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Liberating the Collections 2022: A Volunteer’s Experience of Searching UCL Special Collections

Erika Delbecque23 August 2022

This guest blog post was written by Jane McChrystal , who spent five months volunteering at UCL Special Collections as part of the Liberating the Collections project.

In March I was presented with an exciting opportunity – discovering the work of women authors published before 1750, held by UCL Library’s Special Collections. I’d been invited to join a team of volunteers for the library’s Liberating the Collections project, by Head of Rare books, Erika Delbecque. Next, Erika convened an online meeting to introduce volunteers to each other and some members of the library team. During the meeting the librarians showed us how to identify works catalogued in the Special Collections using the Explore service, knowledge which could then be applied to the pursuit of the individual projects Erika had assigned.

There were some initial qualms- what if there weren’t any works by women authors pre 1750 in UCL’s collections, or I couldn’t work out how to find them? Luckily, my supervisor, Jo Baines, Academic Liaison Librarian / Archivist, was at hand to reassure me that there were, as I’d hoped, many different ways of approaching the collections to find relevant texts, so it was fine, at this stage to try out a variety of search methods and see what worked.

Initially, I set out in quite a random fashion. I didn’t make much headway, but I was able familiarise myself with Explore and become more confident about finding my way round the collections. And then, Covid struck in April, leaving me quite foggy for a number of weeks.

Once the fog lifted, something had become clear, I needed a system. A simple idea occurred to me. How about approaching my searches with a list of women authors who lived between the 14th and 18th centuries? In this instance, Wikipedia was my friend and it helped me to compile a list of 353 authors. I then selected some who looked the most promising and noted the subjects they addressed, and the literary forms they employed, such as poetry, meditations or drama. Consequently, I was able to match the authors with the collections they were most likely to be found in and the carry out a simple author search in the catalogue of the relevant collections.

The title page of
Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M-y W–y M–e by
Mary Wortley Montagu (Dublin : Printed for P. Wilson, J. Hoey, Junior, and J. Potts, 1763). [SSEES Library, Rare Books Room, KMisc51]

The Rotton and Strong Room collections yielded eleven works by Aphra Behn, a good result, but not too surprising, as she was about the only seventeenth-century woman author I was already familiar with. Today, she is remembered chiefly for a novel, Oroonoko, the tale of a doomed affair between Oroonoko, an African prince and his love, Imoinda, set largely in Surinam played out against the background of a slaves’ revolt, and later adapted into a more successful play.

Before my search, though, I wasn’t aware of her four other dramas and poetry, mainly composed of paeons of praise to various illustrious individuals and members of royalty. I really knew very little about this literary form, but as I went ahead with further searches, I came to realise how popular it was, which makes sense when you consider the important role of patrons in literary life at the time.

And then I came across a gem in the Rotton collection, a collection of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters to various eminent men in England, concerning her travels in Europe, Africa and Asia with her husband, a British ambassador, which lists the name “Mary Astell” among its contributors.

Mary Astell (1666-1731), sometimes referred to as England’s first feminist, was the author of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest, a Lockean philosopher and the founder of a charity school for girls in Chelsea.

She also belonged to a circle of scholarly women in Chelsea, which included Lady Mary Chudleigh, Elizabeth Thomas and Elizabeth Elstob and Wortley Montagu. Each lived in quite different circumstances, ranging from the wealthy, aristocratic Wortley Montagu to Astell.

Astell was a single woman, whose family had fallen on hard times and, as such, had no prospect of marriage to a social equal. She survived on the patronage of women, like those in the circle, who shared her interests in feminism, the oppressive nature of marital relations and the importance of a good education for girls and women.

I returned to the catalogue in search of their names and found four other works by Montagu in the Rotton Collection, largely made up of more letters about her experiences in the different countries she lived in. It is fortunate that these letters were preserved in the eminent men’s libraries and published after their estates were distributed. These texts were then picked up by collectors who donated them to UCL Library.

So, what next?  On 24th August I look forward to sharing my discoveries at a meeting of UCL Library’s Rare Books Club, where participants will have a chance to take a look at some of the texts I found and learn about the work of two fascinating women authors previously buried in the Special Collections, together with the stories of some other important women in their orbit.

All in all, these experiences of taking part in Liberating the Collections have lived up to every expectation I set out with and beyond. Working with Jo as my supervisor has been one of the most enjoyable of them and, thanks to her knowledge, flexible approach and supportive attitude, I found a path to these heroines.

New Jewish pamphlets

Vanessa Freedman24 June 2022

The Hebrew & Jewish Studies Collections in UCL Special Collections include a treasure trove of material in the form of pamphlets. There are over 9,000 pamphlets on a wide range of subjects throughout the field of Jewish Studies, particularly Anglo-Jewish history, Zionism and liturgy. The pamphlets date from 1601 onwards, and are in English, Hebrew, German and a number of other languages.

