A peek at the political ephemera of a 'delinquent' historian and collector extraordinaire

Monday 18 April 2016

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.

For historians, social scientists and politicos it’s a valuable compendium of rare books, pamphlets, journals and newspaper titles. 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 Ron Heisler collection provides highlights of a collection which encompasses some 25,000 books, 20,000 pamphlets, 3,000 journals and newspaper titles and other ephemera, which Ron Heisler began donating to the library in 2004. It is the first component of a major ‘Radical Voices’ project being planned by SHL, with support from the Institute of Historical Research, to display some of its most impactful collections.

This donation by the book collector, trade unionist and lifelong socialist, documents major political events, and includes a stockpile of items published by radical groups, friendly societies and the Chartists from the late-18th to the 20th centuries. Ron Heisler, who describes himself as a ‘delinquent historian’, also retained many publications of Trotskyist groups, the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party from the early to mid-20th century.

‘Ron Heisler’s indefatigable collecting, coupled with his extraordinarily generous ongoing donation to us, has guaranteed security and permanent access to these fragile ephemeral records of passionate, if often unheeded, campaigning voices’, says Dr Richard Espley, SHL’s head of modern collections.

This taster from the Ron Heisler collection also contains rare publications from the women’s movement. And although the emphasis of this collection is on Britain and Ireland, there are books and manuscripts covering Africa, particularly South Africa; Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US and the West Indies; France, Germany, Italy and Spain (notably the Spanish Civil War); and the former Soviet Union. In addition, many of the items are extremely rare or unique examples of political ephemera. 

History librarian Dr Jordan Landes, says ‘It is a privilege to invite researchers of social, political and radical history to engage with the Heisler collection, either through this exhibition or in person in the library.’

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Notes for editors:

1. For further information please contact Maureen McTaggart at the School of Advanced Study, University of London at maureen.mctaggart@sas.ac.uk / 020 7862 8653. Images available on request.

2.  Senate House Library (SHL) is one of the world’s most significant collections in the arts, humanities and social sciences. With its partner libraries of the institutes of the School of Advanced Study, it provides services to readers from the School of Advanced Study, the colleges of the federal University of London, and from London, regional, national and international research communities. All are welcome to join the Library through a membership programme for the University of London, other UK universities, overseas universities, or as a member of the public. The Library and its collections have been continuously developed since the 1870s. It now holds over 2m printed books, thousands of printed and electronic journals, and the highest proportion of historic collections of any university library in the UK. Modern materials in printed and electronic formats are collected at research level and in western European languages to support cross- and inter-disciplinary research in subjects such as English studies, history, philosophy, music, Romance and Germanic languages, palaeography, art history and area studies. Senate House Library also holds the University of London Archive – the historic record of the university – and is responsible for the University of London Artworks Collection. Acquisitions are also made to the Historic Collections, and notable collections include the Goldsmiths’ Library of Economic Literature, the Sterling Library and the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature. http://senatehouselibrary.ac.uk/

3. The School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London  is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities. SAS and its member institutes offer unparalleled academic opportunities, facilities and stimulation across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. In 2014-15, SAS: welcomed 805 research fellows and associates; held 2,073 research dissemination events; received 23.1 million visits to its digital research resources and platforms; and received 213,456 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. The School also leads the UK’s only nationwide festival of the humanities: Being Human. Find out more at www.sas.ac.uk or follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews

4. The University of London is a federal University and is one of the oldest, largest and most diverse universities in the UK. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the University is recognised globally as a world leader in Higher Education. Its members are 18 self-governing institutions of outstanding reputation, together with a number of prestigious central academic bodies and activities. Learn more about the University of London at http://www.london.ac.uk.

5. The Ron Heisler collection at Senate House Library has at its core more than 25,000 books and at least 20,000 pamphlets, with substantial runs of some 3,000 journals and newspapers, and three sequences of archival material. The variety of the collection mean that editions of works by canonical 20th-century writers, consciously produced to be rare, sit alongside the most truly ephemeral printed evidence of protest in flyers and pamphlets collected after political rallies, produced solely to satisfy the demands of one day. The archival papers, had they not been saved by Ron Heisler, would almost certainly have been lost. They are extremely eloquent of moments of history and of passionate efforts to improve society and include albums of photographs kept by prominent British communists.