Whose Archive? Whose History? Destruction of Archives at Ruskin College, Oxford

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The Walton Street site, Ruskin College, Oxford

By Hilda Kean

Sign the petition at Care2 now to stop further vandalism: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/120/368/331/stop-further-archive-destruction-at-ruskin-college-oxford/

I remember being impressed by the diary of John Ward, a nineteenth century weaver from Lancashire, who had written daily accounts in a cash-book of the effects of the cotton famine caused by the American Civil War. There would be readers who may have thought these entries trivial: ‘A clear frosty day but now tonight is raining. I have joined the Low Moor Mechanics’ Institute and Reading-room. It is a penny per week, so I will see a daily paper regular.’i But the students whom I then taught at Ruskin College (and I) thought otherwise. These tiny glimpses and traces of a past evoked another world. What added to the interest were the circumstances by which the diary had been handed down to us. This possibly unique diary of a working weaver from the 1860s had been retrieved in 1947 from a heap of rubbish by a labourer who was feeding the furnace at the Clitheroe destructor. While someone had seen fit to discard it, another, also a working man, had realised its value. Without the binman’s intervention, the wider social history community would never have known that the diary – and, of course, its author – even existed.

In 1993 I took up a post at Ruskin College to work with Raphael Samuel getting a new postgraduate degree in Public History off the ground. Stephen Yeo, another historian of the labour movement, was principal. I never dreamed that such an act of destruction, as had nearly happened to John Ward’s diary, would occur at Ruskin. But times change and this is precisely what has, already, happened.

Ruskin College, founded in central Oxford in 1899, has recently sold its main Walton Street building to Exeter College and has moved to the outskirts of the city at Headington. This has been seen as an opportunity, by some, to ditch the College’s past both literally and metaphorically.

The College was a repository of lived experience of the trade union and labour movement of the twentieth century and its records complemented that. Some see past experience as unrelated to the future. As the college principal, Audrey Mullender has declared in email correspondence, ‘I think we must live by our future’, seeing this almost in contradistinction to the past. Others, particularly historians, tend to see a correlation between these time variables.

Much material from Ruskin’s past has already been physically trashed. This includes admission records of some of the trade union students who attended Ruskin in its first decades. These were activists, sponsored by their unions, who usually went back into the trade union and labour movement as leaders. Such archival matter is like gold dust to labour and social historians enabling a better understanding of the political and cultural life of working class people in the twentieth century. With the huge interest in family and local history it is also the sort of material that descendants find fascinating.

The destruction to date has not happened by accident. The college principal had stated her intentions, or, more accurately, her decision; the chair and vice-chair of governors, themselves from a trade union background, were advised of this intended operation months ago and took no action. The trashing of such records, David Norman, the chair, declared in email correspondence, was an ‘internal administrative matter’ and thus he declined to intervene.

Attempts to reason with the principal fell on deaf ears. Most of the files, this ‘hanging on to a load of old paper that no one ever looked at’ as Audrey Mullender has described it in emails, was of scant historical value. The records, she had decided, were ‘extremely thin and boring’. In addition they did not provide ‘a complete record’.

This indicates a complete lack of understanding about the nature of archives – and why historians find them fascinating. What is extremely boring to one individual is often engaging to another re-visiting the material in decades to come. In New Zealand, for example, one short-sighted official destroyed nineteenth century census records thinking they would be of no interest whereas, obviously, these are items of fascination to family and public historians. Even within state records, of course, one never receives full records – the 1861 census, for example, has huge gaps. Archives by their very nature never contain ‘complete’ records. Choices are always made by depositers and archivists. There is no ‘objective’ position.

For Audrey Mullender, so-called personal material such as that contained in past student applications could not be seen by anyone. This also illustrates a total misunderstanding of the spirit of data protection. To its credit, SOAS, to take but one example, has recognised that exemptions in legislation allow the permanent retention of data for historical and statistical research. As it has wisely stated, ‘SOAS’s history should not be endangered by the over zealous destruction of data that could be retained as historical archives.’ii

As those of us who actually use and value archives realise, routinely we are forbidden from accessing personal archives for some period of time, varying from archive to archive but often for period of 100 to 70 years. Clearly archives have the facilities and rationale for ensuring that records are preserved; colleges do not automatically have the space. This is especially the case at Ruskin, where a new supposedly purpose-built library has less storage space than the cramped library it has replaced.

Some of the rare material housed in the former building is now safe from further onslaught since it was given some time ago to the Bishopsgate Institute. The Institute already housed the papers of Raphael Samuel, long time tutor of History at the College. To this has been added collections relating to the History Workshop. Conscious of the intrinsic value of the pamphlets, ephemera and records that Ruskin holds – and keen to expand their growing collection of radical collection, such as material emanating from the Stop the War Coalition – Stefan Dickers, the library and archives manager at the Bishopsgate, volunteered to take any material that Ruskin did not want. Some material was donated, such as a photograph and portrait of Raphael Samuel and MA dissertations in Public History taught at the College from 1996 – 2012 when the course was closed down. But rather than take up this offer of receiving all unwanted material it was decided to eradicate it. Papers have not gone to a landfill site but have been specifically destroyed. Even the removal firm seemed puzzled and sought clarification from the principal who allegedly confirmed that indeed such material must be destroyed. Perhaps the firm’s staff were viewers of ‘Who do you think you are?’ and understood their worth…

While some valuable material is now saved from such acts of philistinism the destruction of Ruskin’s past has not yet finished. The iconography that adorned the public walls of the College–the anti-imperialist mural in the block named after anti-apartheid activist David Kitson; the banner from the miners’ strike of 1984-5 when the College hosted striking miners; the plaque presented to Charles Bowerman, former President of the TUC and member of Ruskin’s governing council – are no longer part of the public history and public profile of the College. Volunteer students working in the archive instructed to shred labour movement pamphlets acted with the imagination and integrity one expects of the best of the Ruskin tradition. Other material such as pamphlets or ephemera has been squirreled away by staff keen to preserve the past – but understandably wary of their own future in the current climate.

