A Taste of History – Travelling back in time through recipes and Mass Observation

By Dr Stella Sims

In this video project I recreate recipes taken from, or inspired by 1941 food diaries held at the Mass Observation Archive, going back in time to a moment in history to cook and taste what someone said they were eating on a particular day.  Earlier in the summer of this very strange year, during the 1st Covid lockdown and many subsequent weeks spent indoors, I was able to travel vicariously through food.  I’ve rediscovered recipe books that had gathered dust on the shelf for too long, trying new recipes, and recreating meals that reminded me of comfortable memories, family and foreign holidays.  Like smell, taste can conjure up a memory and give us a sensory leap back to a past moment in our lives.  This project expands this idea to take an imaginative journey back in time where we join a specific person on a specific day in the past to cook and eat what they ate.  With more time this year to cook and to think, the idea for ‘A Taste Of History’ arose as a perfect way to combine the pleasure of cooking with my love of bringing history to life. 

Image of Dr Stella Sims in her kitchen
Dr Stella Sims in her kitchen

I did a PhD at the University of Sussex some time ago, and I’ve used the incredible collection at Mass Observation for my academic work – I could spend hours poring over these vivid fragments and insights into everyday lives.  In more recent years I have worked in the media researching and producing history documentaries and series such as BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are?  One of the things I find unique about Mass Observation material is the personal and detailed nature of much of their collection, comprising as it does of diaries, overheard conversations, personal anecdotes and daily minutiae sent in by ordinary people.  The collection often features very idiosyncratic voices – I’ve often been pleasantly diverted off topic while reading the diary, report or comments of a particularly funny or opinionated person. 

Image of Stella cutting into a Woolton pie
Stella’s Woolton pie

I wondered what kind of research had been done on food, and if Mass Observation writers had shared any recipes in their diaries, or other interesting insights to do with food.  Of course, I discovered Mass Observation had an absolute abundance of writing related to food, spanning both the earlier project as well as the newer correspondence since the 1980s.  As I browsed through various topic collections I found there was an awful lot to distract a greedy historian.  In the end, I decided to focus on a huge collection of food diaries sent in by individuals during the early years of the Second World War.  A short history series was never going to cover everything in this fascinating collection, but I managed to narrow down my focus to five peoples’ menus.  I selected these based on the fact that they were particularly interesting writers or menus which illustrated certain broader points of historical interest on food during the war: the rationing of key foods like meat, butter and sugar; the role of the Ministry of Food; famous wartime recipes like ‘Woolton Pie’ and meat-free substitutes; import problems; and campaigns such as Dig For Victory.  But what I love most about this project is how it puts the ordinary men and women at the centre of these big moments in history and shines a spotlight on these ‘unofficial histories’, particularly women’s stories.  The voices that come through are opinionated, quirky and very human, their experiences vary according to place, income and class.  In particular I enjoyed discovering the occasional very emotional response to taste, such as the woman who wrote with joy in October 1941 that she was served “two awfully good cakes with cream and jam, light, scrunchy pastry!”  These rare treats were few and far between during wartime.

Image of macaroni pudding and chocolate mould
Anyone for macaroni pudding or chocolate mould?

I was grateful for the excellent archive help from Mass Observation’s Senior Archive Assistant, Jessica Scantlebury, who provided me with a wealth of primary documents.  I’ve not only used diaries in the project: almost every document you see in the videos is held in the wartime collections at Mass Observation.  This is just a snapshot of a rich collection of wartime ephemera including newspaper clippings, advertisements, Ministry of Food pamphlets, posters for  wartime cookery classes, food catalogues from posh stores like Harrods and Selfridges, and sample menus from all sorts of places from provincial hotels to Claridge’s.  In some ways this was an ideal ‘lockdown project’ – just me in my kitchen experimenting with food.  Fortunately, I’ve got a huge collection of old recipe books and books about food history, so I was able to do plenty of research in the confines of my own home.  A lot of the time, the 1941 food diaries just mentioned a meal, not a recipe, so I was able to research or adapt authentic recipes from the time to create an approximation of what they would have eaten.  The simplicity that was forced on the filming was in some ways a plus – it meant less faffing or worrying about perfection and more just getting on with it; I was lucky to be living with a partner who valiantly (and patiently) assisted on camera and sound.  I’m certainly more used to being behind the camera, but hopefully people enjoy watching me having a go at cooking 1940s-style, and finding out if these recipes were a success or failure when they are recreated in the here and now.

