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Picture from the Royal Commonwealth Society archives
An itinerant musician in the Semiem Mountains, Ethiopa; photograph by H. E. Hebbert, 1943.

Thanks to a generous grant of $40,000 made possible by the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation of New York, 2003 will see the launch of an exciting new project to make the archive and manuscript catalogues of the Royal Commonwealth Society Library searchable across the internet. The grant was from Cambridge in America.
A published catalogue of collections in the RCS in 1975 can be consulted in libraries, but scholars wishing to discover those collections acquired since that date need to make the journey to Cambridge to scan the folders containing handwritten and typed descriptions, mostly at collection-level.
Nearly 200 collections have been acquired since 1975. These include records of interest to a wide range of academic researchers: anthropologists, medical historians, social historians, lawyers, art historians and natural scientists, as well as to family historians, the media and commercial picture researchers.
Recently, considerable use has been made of the British Association of Malaysia (BAM) archive by the Veterans Agency and the families of pensioners living as far afield as Australia and the Far East who need proof of internment as a condition of their pension claims. The BAM archive contains unique lists of the internees at the infamous Second-World-War Changi and Sime Road prisons in Singapore.
The following examples give a taste of the geographical richness and variety of the collections to be catalogued:

  • Ocean Island litigation records 1975-1976 - a large collection including evidence, judgements, pleadings and documents of evidence resulting from a writ, issued in 1971, by leaders of the Banabans against the Attorney General and the British Phosphate Commissioners claiming compensation for the use of Ocean Island, home of the Banabans, for the mining of phosphates
  • The Gifford collection of prints and watercolours of St Helena
  • The Thomas collection relating to Uganda and East Africa, including photographs and preparatory work for the Dictionary of East African biography
  • The Newton collection of autobiographical and biographical material of importance to scholars working on the social history of Singapore and Malaya, including some very fine panoramic photographs
  • The Mary Alexandria Ward collection, relating to her nursing career, which paints a vivid picture of health
  • conditions and medical practice in West Africa
  • The Sir Philip Crampton Smyly collection relating to the community and wildlife of Sierra Leone.

The grant is sufficient for a twelve-month project to sort and catalogue these collections at collection or sub-collection level to international standards and to make this catalogue available over the Internet via the Library’s ‘Newton’ portal. The catalogue will be produced using the same database as that designed by the Cambridge Archivists Group and currently being used in the RCS Photographs Project. This will enable researchers of the future to search simultaneously for photographs, manuscripts or other archives in the Royal Commonwealth Society collections.
Not surprisingly, use of these unique and valuable archives is expected to rise, and the Library is now seeking funds to allow it to conserve the records and produce microfilm or digital copies of some of the delicate documents. Yet more funding is required to sort, list, catalogue and conserve several very recent acquisitions, including the Dean family and Falkland Islands Company archive, and several fine photographic archives, including those of the late Professor Fergus Wilson and Colonel H. E. Hebbert.