How do you make a library? In our current exhibition in UCL’s Main Library, we suggest that all it takes is three basic ingredients: books; somewhere to keep the books; and people to read and look after the books. Nice and easy… right?
Of course, From Small Library Beginnings: A brief history of UCL Library Services very quickly shows us that it’s not that simple. Tracing UCL’s libraries back to the start of UCL itself, we find that a lack of funding meant that the planned Great Library was never built, and the very first library was named instead the Small Library – a diminutive start for a university library service that today supports over 40,000 students.
Buildings need to be built: it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re occasionally difficult to come by. But even at a university, people can be in short supply, too. Certainly, the library doesn’t seem to have ever lacked for users, and one never has to look far to see traces of past borrowers in the form of notes scribbled in the margins of textbooks*. However, staffing a library can be a different matter, and for some 40 years, until 1871, UCL dispensed with the role of Librarian entirely, employing only an assistant – sometimes. A lack of funding was once more to blame.
Evidence of library users. (Side note: please don’t write in your library books.) [GRAVES 4.i.26]
That only leaves books. Here, it seems, UCL has been more fortunate. From the beginning a large number of books were donated, bequeathed, gifted and even bought, so while they may not have had a home or been well looked after, they were at least available to be read…
…Until the London Blitz, anyway. The Second World War saw the most precious books and manuscripts in the library’s collections sent to the National Library of Wales for safekeeping. Of those left behind, an estimated 100,000 were lost or damaged when the university was hit during a 1940 air raid.
We’ve been careful to label the exhibition as a ‘brief’ history, and it would certainly be difficult to present a full narrative of the service’s 17 sites and almost 200 years of existence in just one display. But you’ll still find plenty of fascinating stories here: a library bell made from 17th Century parts; the student life of famed librarian S. R. Ranganathan; the rise and fall of school libraries, and the impact of this on information literacy at universities.
For more on these stories and the items that tell them, download the exhibition catalogue, which includes an introduction by Anne Welsh from UCL’s own Department of Information Studies.
The College Plans, belonging to the Records Office Collections within UCL Special Collections, Archives and Records Department, are housed in part at the National Archives and in part at UCL. They are architectural plans and drawings of several landmarks of the UCL campus, such as the Cruciform, the Rockefeller Building of the “New” Chemistry building.
If most of these plans and drawings, dating from the end of the 19th and early 20th century are in stable condition, some show conservation pathologies that prevent their usage by students, scholars or the public, or would impede their handling for digitization and cataloguing purposes.
They present naturally occurring conditions in working documents, such as pin holes, folds, dirt and smudges, creases… but these objects are also often torn, cockled, warped, and bear historic repairs, many of which are made with pressure-sensitive adhesive tape that needs to be removed. Those conditions are worsened by the fact that most paper substrates are brittle, particularly the different kinds of tracing paper.
A conservation campaign was then launched to stabilize as many records as possible. The work started with surveying 485 items of the collection, and identifying the unstable ones.
The plans and drawings were prioritized according to their state and their relevance for the curators of the collection, and were treated according to a protocol aiming at stabilizing them with minimal intervention:
Setting of tears using wheat starch paste
Repairs and consolidation of regular paper objects using different thicknesses of remoistenable repair tissue prepared with wheat starch paste and methylcellulose.
Some of the tissue was toned with black acrylic paint for the repairs over black media on the recto of objects.
Repair and consolidation of tracing paper using remoistenable tissue prepared with Isinglass: a fine protein adhesive prepared using swim bladders of sturgeon fishes.
Adhesive removal using poultices prepared with methylcellulose and ethanol, or heated spatulas and other solvents.
Photographic and written documentation:
Condition and treatment records
Housing in polyester pockets.
These interventions were carried out by paper conservators at UCL Special Collections Conservation Department, and also involved the participation of UAL – Camberwell College MA Conservation intern students, who were given the opportunity to add working collection objects treatments to their portfolios while learning and practicing different techniques, such as preparing Isinglass, removing adhesives or repairing tracing paper.
Priority was given to stability for handli
ng purposes, also respecting the nature of each substrate. For instance, repairs on tracing paper were done with extremely thin tissues to avoid being visible by transparency. Due to their aesthetical value, some objects were nevertheless given extra care, with the usage of toned tissues for repairs and infills. One plan with a large lacuna even received an infill digitally produced to minimize the visual impact of interrupted lines.