Image of Stella tucking into a salad inspired by an MO recipe
A stellar salad – based on the recipe of Mrs Clayton of South London

To me, the history of cooking illustrates a very social history: seeing what ingredients were available at what time; what expectations people had about food; who does the cooking; and what methods were open to them.  During Covid, Britain has again faced food supply challenges: queues at supermarkets, supply issues, stockpiling and pressure on incomes meaning people are having to do more with less.  Politically, myths of the Second World War are often called upon to serve the present – the ‘Blitz spirit’ and so on, which often go too far and miss the specific context and huge differences between ‘then’ and ‘now’.  Even during this pandemic, 21st century Britain is a land of plenty compared to Britain in 1941.  However, there are still surprising and useful lessons we can learn from those wartime days of rationing such as not to waste food, how to make the most of what you have, and the nutritious possibilities of a meat-free diet.  It’s been brilliant to take a trip back in time to see how creative people were with food during the war, though one thing I’ve definitely learned is that I think Woolton Pie should probably remain in the history books.

Watch all 5 videos of Taste of history on the Mass Observation YouTube channel

Dr Stella Sims is a cultural historian, researcher and history documentary producer with a love of museums, archives and vintage recipe books.  She can be reached on Twitter @stellastar80 or via stellasims@gmail.com.

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Posted in MO (Mass Observation), Special Collections, The Keep

‘For security reasons it may not be prudent to unfold where I am’ – Ghana’s 1978 electoral commissioner’s letter from hiding surfaces in the BLDS Legacy collection

By Danny Millum – BLDS Metadata and Discovery Officer

Cataloguing on the BLDS Legacy Collection project has now reached Ghana, and we’ve just unearthed a fascinating letter from a dramatic time in that country’s political history.

On 30 March 1978 the country’s Supreme Military Council, led by Col. Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, held a referendum on system of government, and whether Ghana should become a non-party state (from the perspective of the UK in 2021 that does have some appeal…). The referendum was controversial, as many saw UNIGOV (as it was known) to be a ploy by Acheampong to retain power and suspected military interference. Things got so heated that the electoral commissioner himself, I. K. Abban, was forced to go into hiding, from where he wrote the letter below which has just turned up in Box 204 of our Ghana materials.

Image of letter written on a typewriter from I.K. Abban to I.K Acheampong
Letter from Electoral Commissioner I.K. Abban to I.K Acheampong

The message is addressed to Acheampong, explaining that following previous threats from the military (which would end in ‘several deaths including me’) his office was now under siege. He diplomatically shies clear of directly accusing the Head of State of being responsible, but he certainly doesn’t sound full of trust for his boss: ‘For security reasons it may not be prudent to unfold where I am but I am safe’. Readers worried about Abban’s fate can breathe easy – he escaped and eventually became Chief Justice (again not without controversy). Acheampong on the other hand only lasted until July when he was arrested and deposed…

Anyone interested in this item, Ghanaian government publications or the BLDS Legacy Collection in general can drop us a line at bldslegacy@sussex.ac.uk

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Posted in BLDS (British Library for Development Studies), IDS

Listening to Sussex’s Special Collections

By Esther Gill – UOSH Project Manager

The University of Sussex Special Collections at The Keep archive holds extensive material relating to 20th century literary, political and social history, as well as the history of the University. In amongst the books, manuscripts and images, are also boxes of open reel and cassette tapes holding oral history interviews, music, performance and incidental sounds. These recordings capture: voices, emotion, laughter, performance, wildlife, and the everyday domestic sounds that are all around us. Some are carefully constructed re-tellings of a life-story, others are audio scrapbooks, collections of sound ‘jottings’, scraps of recordings fitted onto the end of a tape. All add depth and richness to our reading of the past. 

