Tall Tales and Shaping the Research of the Future

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

When I first saw the University Library as a new Cambridge student last October it looked like something from a dystopian novel. The library tower loomed above me – a modernist monument to humanity’s pursuit of knowledge. With the addition of a few slogans on the walls, I thought, it would fit right into Orwell’s 1984. What this says about my sense of trepidation embarking on a PhD aside, the library tower has long been a focus of mystery and myth since it was completed in 1934. Now, the new exhibition Tall Tales: Secrets of the Tower, which opened at the University Library earlier this month, uncovers some of its secrets for the first time.

As the exhibition points out, the inspiration for Orwell’s Ministry of Truth was, in fact, Senate House Library in London. In literature, we learn, towers have long been associated with knowledge and power. (I felt somewhat vindicated that I was not alone in my first impressions of the UL.) Tall Tales details the design of the tower by Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed the iconic K2 red telephone box. One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition is a postcard which replaces the UL tower with a telephone box in what turns out to be a striking resemblance. The exhibition carefully weaves this literary and architectural heritage into the story of the library tower and its collections, from 1710 when the Copyright Act extended Britain’s legal deposit system, to the present day.

Tall Tales debunks the student myth that the tower contains Victorian pornography. In fact, the tower’s collections are a hugely rich archive for social and cultural history over the last two hundred years. What was once classed as material of ‘secondary’ importance is now an invaluable resource for researchers. Some of the highlights include illustrations by J.R.R. Tolkien; there is a whole sub-collection devoted to works related to Tolkien’s writing. Some of the more unexpected titles include pamphlets on romance, rearing chickens and even noses. The library’s ‘arc’ collection (from the Latin arcana meaning hidden or secret), ranging from sexual science literature to erotic novels that were deemed unsuitable for the open shelves, was for many years kept not in the tower, but in the librarian’s office.

As a historian of Victorian and Edwardian childhood, the exhibition was a real gold mine. There are colourful novels by renowned Victorian children’s authors, beautifully illustrated dust jackets and a whole display case of immaculately preserved pop-up books and instructional reading games for children. A Girl’s Own Annual brought back memories of many painstaking hours of Master’s research.

The exhibition made me reflect on how far the historian’s work is shaped by archiving practices, past and present. What gets prioritised, catalogued and preserved at all in any given era defines the limits of future research. These archiving practices are inevitably shaped by contemporary understandings of what constitutes ‘real history’. Had it not been for copyright law, much of the earlier material within the tower’s collections may not have survived.

From a practical point of view, this means our sources may not be where we expect them. Institutional libraries can hold a surprising wealth of ephemera – material, ironically, that was not originally intended to be preserved at all. More importantly, though, outside of the six UK deposit libraries, it is more difficult to ensure that archives’ acquisition policies are future proofing for the ever-changing parameters of historical research. Is it right to assume that our current understanding of what informs ‘good history’ will hold true in ten, fifty, one hundred years? It would be wise to treat the now treasured place of the UL’s once ‘secondary collection’ not as a sign of how much more enlightened we are as historians in the twenty-first century, but as an ongoing challenge. We may still be (unintentionally) limiting the research of historians in the future.

The exhibition is open until 28 October 2018.

Image: Helen Sunderland

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