In the images, one can see the detail of record Ref. Nº ROC 86, a drawing for a decorative swag of the Board Room in the Rockefeller building before and after conservation. It was extremely rewarding for the conservators to discover that the ornament was still in place. As recommended in writing on the May 1907 document, the sculptor hadn’t “adhered” exactly to the drawing, but his execution of the motif still allowed super-imposing the final result with architect J. Carmichael’s vision.
Volunteers’ week may be long over but that doesn’t mean we can’t say thank you to our volunteers throughout the rest of the year! This time I would like to introduce some of the work done by one of our volunteers, Ashley Zuelke, who you may have come across before in one of the Volunteer Week posts. As well as volunteering in Special Collections we have been lucky enough to have Ashley volunteering with us in UCL IOE Archives. Ashley has worked on catalogue enhancement of Minute Books of the London branch of the National Union of Women Teachers (NUWT). The account which follows is a fascinating analysis of what she uncovered and gives an insight into the interesting stories that can be found in these unassuming looking volumes.
Minute Books Offer Glimpses into the Organisation of Women Teachers at the Turn of the 20th Century
By Ashley Zuelke Summer Volunteer with Special Collections, Archives and Exhibitions studying for an MSc in Business Analytics and Management
In the early 1900s, British women teachers formed their own associations, branching out from the primary teaching organizations of the time to advocate for emerging issues including equal pay, pensions, and the management of “combined” boys and girls school departments. Reading the first minute books kept by the London Branch of the National Union of Women Teachers – then known as the National Federation of Women Teachers – is like sifting through snapshots of history taken every few months.
Entries from 1908 to 1922 reveal glimpses of the expansion of women’s rights and education in the U.K. before, during and after World War I. Discussions on proposed resolutions for national meetings reveal issues on which broad consensus prevailed, such as supporting aging women teachers, as well as points of disagreement, which included Parliament extending the vote to women. In history books, women’s suffrage seems like a natural course within a history punctuated with equal rights victories. The minute books, however, present a more nuanced picture with a spectrum of views and no certain results.
Demonstration by the London Unit against the allocation of the Fisher Grant, 1918
The year 1918 marked a watershed moment for the organisation: Parliament passed landmark education reform legislation and the group merged with the Women Teachers Franchise Union to create the London Unit of the National Federation of Women Teachers. The Franchise Union at the time was a politicised organisation, which prompted some members to urge that the group not advocate for political issues. The group did not accept those proposals, though the organisation unanimously postponed advocacy on political issues during the war. With the merger, the group codified its practices into a constitution and began to persistently advocate for equal rights and the implementation of the Education Act of 1918, which was designed to improve school conditions and to study the UK educational system – objectives for which public support increased dramatically after the war.
Within 10 years, the group grew from a handful of regular members to more than 50 subscribers in attendance at annual meetings representing nearly all parts of greater London. The organisation’s behaviour evolved as well. Initial notes that focused mostly on social gatherings and group administration became disciplined accounts of proposed resolutions and active correspondence. Early schisms dissolved as rules and procedures were finalised. By 1916, the group even published meeting minutes in newspapers as public record. Members, some of whom participated in the group for more than a decade, built seniority. The group developed a clear, ringing voice on important issues. The women’s dedication is evident, with many lines commemorating achievements of group presidents and expressing condolences for members with illness or those who passed away.
The minute-book entries represent many hours of work for members outside the classroom, often on weekends. They offer readers a new perspective on events in the first two decades of the 20th Century. The books show how one organisation developed, enduring setbacks and victories on a path that many organisations today would likely recognise. And the books open windows into time as a group made changes and won rights for women and children that today many of us could not imagine doing without.
Thanks so much Ashley for writing up such an interesting account of the early minute books of the NUWT and for all your work in expanding and enhancing the catalogue description for these.
On 9 February, I delivered a UCL Lunch Hour Lecture entitled ‘The youth of our middling rich’: how egalitarian were UCL’s founders? It was a reflection on research I have been carrying out over the past year on UCL’s much-touted radical and egalitarian credentials, particularly the claim that is often made that it was the first English university to admit students ‘regardless of race, class, religion or gender’.
It’s easy to forget that, in 1825, no university had been founded in the British Isles in over 200 years, and there were only two universities in England, where – at least if you wanted to take a degree – you had to be a member of the Church of England. This created a problem for the growing portion of England’s population that didn’t belong to the established church, such as Jews, Catholics and dissenting Protestants. These people could go abroad, if they had the money. There were academies for dissenters in England – but they weren’t universities. Or there were Scotland’s five universities, which had no religious tests for students, and that’s the path many took, including many of UCL’s founders.