Two of these collections have been digitised as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project (UOSH), preserving them for future listening, but also making them more easily accessible to more people. The two collections are the British Australian Migration Research Project oral history interviews (SxMOA25/UTK001/84 cassette tapes) and the Copper Family recordings (SxMs87/UTK009/59 open reel tapes, 2 cassette tapes, 8 CDs).

Voices of the £10 Poms

The British-Australian Migration Research Project oral history interviews comprises 33 oral history interviews, over 84 tapes, exploring the experiences of the ‘£10 Poms’: British people who emigrated to Australia for £10 under the Assisted Package Scheme (1945-1982).

Image of a box of tape cassettes from the Ten pound poms collection
The ordered cassettes of an oral history research project

Undertaken by Professor Al Thomson and Dr Lani Russell in 2000/2001, the research looks at the experiences of people who remained in Australia as well as those who returned to the UK, some coming and going a number of times. The collection explores the experience of migration, women’s lives in the UK and Australia, family dynamics, the challenges of returning to the UK. Interview transcripts and the resulting book ‘Ten Pound Poms’: Australia’s invisible migrants (Hammerton/Thomson, 2005) are available to read, but the recorded interviews and hearing the actual voices enable a much deeper ‘reading’ of the life stories being told. In the extract below, Joan Pickett’s description of how she and her friend decided to take the Assisted Package draws one in immediately with her very visual comparison between the winter of 1959 and the sunny presentation of Australia.

Joan Pickett talks to Al Thomson about the decision to go to Australia (Part 1)

Joan Pickett talks to Al Thomson about the decision to go to Australia (Part 2)

A transcript for both audio files can be found in the UOSH additional content page on this blog

Running through the interviews one hears the excitement of travel and opportunity; the details of a first sea journey; the sadness at saying goodbye to family and friends; the challenges and sometimes disappointments of arriving in a new land. All the interviews have been cleared by the UOSH team at The Keep to be streamed via a new British Library sounds website, to be launched in July 2021.

Making music with the Coppers

The Copper Family recordings held by Special Collections is a very different type of audio collection. Whereas the £10 Poms recordings were gathered as part of a structured research project, the Copper Family recordings reflect a more organic approach and were not created as a ‘collection’. The recordings comprise three distinct types of material: firstly, the 18 professionally recorded master tapes for the Copper’s 1975 release, A Song for Every Season. Secondly, interviews undertaken with Bob Copper and folk experts, talking about the role and history of the Copper Family. And thirdly, a collection of open reels and cassettes found amongst Bob Copper’s possessions after he died. The latter tapes capture home recordings, material sent to Bob by aspiring folk musicians, rough recordings of pub performances, recordings of commercial music off the radio. The collection reflects a musician’s life in sound: the clean and clear sound of a professional recording studio to the raucous, distorted sound of a pub recording to what is captured when, in a creative moment, you press the record button on a Saturday night at home.

Image of the packaging for a EMITAPE magnetic recording tape
A beautiful box from the Copper Family collection

The UOSH team is still cataloguing the Copper Family recordings and are yet to confirm what all the recordings are, but what is already clear is that the content of these tapes are an essential element of the Copper Archive (SxMs87). Alongside Bob Copper’s correspondence, writing, song books, sketches and lifetime ephemera, the recordings bring sound to the archive of a man whose life had music and sound at its centre.

Image of a small open reel tape on a reel to reel tape recorder
A tiny open reel of Bob and John Copper singing Come write me down

Once complete, the digital recordings will be stored at the British Library for preservation and listed in the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image (sami.bl.uk) catalogue. People interested in listening to them should email the Special Collections team.

