A small collection, a wide perspective: my placement and the 4 boxes of Rudolf Said-Ruete

In January the Library hosted Ivan Donadello, an MA student at UCL’s Department of Information Studies, on a two-week work placement. Ivan has kindly contributed the following piece on his time with us.

‘During my brief placement at Senate House Library, I was in a state of constant awe when walking up and down – and getting lost on – the floors of what was the first library I visited when I moved to London some years ago. The beautiful building and its features became somewhat of an every-day pleasure whilst I was discovering the best part of the library.

In fact, the two elements that made the experience in the Historic Collections so inspiring were books and staff. It is clear that enthusiastic and competent employees are key to making Senate House Library the unique place it is. From the cataloguing to the organisation of book exhibitions, to the digitisation of the material and its preservation, I had the chance to speak to members involved with rare and special collections as well as members of other departments. It is a necessity, more than mere good practise, to display those resources in every possible way, both physically and digitally, as the main risk would be to consider them solely as beautiful objects to be preserved having little relevance on current streams of research. Instead, innovations and successful ideas can spring from any sort of experience and libraries have lots to contribute in that respect.

Initially, the specific project for the placement involved the drafting of a list with proper bibliographic records of the items contained in 4 little boxes recently discovered in the Library’s Depository. Only labelled “Rudolf Said-Ruete”, they contained books, pamphlets, booklets and newspaper cuttings in English, French and German from the first decades of the 20th century. Even though the identification of the original owner was an easy task, it is still unknown how and why the material arrived at the library. Leaving this highly exciting mystery to the SHL staff, we can say that the collection itself is relatively small in dimension but broad and interesting in its content.

As the collector was a journalist with a passion for international affairs and politics, and the son of an Omani Princess and a German merchant, it was intriguing to discover elements of a highly connected world well before any claims of globalisation. The collection ranges from a pamphlet on the Panama Canal issued in 1909, to a very brief contribution on the German colonial question after the First World War, to a request for recognition of the Irish State to the American Government, to a French booklet on L’opium et l’alcool en Indochine. These are a few examples of the wide scope of the interests of Rudolf Said-Ruete.

What is also quite fascinating was his habit of collecting and literally sticking subject-related press cuttings or letters accompanying the item, or even business cards with the sender’s address, into the books. The object then becomes interesting in itself for the meaning it bears and the function it performs for the collector: an element of his personal identity, a working tool, a memory aid, a resource that is both archival and bibliographical.

From my personal perspective, the experience led me to consider the issue of Hidden Collections, as analysed by a report published last year by RLUK and The London Library. In particular, it would be interesting to investigate further the role of personal memory and its transmission within libraries and the means by which forgotten treasures and hidden collections are discovered.

To discover more about the history that this collection discloses, a good starting point would be Rudolf’s work on his family Said bin Sultan 1791-1856: ruler of Oman and Zanzibar, his place in the history of Arabia and East Africa. Rudolf’s mother, Emily Ruete, also wrote a very famous personal account, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess (New York, 1888), translated into English from the original German version, and An Arabian Princess between Two Worlds (Leiden, 1993).’


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