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The RCS library, Northumberland Avenue, c. 1931

The Society, known successively as the Colonial Society, the Royal Colonial Institute, the Royal Empire Society and finally the Royal Commonwealth Society, was established in 1868 with the objective of providing a meeting place for gentlemen connected with, or interested in, the British colonies. Its founding members were keen that the Society be seen as an intellectual endeavour and the creation of a colonial library was considered essential to the Society's aims. Indeed, at a meeting to discuss its foundation, the Right Honourable Chichester Fortescue declared: 'the formation...of a colonial library, to which all interested in the welfare of the colonies should have access...would be one of the most useful portions of your proposed scheme' (RCI, Proceedings 1869, p.6; also quoted in: Mackenzie 1998, p.168). Women, incidentally, were admitted under associate status in 1909, and from 1922 could become Fellows.

The early years saw a slow but steady increase in library holdings. One of the Society's first acts was to petition colonial governments for parliamentary and financial papers (RCI, Council Minutes, 3rd November 1868). However, it was not until the 1880s that the Society's attention truly began to focus on its library. In January 1880 the Library Committee met for the first time, recommending an annual grant of £25 for book purchases (RCI, Library and Museum Committee Minutes, 27 Jan. 1880). This meeting heralded a period of significant progress and the following year saw the appointment of the first salaried librarian - J.S. O'Halloran (RCI, Proceedings 1880-1881, p.403). These developments were reflected in terms of acquisitions and by 1887 the library had grown to 5507 volumes and 1784 pamphlets (RCI, Library and Museum Committee Minutes, 25th Jan. 1887).

Whilst the Society grew rapidly, it was a several years before it acquired a permanent headquarters. Until May 1869 the Agent-General for Victoria, George Verdon, provided the Society with rooms. Adequate funds then permitted the renting of a suite in the Westminster Palace Hotel (RCI, Proceedings 1869, p.210). A series of moves followed but by the early 1880s it was no longer felt that hired rooms were suitable. After much procrastination the lease for a piece of land in Northumberland Avenue was acquired and a building fund established. A new six-storey building was completed in 1885. This accommodation soon proved to be somewhat cramped and the early 1900s saw considerable structural work. The expanded headquarters opened in December 1910 with the library occupying the entire first floor. However, within a few decades space was once again in short supply. The 1930s saw the purchase of a neighbouring building and the construction of a new headquarters across both the old and new sites (Rees 1968, pp.24-25, 93-94 and 132-133).

Throughout all the upheaval the library continued to grow and by the mid-1930s it consisted of over 244,000 items (Mackenzie 1998, p.169). Nevertheless, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the Society was in need of re-organisation, particularly in regard to financial matters. In the early 1930s the then Librarian wrote: 'Will Fellows who propose new books please note that the Library grant for the year 1932 has been cut by one half and with the best will in the world, it is not possible to purchase many of the books that are suggested' (Library Suggestions Book, quoted in Barringer 1994, p.2; see also: Rees 1968, p.193). However, the advent of the Second World War focused attention elsewhere and, for a few years, budgetary concerns became secondary.

With headquarters in London it was always probable that the Society's buildings would be affected by the Luftwaffe's raids. Two bombs hit the building in 1941, the most devastating on the night of April 16th. One member was killed, three people injured and the building severely damaged. Areas of the library were ruined and an estimated 35,000 volumes and 5,000 pamphlets and documents were lost. Recovery was difficult; appeals were made in the press and collection centres were established across the Empire. The War Damage Commission eventually awarded the library almost £22,000 but various decisions by the Society's Council led to the purchase of new volumes rather than the replacement of the lost stock (Rees 1968, pp.198-200).

The post-war years saw growing uncertainty for the library. Financial troubles once again loomed large on the horizon. In 1968 a major collection was sold to the National Library of Australia. However, it was the 1988 Tysoe Radley Report that marked the beginning of the end. Commissioned by the Society to advise on achieving financial viability, the report suggested the library was 'a dead thing' (Barringer, 1994, pp.3-4). Debate and dispute followed but by 1991 it had become evident that the Society's financial problems were far more pressing than generally envisioned. Apart from the building itself, the library was the Society's major asset. In May 1991 the Society's Council agreed that, were it to become necessary, they would sell the library. By late October postulation had turned to reality and it was announced that the library was to close by the end of the year (Barringer 1994, p.5).

The public announcement led to a flood of press attention. This, in turn, led to a growing fund raising campaign - an effort large enough to freeze all immediate plans for sale. In May 1993 'The Appeal to Acquire the RCS Library for the Nation' handed a cheque for £3m to the Society. Housing the library was a significant concern. The collection required considerable space and staff attention. Thoughts initially turned to London. However, Cambridge University Library soon emerged as the preferred choice. Cambridge had existing strengths in Imperial and Commonwealth Studies and, perhaps most importantly, had just added a spacious new extension. The move began on July 26th 1993 and lasted a fortnight. The Society's then Librarian, Terry Barringer, records that 700 metres of bubble wrap were used along with 1,500 metres of heavy duty sticky tape (1994, p.2 and pp.7-8).

The move to Cambridge is by no means the end of the library's story. Although new publications are no longer added to the RCS Library, it still occasionally acquires and accepts relevant manuscript or photographic archives. The library also remains popular with academics, researchers and family historians. Considerable effort is also being directed at improving access to the RCS holdings through cataloguing effors and digitisation projects. The RCS Library is far from 'a dead thing'.

Further reading:

Barringer, Terry (1994), 'The rise, fall and rise again of the Royal Commonwealth Society Library', African Research and Documentation, no. 64, pp.1-10.

Craggs, Ruth (2008), 'Situating the imperial archive: the Royal Empire Society Library, 1868-1945’, Journal of Historical Geography 34, pp. 48-67. 

Mackenzie, John (1998), 'The Royal Commonwealth Society Library'. In: Fox, P., ed. Cambridge University Library : the great collections, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rees, Trevor (1968), The history of the Royal Commonwealth Society 1868-1968, London: Oxford University Press.

Royal Colonial Institute, Council Minute Books (classmark: RCS/ARCS/1/4)

Royal Colonial Institute, Library and Museum Committee Minute Books (classmark: RCS/ARCS/9/9)

Royal Colonial Institute (1869-1909), Proceedings of the Royal Colonial Institute, 40 vols, London: Royal Colonial Institute (classmark: RCS.Per.2030).

Contact us

Please address enquiries about RCS holdings to:

RCS Curator
Cambridge University Library
West Road