These two collections have been digitised as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Project (UOSH) based at The Keep and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The recordings were identified from the British Library’s 2015 audit of sound collections across the UK as being unique and important, but also being at risk due to the loss of playback equipment and the risk of tape decay and CD rot. However, Special Collections also holds other sound collections, including interviews from the University’s 50 Voices project, celebrating its 50th anniversary and the oral history interviews of the Archive of Resistance Testimony.

For more information on Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, follow @KeepSounds on Twitter or the Keep Sounds blog www.keep-sounds.com

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Posted in Special Collections, The Keep, UOSH (Unlocking Our Sound Heritage)

Football, poetry and fables -the surprising features in BLDS African port harbour magazines

By Danny Millum – BLDS Metadata and discovery officer

There are many fascinating rabbit holes to explore in the BLDS Legacy Collection, and you often come across them in the most unexpected places. Perhaps this just shows our limited imagination, but when we first came across a run of journals relating to different African ports and harbour authorities our hearts didn’t leap with excitement. File under “worthy but dull” and move on was definitely the first reaction to a front cover like this:

Front cover of Cameroon inter-ports magazine - black and white image of a harbour in Cameroon
Cameroon Inter-Ports

And let’s face it, if you were asked what you thought lay within the pages of Cameroon Inter-Ports – Organe du Liaison et d’Information de l’Office National des Ports du Cameroun you would have been forgiven for thinking it would just be; tables, charts, reports and the odd institutional history. However, in order to catalogue these items we have to have a leaf through them, and when we did so we found a much richer and more idiosyncratic world than we could possibly have expected.

To start with, there was a sports section. The page below reports on a triumphant season for the Port Foot-Ball Club in 1981-82, winning the cup and coming second in the coastal league:

Image of sports page with black and white photo of a football match
‘Une saison sportive heureuse’ (a happy sporting season) – Cameroon inter-ports

They obviously took it seriously as well, as half the page seems to be taken up with references to how mediocre the team had been in the past, with the hope that this change in fortune augured well for 1982-83. (Please note this assessment is dependent on our extremely shaky French and corrections are welcome!) For those who want to find out how it all panned out next season we believe we have a complete run of the magazine! More surreal than this is the humour and poetry section:

Image of the poetry and humour page in Cameroon inter-ports magazine
Poésie-Poésie (poetry-poetry) and humour interports

Again, this is mostly in French, but the first gag runs something as follows:

A freighter lands for the first time in a desert island far away from the usual sea routes. The captain disembarks to do a reconnaissance. He comes upon an old man with a beard down to his knees…

‘What are you doing here?’

‘I don’t know…’

‘Why did you come to this island?’

‘To forget?’

‘To forget what?’

‘I’ve forgotten.’

It kind of feels like something may have been lost in translation here – although on the same page the poem in English about tyres is if anything, more confusing…

It soon became clear, though, that journals and content of this kind are not limited to Cameroon, and that Somalia and Tanzania could give the West Africans a run for their money.

Front cover of Bandari Zatu - East African Harbours Corporation - newspaper style
Bandari Zatu – East African Harbours Corporation

The BLDS Legacy Collection also holds what appears to be a unique run of Bandari Zetu – Organ of the East African Harbours Corporation, a journal in Swahili and English which contains a potent mix of port news sprinkled with more creative content, including this fantastic Aesopean tale, the morals of which the BLDS team have taken as a code to live by:

Image of article 'if you are unhappy'
Somali Ports – If you are unhappy

The East African Harbours Corporation seems to have been part of the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation – which itself turns out to have been immortalised in song by the great Roger Whittaker. Check out ‘The Good Old E A R and H’ here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qwmb6WtyEUQ.

Obviously, we’re trapped at home at the moment, and so the only follow-up research I could do for this post is online. But the very fact that there is so little information on the web relating to the institutions, and journals described above is in itself further evidence of the importance of the collection. The long runs of port authority journals that are held for both West and East Africa are crucial primary sources for anyone wanting to write, not just the ‘serious’ history of transport, trade and commerce in these regions in the post-independence decades but also, possibly even more importantly, they are goldmines of ephemeral information relating to the culture of these workplaces and the people employed there.

