October 10, 2012

Archives of Ruskin College under threat


What the Ruskin archives now look like

Ruskin College, Oxford, was founded in 1899 as a college for the working class, for individuals who had been excluded from conventional paths of study, and it became a model for labor colleges internationally. Over the past hundred-plus years, its archives have become a crucial source for the type of material that isn’t kept or collected elsewhere, and it’s especially been a repository for the history of the trade union and labor movements of the twentieth century. But its current principal, Audrey Mullender, has declared the materials a “load of old paper that no one ever looked at,” “extremely thin and boring,” and “not a complete record.” And she’s having them destroyed, even though another institution, the Bishopsgate Institute, has volunteered to take any material that Ruskin no longer wants to hold.

First of all, who the heck is this Mullender character and how did she ever become principal of a college, if she’s given to saying these kinds of things about archival material?

And secondly, as the former Dean of the College Hilda Kean, who is leading the appeal to halt this rampant trashing, points out:

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 fascinating to a historian 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, of course, these are items of fascination to family historians. Even within state records one never receives full records – the 1861 census, for example, has huge gaps. Archives never contain ‘complete’ records. Choices are always made by depositers and archivists. There is no ‘objective’ position.

One would think that Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold might have made all librarians and administrators hesitant about dumping paper records. But apparently not. In this case, the college has claimed that “the most important details were digitized onto a new electronic database,” but as Baker and anyone else who has ever worked in an archive can confirm, those words might as well mean “95% of what was important about this piece of material has been destroyed — it’s gone, suckers.” Archival material that has already been lost includes records of the trade union students who attended Ruskin in its first decades and all the MA dissertations from the last 15 years produced by students in its pioneering Public History course.

The destruction of the archives was occasioned by Ruskin’s move to a new and smaller site outside the city, after the sale of the college’s original building to Exeter College. This is, however, no excuse, and never has been — as recent discussions about the New York Public Library’s “Central Library Plan,” covered on MobyLives here and elsewhere, have demonstrated, when space, as a constraint, and as its own good, is privileged over the material that actually brings people to the space, the people involved get rightfully worried.

Dean tells a story in one of her blog posts about the Ruskin debacle that is particularly pertinent:

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.’ 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.

Here’s a petition you can sign, if you think this is as lousy as I do: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/120/368/331/stop-further-archive-destruction-at-ruskin-college-oxford/


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.