Treasure in the Archives

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60By hook and by crook I managed to find myself in our University Library Special Collections the other day.   I imagine that most well established universities have such collections, places where valuable, sometimes priceless, volumes and  documents are stored.  Ostensibly, the group I was with was there to look at books with illlustrations and we saw some remarkable examples, many of them hand drawn and some of them dating back as far as the fourteenth century.  However, like most such institutions, the university archives  specialise in particular areas of scholarship. We have a very fine collection of Islamic documents and there was much publicity two years ago when it was ascertained that among them was one of the earliest surviving fragments of the Qur’an.  We staged an exhibition around the fragment in early Autumn 2015 and that is now touring in Arab countries to give as many people as possible the chance to see it.  The Islamic collection I knew about, but I was amazed to discover that we hold the archive of Noel Coward.  I have no idea why.  As far as I know there is no direction connection, but I tell you this, those are documents I would certainly like to get my hands on some day.

Probably our most important collections, however, are the archives of nineteenth and twentieth century politicians.  The university’s first chancellor was Joseph Chamberlain. As a self-made businessman, he himself had never attended university and had contempt for the aristocracy but he did want to see his own city with “a great school of universal instruction” so that “the most important work of original research should be continuously carried on under most favourable circumstances”. He served first in local politics and then, at the age of thirty-nine, entered the House of Commons relatively late in life compared to politicians from more privileged backgrounds. He rose to hold high office in several ministries and was followed into politics by his two sons, Austen and Neville. The archives of all three are held in our Special Collections.

Austen led the Conservatives in the Commons in 1921–22 and, as Foreign Secretary, negotiated the Locarno Pact (1925), aimed at preventing war between France and Germany.  For this he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was one of the few MPs to support Winston Churchill’s appeals for rearmament against the German threat in the 1930s, which of course, brings us to his half-brother, Neville.

If Neville Chamberlain is remembered for one thing it is his return to England in 1938 having met with the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, and his declaration that he had negotiated ‘peace in our time’.  This week I saw the handwritten notes that Chamberlain made when he returned to his hotel room after that historic meeting.  It felt as if I was looking at the very fate of the world.

But, the document which really left me gasping was something of a one-off, not being part of any larger collection.  There in our archives is one of only two copies of the marriage agreement between Mary Tudor and Philip of Spain, a document carefully drawn up by Stephen Gardner, Mary’s Lord Chancellor to ensure that should there be no children or should Mary pre-decease Philip then the Spaniard would have no claim of any sort on the English throne.  He and the Queen May have wanted a catholic marriage, but Gardner was savvy enough to know that the English would never tolerate a foreign ruler.  I forgot to ask whether the document is on paper or parchment, but it is definitely written in English so that all would know just what was being agreed to.  As far as I could see all Philip really got out of it was the title King of England, but given that on his father’s abdication he inherited the thrones of Spain and the Spanish Netherlands, the addition of an English base meant that he surrounded the French and I suspect that was a strong motivation behind the match.

The afternoon left me wondering just what else is stored away, not only in our Special Collections but in all those others around the country as well. The Head of the collection reckoned that we have as much, if not more, uncatalogued as catalogued. What hidden gems might be waiting, like that fragment of the Qur’an, still to be discovered? Inevitably I start to ask whether there is a copy of Love’s Labour’s Won out there somewhere, although that is probably asking a lot. But what would you most like to see if you could have the choice of any document ever produced? The possibilities are endless.

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9 thoughts on “Treasure in the Archives

  1. Dos the niversity make these treasures visible or do you have to have special access to see them as you did? As you say there will be plenty of similar treasures in other academic institutions around the country so you’ve got me wondering what might be at my nearest university and how could I find out. I’d love to see original manuscripts by some of our esteemed writers – I saw one from Charlotte. Bronte one at the British Museum and marvelled at how tiny her handwriting was.

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    • There should be an online catalogue of what each university knows they have, but as our head of special collections said, most places have more items that they haven’t yet got round to assessing than those they have. There is also the question of whether or not the general public have access to those catalogues which I suspect will vary from institution to institution. Our special collections puts on regular exhibitions which are accessible to the public – if they know about them and where to find them. They could be much better advertised. We also borrow relevant material for our temporary exhibitions in the gallery. Last summer, when we had an exhibition of portraits of patrons and poets contemporary with Shakespeare, we ‘purloined’ their copy of the First Folio. I just used to go and stand and drool! I would try going onto your university website and seeing what information is readily available.

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  2. My partner works at Bristol University where they have the Penguin archive. I once went there as part of a press opne day when I was working in magazines. For me, as an ex-bookseller as well as a books reviews editor, it was an anorak’s delight! I also remember a guided tour at the British Library which was annouced over the PA as I was having lunch with a freind. We forewent pudding and were rewarded with a memorable and fascinating afternoon. Must do it again.

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    • For one wonderful moment my brain chose to overlook the capital P on Penguin and I had visions of all visitors to Bristol being required to bring fish with them in order to gain acesss. But I can understand the delight at seeing that. Do they have the Puffin archive as well? I like the fact that the British Library have tours although I suppose that it is easier for them to do that, given that they have the more ‘regular’ type of visitor, than it would be for a university.

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  3. I am lucky enough to work in archives, and I got my start as a student in university and college archives. It was seeing a letter from Woodrow Wilson that suddenly made the history I was studying seem much more real. I’ve never seen anything older than the 17th century in the archives where I’ve worked. But I remember in the library at Hatfield, seeing document signed by Elizabeth and Mary and the Cecils, and wanting (despite the rules & my training) to touch them.

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    • Yes, it’s that driving urge to feel that you are touching something that was held by people who otherwise might seem almost fictional. If I can hold something they held then they must have been real.

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  4. I’d like to see an 18th century broadside satire that wasn’t deemed good enough to be put on microfiche and so has been lost.
    One time at the Folger Library in Washington, D.C. I ordered a copy of an 18th-century broadside satire and when I started reading it, I found marginal notes by Southey, the poet Byron made so much fun of. His marginal notes were reasonably intelligent, as I recall.
    Incidentally, Connie Willis has a new story about this in the most recent edition of Asimov’s magazine–it’s called “I Met a Traveller from an Antique Land.”

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    • Jeanne, you make a terrifying point about the amount of material that has been lost. However, much these archives hold there must be so much more that has simply been destroyed. The incident with the Southey notes is reassuring to those of us who like to marginalia while we’re reading. Someday it might have a real interest value!

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