It’s an obvious point, but as the examples above show, these dockworkers, engineers and sailors were not just employees, but also poets, comedians and footballers.

(First posted on The University of Sussex Library staff blog April 2020)

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Posted in BLDS (British Library for Development Studies), IDS

Out of the box – a look at our exciting new digital collection on JSTOR

By Rose Lock – Special Collections Supervisor

Although there is a great joy and value in holding an original archival document in your hands, for many reasons this is not always possible. At Special Collections we are constantly seeking new ways for researchers to view our collections; so we are delighted to be able to share this selection of over 900 items from our archives, online via JSTOR. The selection ranges from Ludwig Marx’s poetry of exile from our German Jewish Family Archives, to the 1986 Christmas Day diaries from the volunteer writers of the Mass Observation Project’s Observing the 1980s collection, by way of some typically Sussex student material on Campaigns and Movements.

Image of title page of Ludwig Marx's 'Living at the farm' includes a black & white watercolour image of the farmhouse through trees'
Title page of Ludwig Marx’s ‘Living at the farm‘ Ludwig Marx Papers – part of German Jewish Family Archive SxMs91/2/2/13

My personal highlights include:

From the Observing the 1980’s ephemera collection, girls in ‘male’ jobs?: a research report 1987 from the Young Women’s Christian Association of Great Britain, which seeks to encourage and aid ‘young women in non-traditional training and work’ such as engineering and construction. It looks into the experiences of women working and undertaking apprenticeships in male dominated areas and the general trends in what were thought of as ‘male’ or ‘female’ jobs.

Photo of cover of 'girls in 'male' jobs?
Girls in ‘male’ jobs?

Home-made flyers, such as the one below, from the University of Sussex – Student campaigns and movements collection are an anachronism these days, making us assess just how quickly the world has turned digital. Advertising an Open Forum on Latin America, its handwritten title and poor copying jolts us back to 1976 and reminds those of us old enough; to remember just how difficult it was to advertise small events.

Image of the flyer 'Open forum on Latin America'
Open forum on Latin America SxUOS-5-5-1-3

And my favourite thing of all, is that they are free to access for all!

If you would like any further information about these collections, or any of our archive collections then please do visit The Keep website or email specialcollections.supervisor@sussex.ac.uk 

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Posted in Special Collections, The Keep

Chloe Dobson: my favourite online collections

By Chloe Dobson – Collection Development Librarian

Part of our role in Collection Development is to find online resources which support the teaching of the University. I am going to be highlighting two of my favourites in this week’s blog post (to discover your own search our Online Resources A-Z or Online Subject Guides).

Screenshot of the University of Sussex's Library online resources homepage
The Library’s online resources home page

Along with my colleagues I get excited when we discover an online resource which is packed full of beautifully scanned images of incredible collections, like Nineteenth Century UK periodicals and the Women’s Magazine Archive, both of which provide a unique insight into our social and cultural history via articles, adverts and stunning hi-res imagery.

Nineteenth Century UK Periodicals is a joy to use and covers 90 titles published during the popular magazine publishing boom of the 19th Century. It is strong in publications aimed at women and children from all walks of life and includes intriguing titles such as; The British Mothers’ Magazine (1845-1863), the Girls’ Own Paper (1880-1900) Myra’s Journal of Fashion and Dress (1875-1900) and the Union Jack: Tales for British Boys (1880-1883)

Screenshot of Nineteenth century UK periodicals front page
Nineteenth century UK periodicals

Searching with keywords is straightforward and you can limit by type of document, or publication, which is great for looking at adverts, illustrations or editorial pieces, as well as allowing users to compare and contrast their results across publications.