The man who deserves the credit for changing this was the poet Thomas Campbell who, impressed by the liberal education on offer at the recently-founded universities in Bonn and Berlin, wrote to The Times in February 1825:
The plan which I suggest is a great London University. Not a place for lecturing to people of both sexes (except as an appendage to the establishment), but for effectively and multifariously teaching, examining, exercising, and rewarding with honours in the liberal arts and sciences, the youth of our middling rich people, between the age of 15 or 16 and 20, or later if you please. By the middling rich I mean all between mechanics and the enormously rich…
This got the ball rolling remarkably quickly: a preliminary meeting was held in April, and the first prospectus appeared in July. The land for the building was purchased in September, a Council elected in December, and on 11 February 1826 our first foundation document, the Deed of Settlement,
was signed. The foundation stone was laid in April 1827, and the first students arrived in October 1828. That Deed of Settlement says the object of the university is:
The advancement and promotion of Literature and Science, by affording young Men … adequate opportunities for obtaining Literary and Scientific Education at a moderate expence.
It was to be a joint-stock company, selling shares for £100 each to Proprietors, who would elect the Council at an annual general meeting. The professors would be paid a ‘modest’ salary for three years only, as they had to support themselves directly from the students’ fees – a precarious system that lasted decades.
And students would not live on the premises, which meant fees really could be set at a comparatively modest level, giving access to university education to the sons of the new middle classes. This occasioned the kind of mockery that appeared in John Bull magazine, where it was claimed:
Each Dustman shall speak, both in Latin and Greek,
And Tinkers beat Bishops in knowledge –
If the opulent tribe will consent to subscribe
To build up a new Cockney College.
What doesn’t appear in the curriculum, an area which Campbell deliberately avoided in his letter, is religion, which brings us back to the treasured notion of a supposed principled opposition at UCL to the teaching or promotion of theology. In fact many, possibly most, of the founders were men of faith, such as the Catholic Duke of Norfolk, and the Baptist minister Francis Augustus Cox. They were anxious to provide some kind of religious teaching in the new institution, and planned to have professors of theology.
However, ultimately it proved impossible both to keep to the principle that there would be no religious tests or barriers, and to teach theology to the satisfaction of the different religious groups involved. Instead, the spiritual and moral welfare of the young men who didn’t live at home were to be overseen by boarding-house keepers with ‘satisfactory religious habits and morals’ who, among other things, would ensure their charges attended public worship regularly: in other words, it was a last ditch compromise, designed to keep everyone on board.
So, to go back to the title of the lecture – how egalitarian were our founders? Well, if we measure UCL against the criteria I mentioned, that it was ‘the first English university … to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender’, we would have to say:
On race: no university in Britain discriminated explicitly against students on grounds of race, and we know that some non-white students did study at our universities before UCL was even thought of.
On class: there were certainly no barriers in terms of class, except in the sense that you needed the money to pay, and UCL was much cheaper. But you could say the same about Oxford and Cambridge – there were no actual class barriers: if you were Anglican, and could pay, you could come, and some students did have very humble origins.
On religion – in this context, UCL represented a revolution, making a university education available to those who were not members of the Church of England. But this was partly because the men who founded this institution cared deeply about faith and the religious and moral well-being of its students.
On gender – this is really part of a different story, but the answer would probably be: ‘it’s complicated’. UCL was the first to admit women to degrees (fifty years after it opened) but actually not on equal terms for a further forty years.
In these ‘post-factual’ times, I think we need to be careful about UCL’s myths (and what better way to do that than resort to our own amazing archives). The new university didn’t ‘open up’ education to everyone from the outset, and we do ourselves a disservice if we buy too much into the ‘godless’, ‘Cockney university’ image, because that would overlook the fact that this was hostile propaganda on the part of a threatened establishment. The truth is richer and more interesting: UCL did make university education affordable and available to a much more representative cross-section of society, largely the new middle classes who had been, for the reasons I’ve discussed, excluded from it. And it did it in new and ground-breaking ways.
We are currently digitising the Council minutes and student registers, which will enable us to do so much more, and faster. I’m particularly interested in mapping the origins and subsequent careers of our earliest students, and automating the transcription of the earliest minutes and correspondence. So this lecture was a great opportunity to share some of my findings, but there is a fascinating story still to be told, and we’ve so far barely scratched the surface. UCL’s 200th birthday in 2026 is fast approaching – watch this space for further developments!