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What you didn't expect to find in the Royal Commonwealth Society collections in Cambridge University Library

This article first appeared in Cambridge University Libraries Information Bulletin (CULIB), issue 56, Lent 2005

Deep in the bowels of the UL, stored primarily in rolling stacks, is the UL's largest and possibly most diverse special collection – the Royal Commonwealth Society Library. The collection arrived in Cambridge in 1993 following a national appeal to save it for the nation.

The "Library" has large numbers of published books, from the earliest, thought to be Viaggio da Venetia al S. Sepolcro… Bassano, c.1540, to the most recent, published around 1990, periodicals, including annual reports and directories and a few rare newspapers, and official publications both produced locally in the colonies/Commonwealth and in London. There are also microfilms, mainly reproductions of RCS archives, made for preservation reasons. There are numerous manuscripts, for example hand-written accounts of life as a district officer or rubber planter in Malaya and 19th century water-colours depicting distant corners of the British Empire as well as over 80,000 photographs, ranging from lantern slides to cine films and including hundreds of albums depicting lands as far apart as Spitsbergen and South Georgia. There are also a small number of audio and musical recordings, artefacts, ranging from a slave shackle from the West Indies to Aboriginal Australian glass spearheads made from telegraph insulators, and ephemera including medals, posters, railway timetables and swatches of the fabric used to decorate the rooms in HMS Renown occupied by Princess Mary during her tour of India in 1905 and 1906.

Not only are the RCS collections themselves diverse in nature, but so too are the users of the library. RCS library users, as you would expect include visiting academics and students from overseas, as well as undergraduates, graduates and academics from universities all over Britain. But they also include large numbers of picture researchers – newspaper and radio journalists, professional free-lance picture researchers, often working for TV or video production companies and large numbers of retired members of the public. This latter group are interested in tracing family members who they believe to have had a Commonwealth/British Empire connection, but are not always too sure about dates or places! A significant proportion of this group are attempting to verify that a relative, often their late husband, was a prisoner of war in the notorious Sime Road and Changi Japanese camps in Singapore. The RCS holds many manuscript records from the camps including incredibly brittle thin paper lists of camp internees, with internees arranged by sex, giving age and date interned. These records can be essential documents to prove eligibility for War Pensions and much research in the collection has been done by the Veterans Agency to assist such claimants.

Managing such a "special collection" requires a much broader skill-set than most librarians acquired at library school. The distinctions between archivists, librarians and museum curators have eroded recently, but special librarians still need to understand the different international standards to which each group aspires. Often the choice of standards is dictated by the preferences of grant-awarding bodies or the limitations of existing in-house software. But it is necessary to understand how the standards and rules differ and essential to invest in appropriate staff training. Visits to museums and archives and discussions with colleagues engaged in similar work are essential.

Readers' expectations, especially those wishing to consult archival sources, have increased exponentially during the past few years. Students increasingly see archives as virtual collections and the librarian's task is no longer solely one of providing web-access to hand lists and catalogues, but involves digitisation projects on an ever-increasing scale. Picture researchers, in particular, work to very tight deadlines and demand very fast turn-around. Meeting users' expectations, or at least attempting to meet their perceived minimum requirements, now presents librarians with an enormous challenge. Funds need to be raised on an unprecedented scale at a time of financial cutbacks across the University. Fund-raising now occupies a large amount of any archivist's/special librarian's time and is a new skill to most of them.

In the case of the RCS library, new and retrospective cataloguing of its collections is likely to take decades to complete. The collection has benefited from a generous bequest and several small donations but fund-raising and grant applications still occupy 20% of the librarian's time. Management priorities have been determined, in large part, by ease of fund-raising for particular sub-collections, manuscript and photographic archives attracting most interest. Attracting funds to conserve and retrospectively catalogue long runs of colonial official publications, directories, annual reports, monographs, or pamphlets is much harder. Other priorities have been sub-collections for which there is heaviest demand for web-access, unique or manuscript materials and material for which there is currently no catalogue at all.

Adam Matthew Publications have microfilmed substantial numbers of RCS colonial and imperial monographs, pamphlets and journal articles as part of their microfilm series: Empire and Commonwealth. Part 1, The colour question in imperial policy c1830–1939, was filmed a couple of years ago, and filming of part 2 will begin this Spring, focussing on Imperial and Commonwealth Conferences 1887–1955. RCS collections have also been incorporated in Adam Matthew Publications' online publication Empire Online, but sadly it is beyond the budget of the University Library to purchase this. They also filmed RCS African manuscript archives for their publication: Africa through official eyes: …original manuscripts from the Royal Commonwealth Society Library at Cambridge University Library (2000). The University Library holds this title. The University Library has itself microfilmed several RCS archives and a small number of periodicals for preservation reasons, including much of the British Association of Malaysia archive, incorporating fragile prisoner of war papers and camp records from Singapore.

As the Librarian of the RCS Library and the Centre of South Asian Studies, it has been impossible to undertake much archival cataloguing or digitisation work myself. Project working has been the norm, with cataloguers employed on short-term contracts, extended as and when additional funds can be found and photographic work paid for on a contract basis. This is far from ideal for the staff involved and has increased costs to the Library. Yet, despite staff-turnover and a disproportionate amount of time and money spent on recruitment and training, much progress has been made and all RCS cataloguers and project staff, past and present, are to be congratulated on their huge achievements. The inclusion of the RCS Photograph Project website in SOSIG, the Social Science Information Gateway in July 2004 is an example.

Photographic enquiries have doubled during the life of the project. Where as in 2002 117 enquiries related to photograph requests (22% of distant enquiries), in 2004-5 (in just 6 months), 174 have been received, now representing nearly 33% of distant enquiries. The benefits to distant enquirers of Google indexing and retrieval are immense. Demand exists to expand the photograph project, so the need to fund-raise continues.

Whilst this is not the place to discuss any RCS project in any detail, the RCS Photograph Project website is a good place to learn more about the history and diversity of the RCS Library, to climb aboard the Royal Train and follow Princess Mary and the Prince of Wales, on two tours of India in 1905 and 1906, to view amazing images from all corners of the former British Empire and today's Commonwealth, as well as to discover more about the technical and international digitisation and archival standards followed during the course of the photograph project.

Rachel M Rowe

Smuts Librarian for South Asian and Commonwealth Studies

Contact us

Please address enquiries about RCS holdings to:

RCS Curator
Cambridge University Library
West Road