The Women’s Magazine Archive is another gem, featuring seven leading publications with a U.S focus spanning the entire period from the late 19th century to the early 21st. Issues are scanned cover-to-cover, with excellent image quality and full-text searching. They are an amazing resource for both advertising, and articles. We have been known to spend many an hour getting lost in the world of corset advertising (but don’t tell anyone).

Screen shot of Women's Magazine Archive front page
Women’s Magazine Archive

The publications available in this archive include Better Homes and Gardens (Jul 1922 – Dec 2005), Good Housekeeping (May 2, 1885 – Dec 2005), Parents (Oct 1926 – Dec 2005) and, the Ladies Home Journal (Dec 1885 – Dec 2005), which provide detailed insights into home life, fashion and culture of the times. As a compliment to this fabulous online resource we are lucky to hold printed copies of Woman’s Own magazine (1941-74) which can be consulted in the Reading Room at The Keep. Special Collections’ Rose Lock has written about the collection here which includes a link to the full catalogue record.

For students to be able to easily access authoritative content online has always been incredibly important to us, but the events of this year have further highlighted how valuable they really are – so do check out our full Online Resources A-Z or Online Subject Guides to find out what the Library has to offer.

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Posted in Collection Development, Special Collections, The Keep

Silk, society and scandal: the archive of Jeremy Hutchinson QC

By Richard Wragg – University of Sussex Library Collections Manager

We are pleased to announce that the archive of Jeremy Hutchinson, Baron Hutchinson of Lullington QC (1915 – 2017), was allocated to the University of Sussex earlier this year through the Acceptance in Lieu Scheme. The Scheme provides a mechanism by which nationally significant cultural property can be sold and made available to the public in lieu of the owner paying an inheritance tax.  

Jeremy Hutchinson was a celebrated barrister, considered by many of his generation to be the finest silk in practice at the criminal bar. He famously served on the team defending Penguin Books over their publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The archive contains Hutchinson’s annotated court transcripts from the trial, his lists of witnesses, and correspondence. Also included is a rare signed first edition of Lawrence’s novel inscribed ‘In remembrance and honour of the great victory’ which was gifted to Hutchinson by his mother Mary.

It is said that Hutchinson was the model for John Mortimer’s Rumpole. One highlight of a decades-long career was his defence of director Michael Bogdanov of the National Theatre, after counsel for Mary Whitehouse had complained that an actor’s penis was visible on stage during a performance of Bogdanov’s production of The Romans in Britain. A private prosecution was brought, with the director being accused of having ‘procured an act of gross indecency’ contrary to the Sexual Offences Act of 1956. Bogdanov faced the prospect of spending up to three years in prison. However, in a memorable moment, and to much laughter in court, Hutchinson thrust his clenched fist and protruding thumb through his gown and suggested that Whitehouse’s star witness may have been mistaken about what he had seen. Realising the game was up, the prosecution was dropped with both sides claiming the win – Hutchinson had ensured his client’s freedom whilst Whitehouse, believing her point made, perceived a moral victory.

When Christine Keeler was tried for perjury it was Hutchinson who defended her. He represented the drug-smuggler Howard Marks, the art forger Thomas Keating and the spies George Blake and John Vassall. Letters written to Hutchinson by Blake from Wormwood Scrubs have already been found and we hope for further discoveries once cataloguing work begins.

Away from his legal career, Hutchinson served in the Royal Navy during World War II. He was aboard HMS Kelly when it sank, an incident which inspired Noel Coward’s famous piece of wartime propaganda In Which We Serve. As the Labour Party’s candidate for Westminster in the 1945 general election, Hutchinson’s canvasing activities took him to 10 Downing Street where he asked to speak to the occupant, Winston Churchill. 