In 2019 we completed a project to make these rich collections available to scholars and the general public. They are now catalogued in Explore, the most fragile items have been conserved, and a selection of them have been digitised.

We haven’t finished developing this collection though, as we are still acquiring pamphlets by purchase or donation. If you have any pamphlets that you would like to donate, please contact the Hebrew & Jewish Studies librarian.

Here are a few highlights from our recent acquisitions.

Bekhi tamrurim : be-yom evel u-misped ʻal aḥenu ḥalele ha-peraʻot be-artsot Polin : yom 5, 28 Siṿan 679 li-f.-ḳ = A service of prayer and mourning for the victims of the pogroms in Poland : Queen’s Hall, June 26th, 5679-1919

Cover of pamphletOne of the highlights of the pamphlet collection is a large number of orders of service for a variety of national and communal occasions. This particular service was a cross-communal event: published by the Office of the Chief Rabbi of the United (orthodox) Synagogue, those leading the service also included Rev S.J. Roco of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue and Rev Morris Joseph of the (Reform) West London Synagogue of British Jews. The occasion was a spate of attacks against Jews that took place in newly-independent Poland after the First World War. There were over 130 attacks against Jews in Polish territories between 1918 and 1921, causing around 300 deaths.[1] The Hebrew title Bekhi tamrurim means ‘bitter cry’.

 

 

A Palestine Munich? by R.H.S. Crossman and Michael Foot

Cover of pamphletIn this ‘provocative’[2] pamphlet, published in 1946, left-wing backbench MPs Richard Crossman and Michael Foot (later leader of the Labour Party) attack the Labour Government’s policy on Palestine. They criticise the government for indecision and compare the restriction of Jewish immigration in order to avoid Arab opposition to the pre-war appeasement of Hitler (hence the title). The pamphlet argues for the partition of Palestine to form a Jewish state and an enlarged Transjordan.

 

 

 

 

 

And finally, a fascinating oddity:

Teʻudah Yehudit = Idisher doḳumenṭ = Jewish certificate

Cover of pamphletThis ‘Jewish Certificate’, in Hebrew, Yiddish, English and Arabic, looks like a passport and includes space for the holder’s photograph, signature and personal details. It proclaims that ‘the bearer of this certificate is a Jew not a Zionist and has no connection with the nationalist movement which has gained control over the Holy Land and turned it into a Zionist state by falsely assuming the Jewish names of Zion and Israel’. It was produced in 1976 or 1977 by the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox group Neturei Karta, some of whose members refuse to carry an Israeli identity card[3].

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Anna Cichopek-Gajraj and Glenn Dynner, “Pogroms in Modern Poland, 1918–1946,” in Pogroms: A Documentary History, ed. Eugene M. Avrutin and Elissa Bemporad (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 193.

[2] Kenneth O. Morgan, “Foot, Michael Mackintosh (1913–2010), journalist, politician, and author,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2016).

[3] Menachem Friedman, “Neturei Karta,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik (Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007).

Uncovering silenced voices in our rare books: the Liberating the Collections volunteer project

Erika Delbecque10 February 2022

For most of recent history, access to the means to read, write, publish and collect texts was restricted to society’s most privileged. Most of the 150,000 rare books that are looked after by UCL Special Collections were donated over the past two centuries by members of the same privileged group. Collecting books is never neutral: the choice to purchase books in a certain discipline, or on specific topics or by particular authors also implies the choice not to purchase other materials. The interests and prejudices of the collectors themselves and the society they lived in deeply influenced those decisions.

Portrait of a Muslim woman in formal garb.
Jaʻfar Sharīf, Qanoon-e-Islam, or, The customs of the Mussulmans of India. 2nd ed. (Madras, J. Higginbotham: 1863) [WHITLEY STOKES 113.k.19]

The result is that the rare printed collections that we have inherited overwhelmingly document the experiences, achievements and concerns of white men of European heritage. The experiences of less privileged people – those of non-white ethnicity, women, those living with a disability or people who are LGBTQ+, for example – are much more difficult to find.

Uncovering obscured histories

To start addressing this challenge, we set up a volunteering project called Liberating the Collections in 2021. Thirteen volunteers searched our catalogue for books, pamphlets and journals that relate to the experiences of people from marginalised groups. Focusing on topics such as women book owners, same sex love and desire and BAME authors, they compiled a list of 650 books from our collections that provide glimpses into some of those obscured histories. A new display at the Student Centre, which is opening on 15th February ’22, will showcase a selection of images from the items that the project has uncovered.

