The media isn’t exactly awash with left-wing propaganda. But trade union and socialist organisations have produced masses of their own literature – from propaganda to scholarly analysis – for years. And Senate House Library (SHL), University of London, has just made public a sample of an astonishing archive put together mainly from the middle to the end of the 20th century – The Ron Heisler collection.
It is the first component of a major ‘Radical Voices’ project being planned by SHL, with support from the Institute of Historical Research’s IHR Digital, to display some of its most impactful collections. This new resource showcasing the digitised highlights of the Ron Heisler pamphlet collection, continues a partnership that follows on from last year’s successful collaboration on Fashion and consumption in the First World War: department store catalogues 1916-17.
For historians, social scientists and politicos this collection is a valuable compendium of rare books, pamphlets, journals and newspaper titles. Built up by Ron Heisler over the last 50 years and still being added to by regular deposits of pamphlet-stuffed plastic bags, it currently consists of approximately 25,000 books, 20,000 pamphlets, 3,000 journal and newspaper titles and a quantity of ephemera. They relate to labour and radical political movements and political expression in art, drama and literature, and a selection of some of the most striking covers are now available to view on a vibrant new website.
The collection is particularly strong for Britain and Ireland, and includes items published by radical groups, friendly societies and the Chartists from the late-18th to the 20th centuries, and many publications of Trotskyist groups, the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party from the early to mid-20th century.
From the 1960s and 1970s, the holdings of New Left material are very extensive, and there are some rare publications from the women’s movement. There are also books and manuscripts covering Africa, particularly South Africa; Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and the West Indies; France, Germany, Italy and Spain (notably the Spanish Civil War); and the former Soviet Union. A substantial proportion of material in the collection are extremely rare or unique examples of political ephemera.
In order to promote the collection, the cataloguing of which is still ongoing, a selection of the most striking pamphlet covers have been digitised, and made available on a new web resource produced by the IHR Digital team. Where possible, contextual information about the pamphlets, and the issues they cover, has been provided.
The resource aims to give an example of the treasure trove of material that lies within the collection, to illustrate how ephemera can perform as a unique type of historical source material, and to act as an introduction to SHL’s Radical Voices project. Over the next year, under the Radical Voices umbrella, SHL plans to produce a series of events and resources centring around its various collections in this area – including the Grote library, the books and papers of pacifist Caroline Playne, the archive of Afro-Trinidadian journalist, activist and historian C. L. R. James, the Booth library, and many more – as well as drawing in other similar collections from across London.
Anyone interested in finding out more about this resource, or the Ron Heisler collection, can contact email@example.com.