Image shows a collection of black and white photos from the Hutchinson archive
Photos from the Hutchinson archive

Married to Peggy Ashcroft from 1940 to 1965 – their courtship began in Brighton where Ashcroft was appearing at the Theatre Royal – Hutchinson was well known to many writers, artists and public figures. The various events and relationships which were significant to Jeremy’s life are well-represented in the archive. Also of great interest is the correspondence to his parents from their wide circle of friends. Mary Hutchinson was a writer, socialite and member of the Bloomsbury Group, her husband, St John, was a barrister and politician. Five letters from D.H. Lawrence to St John detail the seizure of his manuscripts, a curious foreshadowing to Jeremy’s later representation of Penguin. The names of those who are represented in the archive reads like a who’s who of twentieth century society and includes T.S. Eliot, Henri Matisse, Virginia Woolf, Stanley Spencer and Duncan Grant.

In a twist to the story, we were recently alerted to the sale of a diary dating from 1910, written by Mary and St John. We are delighted to record our gratitude to the Friends of The Keep Archives (FoTKA) for not only highlighting the sale but also purchasing the diary on our behalf.

The Hutchinson archive is very much a family collection. Interestingly, initial investigations suggest there is no clear break between Jeremy’s papers and those of his parents. Shared interests – in literature, art and theatre – are evident throughout the archive and many friendships remained in place. Jeremy, for instance, maintained his mother’s close association with the Bloomsbury Group and was a regular and welcome visitor at Charleston. These social, cultural and even legal continuities give the archive particular depth and we look forward to making it available to researchers at The Keep.

A version of this text first appeared in the FoTKA Newsletter.

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Posted in Special Collections, The Keep

‘Like a child in a candy store’ Gerardo Serra delves into the BLDS Legacy Collection

Before the spleen of writing, editing (and re-writing and re-editing) sets in, there is a fleeting moment in which the historian is like a child in a candy store, starry-eyed and gleefully lost. I experienced such a moment when, in 2016, I walked into the basement of what was then the British Library for Development Studies (BLDS) (the library attached to the Institute of Development Studies). As a historian of 20th-century West Africa, I couldn’t believe my eyes: not only was I facing an astounding collection of postcolonial government publications and academic journals from the continent, but it was all laid out in front of me on open shelves. Each shelve shone, the dust sparkled with possibilities.

During my time as temporary lecturer at Sussex, I made extensive use of the Library. With the encouragement and enthusiastic collaboration of the wonderful Library staff, I brought the undergraduate students taking my postcolonial African history module to identify the primary sources on which to build their term papers. The results were exciting – and immensely varied, dealing with issues such as economic planning in Ghana, activism and protest in South Africa, and the social roots of Boko Haram. I spent my last week at Sussex frantically taking pictures of parliamentary debates, pamphlets on the Biafra war, and academic journals published by Nigerian and Ghanaian universities.

Front cover of the pamphlet Somali women in socialist construction, showing statue of woman on a plinth
Somali women in socialist construction – 1975

Leaving aside the impact they had on my research and teaching, it is difficult to convey the importance and significance of the BLDS (currently being catalogued by University of Sussex Library staff) African collections. An important part of their value has to do with the sheer rarity of a significant part of the material. Compared with the holdings of other institutions, shaped more directly by Britain’s colonial trajectory, these collections stand out for the wealth of material from Francophone and Lusophone countries. As many of these countries remain severely under-studied in British universities, it is comforting to know that students could immerse themselves in sources from countries other than from Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa (in my experience, some of the favourites of students approaching colonial and postcolonial African history). The systematic way in which the IDS built its collections from the 1960s led it to accumulate material on countries that remain largely absent in British repositories. Over the past few decades, several African countries have experienced a decline in their capacity to preserve historical records, the consequence of issues as diverse as conflict and lack of funding for university and institutional archives. There is a tragic irony in the fact that some records preserved in the Sussex Library would be difficult to retrieve and access in the countries that produced them. Somalia, where a protracted civil war and political instability has taken a heavy toll on the country’s institutional memory, is a case in point. I was particularly struck by the richness and diversity of the material from the Siyaad Barre era, with publications as varied as the research on camels sponsored by the Somali Academy of Sciences and Arts, pamphlets of the Supreme Revolutionary Council, and statistics of the National Banana Board.