Complex questions

Signatures of Mary Rich and Margarit Riche. John Harington. Orlando Furioso in English heroical verse (London: Richard Field, 1591) [STRONG ROOM OGDEN B 2]

Searching for these underrepresented voices in our collections brought up many questions that don’t have easy answers. Are descriptions of non-Western traditions by representatives of the nations that colonised these countries examples of preservation or exploitation? How do you uncover women’s histories when the surviving historical evidence is scanty? Can we apply modern notions of sexual identities to texts that were written by historic people?

These issues are reflected in some of the items that are included in the display. There is a copy of a sixteenth-century epic poem that was signed by Mary Rich and Margarit Riche, whose identities we can only guess at. Another item in the display is a volume of poetry by Katherine Philips (1632-64), who some consider to be a lesbian poet, although others have called this reading anachronistic. Also included is an illustration from Kaladlit okalluktualliait (1859-61), an anthology of Inuit folk tales that was published by a Danish colonial official.

Next steps

Portrait of Katherine Philips in Poems by the most deservedly admired Mrs Katherine Philips (London: H. Herringman, 1669) [STRONG ROOM OGDEN A QUARTO 168]

Listing items from our collections that relate to underrepresented and marginalised groups is only the first step in amplifying these voices. Through updating our catalogue records with the findings of the volunteers, we will make these items easier to discover. For example, where volunteers have identified women who previously owned books in our collections or women printers who used their late husband’s name, we are adding these names to the catalogue record. We are also planning to digitise some of these items so that they are freely available online, and we are using the list as a basis to diversify the items we use in our exhibitions, classes and events.

The Liberating the Collections project has only scratched the tip of the metaphorical iceberg, but already we are finding treasures as the ice starts to melt.

‘Very coarse articles’ – celebrating UCL’s institutional archive

Colin Penman8 February 2022

February 11 is generally accepted as UCL’s ‘birthday’, the date in 1826 of our founding instrument, the Deed of Settlement. This document establishes a society, called ‘The Proprietors of the University of London’, to set up an Institution with the object of ‘affording to young Men … adequate opportunities for obtaining Literary and Scientific Education at a moderate expence’. That’s exactly what our founders did, disregarding a very snooty letter to The Times on 2 November 1825, which suggested ‘There should be something of a prohibitive duty in the way of expense, to prevent the admission of very coarse articles’.

UCLCA/1, Deed of Settlement

This is an image of the first page of the Deed of Settlement, held in the UCL institutional archive, which I manage. This archive is of course just one part of Special Collections, but I want to use this anniversary to bang our drum or blow our trumpet (or both).

When those who know us think of our Special Collections, they may not think first of the archives of UCL itself: after all, we have other, flagship collections which rightly claim a lot of scholarly and popular attention. But I’d argue that our own archive is not only worthy of some of that attention, it’s vital to UCL’s understanding of itself, and the way we present ourselves to the world.

For a start, it can be a useful corrective to the stories we tell about UCL. For example, for a long time you could read on our website and social media that UCL was ‘the first university in England to admit women on equal terms with men’. You rarely see that claim now, because it simply isn’t true. It’s a lot more interesting than that, and you can trace the complex truth in the College archive through items like the College Calendars, which tell us:

College Collection A 3.2, p. 2

That is, if you were a prospective student in the second half of the 19th century and happened to be a woman (and not connected to a man at the top of the institution), you needed the approval of the Lady Superintendent of Women Students. Similarly, a look at plans of the Wilkins building from this time shows separate spaces for women, with the Union Society (men only) on the left, and women’s space on the right, in the South Wing:

College Collection A 3.2

and the archives of the Women’s Union Society (WUS) attest to a separation of male and female students that lasted right up to 1946.

The archive is also increasingly used as a resource in UCL’s teaching. This term we are taking part in the Institute of Education’s Worlds of UCL module, which uses the history of UCL and the Institute to explore topics in the history of education. Last week, students were using items from the archive – specifically a blazer, medals and magazines – to think about student culture and identity, and how these have evolved over time.

Last term, we contributed to the Bartlett School’s Architecture & Historic Urban Environments MA module on Surveying and Recording of Cities, using our building plans, like this, one of Thomas Hayter Lewis’s plans for the South Wing of the Wilkins Building,

UCLCA PLANS D5

as well as a remarkable document with the prosaic title of ‘Analysis of Plans’. It was the Bartlett’s Dr Amy Spencer, who has just completed her PhD on UCL’s architectural history, who pointed out the significance of this item, slightly unnoticed in our vast collection of College Correspondence. It is in fact a comparison of the bids received (around the time of the Deed of Settlement, in early 1826) for the building for the new university. Due to its significance, and to make it safer to handle and display, we decided to ask our wonderful conservators to stabilise it for the future. Now it has a new enclosure of its own, and will be stored flat, instead of being folded four times:

UCLCA/CORR/1167/15

These are just a few examples of how we’re getting the archive out there, and developing it for the future. Much more cataloguing is needed, and we’re working on that, but we also have a wealth of digitised material which is so vital in research and teaching support, particularly throughout Covid lockdowns, when nobody could access the collections physically. For this, we have to thank our Special Collections digital curation colleagues, and UCL Educational Media Services.