Brecht famously enumerated ‘the questions of a worker who reads’. Weaver John Ward was one such worker. The Clitheroe labourer who rescued his writing was another. Ruskin students have provided such readers in their thousands, ordinary people interested in the past, present and future who asked questions of the world around them. Like Brecht’s character, they contemplated traces of the past that some people regard as valuable and others choose to ignore.

The destruction of the Ruskin archive will not stop such questions being raised, but better to retain the traces, than to wipe them out.

Hilda Kean is the former Dean of Ruskin College. Her latest book is The Public History Reader (Routledge, forthcoming 2013) edited with Paul Martin.

i John Burnett Useful Toil.Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s, Penguin,1977, p.80.

ii ’ http://www.soas.ac.uk/infocomp/dpa/policy/retaining/ (site accessed 1 October 2012)

Related: Losing the Memory of Generations, by David Horsfield, former Ruskin librarian

Come on Ruskin, do the right thing by Toby Butler, ex-Ruskin student

Sign the petition at Care2 now to stop further vandalism: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/120/368/331/stop-further-archive-destruction-at-ruskin-college-oxford/

 

  • Toby

    For the latest on this and a link to a document outlining the status of various parts of the Ruskin archive/records see ‘when is an archive not an archive’ on http://hildakean.com/?page_id=943

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  • Nancy Schimmel

    As a librarian, I find this disturbing.

  • Peter Harnetty

    This is unbelievable.  As a historian myself (of South Asia) I know the value of local records.  Even in India, district offices retain land records and other such material dating back well into the 19th century (admittedly not always in very good order – but they are there).  I do hope what’s left can be saved.

    Peter Harnetty(Prof. Emeritus University of British Columbia)

  • Andy Cohen

    This kind of behavior from so-called scholars genuinely stinks.  This woman must be being paid off by someone, to exhibit such a callous attitude toward the bare bones of historical interpretation. She has no right to destroy the stuff, and should be enjoined from doing so right away.  And fired.

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  • David Norman

    Not only is this an act of deliberate vandalism, not only was it avoidable and not only did it certainly not raise difficult data protection issues, but in my case it raised particular fury because my namesake, David Norman, as chairman of governors, was amongst those culpable. I AM NOT THAT DAVID NORMAN!!!

  • Penry Williams

    As a retired historian who spent much of his working life reading records of the past and teaching others to read and use them, I find this literally incredible. By curious coincidence I was going to come yesterday to the opening ceremony of Ruskin College buildings, as a guest of Gordon Marsden MP. In the event I was ill and could not go, but I saw Gordon afterwards and he cannot have known of this, or else he would have mentioned it. He is a historian, previously editor of History Today; and he delivered a speech at the opening on long-term learning. He should be able to give you support. Margaret Jay was also at the opening and the speech. This is not the only attack on learning that has got me angry; but it is the most direct and the most lamentable.

    Penry Williams, retired history fellow and tutor, New College, Oxford.

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  • Richard Fellows

    As a historian, Oxford graduate, and admirer of the founding ambitions of Ruskin College, I find your article shocking and hard to believe. How very sad to read of this as a result of visiting HWO to look at Eric Hobsbawm’s special edition of Past and Present.

  • Joy Travers

    When Ruskin Cololege offered to tutor me in WW1 history I donated to it 500 letters exchanged between my grandparents W F and E B Toynbee  and their son out in Egypt in the war. The letters tell of the lives of a Walthamstow working class family in which Will Toynbee, the only working class compositor seconded to the War Office (Voluntary Enlistment, and later, Lord Derby’s Scheme) and the Treasury (War Savings Campaign) to speak at factories and outdoor demonstrations and Lizzie, his wife, keeping the home fires burning. Stan Toynbee was the only clerk in the Deputy Judge Advocate’s Office in Cairo/Alexandria from 1915 to 1919. The exchange of letters is unique and is the main purpose of my book “A Toynbee to Remember” to be published shortly. To my horror I find that those 500 original letters have been disposed or, I don’t yet know where or if they have been destroyed. Fortunately I have photocopies of every letter, but they aren’t the same as the ones which so delighted the then librairians David and Val Horsfall who photocopied them for me in return for the donation to the College. I am not an academic, although I do have an MA from Kent University. But I am appalled at the crass hubris of Audrey Mullender who glories in wrecking historial records simply to fullfil  her own views about education.

    Joy Travers, after years of research into the three major subjects of the book: Brotherhood Movement, Labour Party and Trades Union pioneer – Will Toynbee was well known in all three areas.

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