much more selective, considered and proactive process, governed by clear and transparent collection policies that are available on our website.
This also means that in some cases – particularly in our older material – our collections tend to reflect historic bias and structural inequalities in the university and in the society of the time. These include a normalisation of white, male, Western-centric theories, views, experiences and opinions. This certainly does not mean that we do not hold material which relates to under-represented authors and communities. However, it has become apparent that many of the systems and processes traditionally used by libraries in the curation, management and description of the collections serve to perpetuate systemic bias and can make it difficult to discover this material. For example, the widespread adoption of international cataloguing standards, such as Library of Congress Subject Headings, makes it difficult to challenge or change the use of outdated or discriminatory language in catalogue records.
We are also aware that our collections include content that is now considered discriminatory or harmful, and we must be explicit that its existence in our collections does not represent UCL’s current views.
Traditionally libraries have hidden behind ‘neutrality’ as a way of preserving objectionable content without proper contextualisation, regardless of the harm it can cause to our academic and cultural understanding of these items. However, their historical importance means that we cannot simply remove or delete such items from our collections. Instead we are looking at how we can contextualise such material, acknowledging where necessary the harm these items might do to some of our users and alerting them to problematic content where we can. Pairing re-contextualisation with a celebration of previously ignored voices allows us to have a fuller understanding of our history and culture.
Working in this space tends to require a lot of background research and reflection before any work can begin, much less before the books and other materials are made available for use. “Hidden in Plain Sight” does not represent a finished project, but sets the scene for ongoing investigation, discovery and promotion. Staff and volunteers have been working for many months or years, and this will continue to be the case. In the next few years we hope that more of our collections – already full of interesting stories, diverse voices and differing perspectives on colonialism – will be accessible to students, staff and researchers. “Hidden in Plain Sight” is thus a teaser of things to come.
We hope that this exhibition also embodies a spirit of hope and excitement, as well as an ongoing commitment to ensuring that UCL Library’s collections are truly reflective of the richness and diversity of our shared history.
For more information on the history of UCL Library Services, check out our 2019 Exhibition catalogue “From Small Library Beginnings: a brief history of UCL Library Services.”
“Hidden in Plain Sight: Liberating our Collections” is on display in the Main Library Stairwell and 1st floor until December 2023. Exhibition items and catalogue are also available online.
By Sarah S Pipkin, on 19 April 2023
The Anthony Davis Book Prize is open to any student studying at a London-based university who has a coherent collection of printed and/or manuscript material. The winner will receive £600 as well as an allowance of £300 to purchase an item for UCL Special Collections and the opportunity to give a talk on their collection as part of the UCL Special Collections events programme.
The collection should be based around a common theme which has been deliberately assembled and that the collector intends to continue growing. However, the items in the collection do not have to be valuable or historically important – anyone who collects items from comic books, to postcards, to modern publications is welcome to apply!
The prize is intended to encourage the collecting of books, printed and manuscript materials by students by recognising a collection formed by a London student at an early stage in their collecting career. All current undergraduates and postgraduates studying for a degree at a London-based University, both part-time and full-time, are eligible to enter for the prize.
For more information:
To apply or to learn more about the eligibility criteria:
For advice on what a collection can look like:
- How to be a student book collector (and apply for the Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize)
- Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize: Collecting with Intention
Conversations with previous winners and finalists:
- Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize: Books that built a zoo
- Bound to read: collecting Victorian texts in 20th-century bindings from Bookish: The Birkbeck Library Blog
- Q&A with Erick Jackaman, 2021 Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize Runner Up
- Florilegium: gathering the language of flowers from Bookish: The Birkbeck Library Blog
Announcements of previous winners:
- Results announced for Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize 2020
- Announcing the winners of the 2021 Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize
- Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize 2022: results announced
Keep an eye out for future blog posts on what book collecting can look like!
We look forward to seeing your book collection!