“I have no doubts that scholars across disciplines … would also see the immense potential of these collections, and find plenty of reasons to make Sussex (alongside better known repositories, such as the National Archives at Kew, SOAS or the British Library) a key destination for scholars with an interest in postcolonial Africa.us to raise.”

However, the (ever-changing) value of all historical sources lies in the questions they allow us to raise. From this point of view, the wealth represented by these collections is difficult to convey. Firstly, these collections provide invaluable entry points into how postcolonial African states work and imagine themselves. The state occupies a central and yet contested status in our attempt to come to terms with Africa’s past. It has been depicted as either too strong or too weak, the epitome of a context-specific rationality or the triumph of excess and corruption, the inevitable evolution of precolonial and colonial structures, or the outcome of contingent factors, a developmental agent strangled by neo-colonialist forces or a criminalised and rhizomatic entity. The wide diversity in this collection allows to observe closely the multiple realms, practices and discursive formations in which the state manifests itself, and to subject it to questions and methods associated with different disciplines. Thus, these government publications can inform with the same naturalness an ethnographic study of planning and temporalities, a comparative analysis of fiscal capacity, revenue composition and public debts, a policy paper on the impact of structural adjustment policies on agriculture and child mortality, or a cultural history of ports and infrastructures.  

Front cover of Citazioni del presidente del CRS - drawing of Jalle Mohamed Siyad Barre surrounded by supporters
Citazioni del presidente del CRS – Jalle Mohammed Siyaad Barre

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to impose too strict a teleology – and thus make the postcolonial nation-state the ‘natural’ successor to colonial empires. In the years of decolonization, Africans imagined many political, economic and cultural alternatives to a world of ‘Balkanised’ nation-states. If the African Union’s (formerly Organisation of African Unity) publications represent a somehow obvious point to trace the evolution of the Pan-African imagination, these collections facilitate a holistic appraisal of the forms of institutional cooperation and the networks of solidarity envisaged in Africa in the second half of the 20th century. Indeed, these collections are a precious window onto a much more complicated and fragmented ecology that includes less studied institutions like the All Africa Conference of Churches and the Pan-African Postal Union.

Nor would it be accurate to reduce discussions of ‘decolonisation’ to the quest for alternative political and economic arrangements. The political struggle was – and is – paralleled by an epistemic one – one for ways of interpreting and constructing reality informed by the specificities of African experiences and perspectives. From this point of view, this collection remains an invaluable resource to observe closely the methodological concerns, the theoretical reference points and the empirical strategies employed by African scholars and institutions. How did they change, and why? What do these changes tell us about their perception of the relevance and the political implications of Western epistemologies? How does it speak of the political context in which these contributions were conceived? How easily did they travel outside their context of inception, and what were the epistemic and practical obstacles that prevented their further dissemination? Whether one is interested in how Burkinabé scholars discussed Marx under Thomas Sankara, in what historians in 1960s Nigeria thought about oral evidence, or in South African economists’ stance on racism and oppression during apartheid, these collections stand like palm trees waiting to be tapped.

Front cover of New era magazine - 2 black and white photos; 3 Somalian children reading a newspaper and a man in sunglasses holding a baby
New era – Waaga cusub, Feb 1973

The list of possible questions that the holdings in the BLDS Legacy Collection could help raise and address could go on. This casual attempt to convey the importance of these collections has been inevitably conditioned by my research interests. Yet I have no doubts that scholars across disciplines interested in other issues would also see the immense potential of these collections, and find plenty of reasons to make Sussex (alongside better known repositories, such as the National Archives at Kew, SOAS or the British Library) a key destination for scholars with an interest in postcolonial Africa. On the other hand, through the preservation, digitisation and sharing of some of these records with African institutions, the Collection could become a global player committed to restoring and encouraging the continent’s institutional memory.

Gerardo Serra is Presidential fellow of Economic Cultures at the University of Manchester

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