Ephemera galore

On Saturday, 18 May the Senate House Library Friends held a seminar about ephemera, which the Library supported with a talk by archivist Richard Temple and with a small display. We devoted half of the display to political ephemera held by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies Library: part of a collection which encompasses more than 270 boxes of material from over 60 countries, including current Commonwealth members, ex-members and even ex-colonies of other imperial powers. The collection includes material made by and for an extraordinarily wide variety of different political parties, trade unions and pressure groups, and includes pamphlets, leaflets, posters, badges, rosettes, stickers, and even paper hats and t-shirts. The display included items relating to South Africa’s 1994 election, the first since the end of apartheid; and a selection of items showing the variety of formats in the collection, several from political elections in Namibia, Australia, Barbados and Rhodesia.

The second part of the display demonstrated some of the diversity of ephemera held at Senate House Library, from playbills for performances at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, between 28 September 1825 and 23 June 1826 to a Victorian scrapbook containing 71 specimens of seaweed and to 1920s receipts for lecture hire for Harry Price’s National Laboratory of Psychological Research. These can shed light on collections. The scrapbook of seaweed was a gift, presumably to a member of the Durning-Lawrence family, by the wife of the zoologist John Edward Gray (1800-1875), a curator at the British Museum; Maria Gray arranged the algae in the herbaria at Kew Gardens and at the British Museum. The scrapbook thus is of botanical interest, in addition to showing something about the social circles of the Grays and the Durning-Lawrence family, and showing how even the most focussed library collections – Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence consistently described his collection as “Baconian” – can contain more personal, less focused material. Invoices, mainly book invoices, came with the named printed special collections which had belonged to Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence, Harry Price, and Sir Louis Sterling: these are invaluable for the insights they provide into how much money the collector had to spend, how aggressively and comprehensively he bought, and what his interests were at a particular time; comparison with the books in his library can also show what he once had and then discarded. 

Pamphlets, often bound, are likely to be the most common form of ephemera in any institutional library, and Senate House Library has abounded in them from the time it opened as the University of London Library in Burlington Gardens in 1877. For the display we selected suppressed pacifist pamphlets pertaining to the First World War – a reminder of ephemera’s power to penetrate social consciousness and its potential perceived danger.

Politcal ephemera, Instute of Commonwealth Studies

Political ephemera, Institute of Commonwealth Studies

Invoices from the Harry Price Archive

Invoices from the Harry Price Archive


Ruth First exhibition

To coincide with the Ruth First Papers project symposium, which took place on the 7th of June, the Library  has put up a small exhibition of material from the Ruth First and related archive collections.

Ruth First was a South African anti-apartheid activist, journalist and scholar who wrote and spoke on South Africa and more widely on Africa, carrying out important work on Namibia, Mozambique and Libya. This is one of a number of archive collections concerning apartheid and Southern Africa held within the Institute of Commonwealth Studies collection.

This exhibition concentrates on the period 1946-1964 when Ruth First was active in South Africa as both journalist and activist and includes material relating to the Bethal farm labour scandal, the Freedom Charter, the Treason Trial, the banning of the Guardian and the subsequent Freedom of the Press Conference of November 1951, Ruth First’s journalism, her banning and arrest and detention under the 90-day law.

The exhibition is on the fourth floor of Senate House, in the Membership Hall of the Senate House Library and admission is free (just say at the membership desk you wish to see the exhibition). The exhibition runs until the 21st of June.