Meanwhile, the archive is being developed in innovative ways. Although we occasionally accept donations from people formerly connected with UCL, the vast majority of the archive consists of the administrative records that you would expect to find in any large educational establishment – minutes, correspondence, registers and so on. These are vital to our understanding of the story of UCL. But with the records of individuals, we can include voices that are missing from that story. If you were a student or staff member at the Slade School, for example, there’s still time to send something to Slade 150: Letters to the Archive. And the Generation UCL project will make a more wide-ranging contribution as a record of recent student life in London.

After all, our 200th birthday is only four years away!

To learn more about UCL Records, check out our main page.

The Trades Advisory Council – countering antisemitism and fascism in 20th-century Britain

Kurt M Jameson3 February 2022

The Trades Advisory Council of British Jewry (TAC) was formed in 1938, to counter antisemitism in the sphere of trade. The TAC archives capture the history of fascism and antisemitism in mid-20th century Britain, and the history of those who fought back.

Black-and-white portrait photograph of Maurice Orbach.

A photograph of Maurice Orbach, by Walter Stoneman (1949). © National Portrait Gallery, London (link to image). Provided under Creative Commons licence BY-NC-ND 3.0

UCL has a collection of TAC archives, which has recently been fully catalogued. This collection appears to have originally been accumulated by Maurice Orbach (pictured), who was General Secretary of the TAC from 1940 until his death in 1979. The TAC began as a sub-committee of the Defence Committee of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, but it became more independent over time. In their own words, the TAC’s aim was “eliminating friction in industry between Jews and non-Jews”. From the surviving TAC minute books, correspondence, and a large case book from the 1940s, we are able to see what this meant in practice.

The TAC would often intervene to apply pressure on businesses, if Jewish workers or Jewish customers were experiencing discrimination. Some of these people that the TAC helped in the 1940s were Jewish refugees fleeing mainland Europe due to the spread of fascism. In other cases, the TAC would act as mediators in disputes involving Jewish businesses. Their work therefore also involved forming relationships with various unions and trade bodies. Another aspect of the TAC’s work was to challenge antisemitic statements and characterisations that appeared in the media.

A photo of text from a leaflet entitled 'The Objects of the Trades Advisory Council'

An excerpt from a TAC leaflet, c.1940 (found in scrapbook TAC/2/1)

The TAC’s activities have resulted in a vast collection of press cuttings and antisemitic material, and the creation of files about individuals and organisations which the TAC suspected of being fascist. Many of these people were openly fascist, such as Oswald Mosley (who founded the British Union of Fascists in 1932). It is not entirely clear whether all of this material was collected for the TAC’s activities, or if some of it was collected for Maurice Orbach’s personal files (he was also an MP and a campaigner against racial discrimination), but regardless this collection now provides a vast trove of newspaper cuttings, leaflets, newsletters, pamphlets, and letters regarding antisemitism and fascism in Europe in the mid-20th century. Large scrapbooks have been filled with hundreds of newspaper cuttings reporting the activities of fascist groups, and of instances of antisemitism in the press. These files also include letters containing antisemitic abuse and threats, some of which had been sent directly to Orbach. The far-right leaflets and pamphlets in this collection demonstrate that many of the antisemitic conspiracy theories around on the internet today were also circulating in Britain in the mid-20th century.

Two open TAC scrapbooks

A scrapbook (TAC/2/1) showing TAC material from 1942; and a scrapbook of press cuttings from 1937 (TAC/7/2)

The creator of these files and scrapbooks (probably Orbach himself) also collected material on those who fought back, and many of the scrapbooks have been given the title ‘Anti-Fascist’. The press cuttings capture the activities of individuals and groups who protested at fascist events, and who broke up meetings of fascist groups. For example, this material covers the actions of those who confronted Mosley and the Blackshirts in the streets in the 1930s, and it also includes a file on the Yellow Star movement, who opposed Mosley and his Union Movement on the streets in the 1960s.

Although much of the material in this collection consists of newspaper cuttings, which have already been published, the fact that such a comprehensive collection of articles has been carefully arranged means that the scrapbooks could be a useful resource for researchers into fascism, antisemitism, and anti-fascist organising. The internal TAC archives on the other hand offer a unique insight into the activities of some of those who worked to counter antisemitism in mid-20th century Britain.

The catalogue description for the TAC collection can be viewed online via this page, by searching for ‘TAC’: https://archives.ucl.ac.uk/CalmView/

To make an appointment to view any of the files in the TAC collection, please contact us at spec.coll@ucl.ac.uk