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Preserving our past to inspire the future

Monday 13-03-2017 - 17:17

NUS Director of Nations and Internationalism Mike Day takes a look at the importance of NUS' archives - and how Friends of NUS can help.

Mythos and Logos

From time to time I’ve run a seminar relating to the history of NUS and the student movement with my colleague Ben Ward, who is now the Director of Manchester University Students’ Union. Entitled “Myths and Legends of the Student Movement” it explores how the student leaders of today see the way in which the movement they are part of has developed. We look at mythos and logos noting that myth thrives in an environment where history is not written down, we discuss the concept of the “Golden Age” and invite participants to reflect on what they see as our Golden Age, the interesting conclusion is, usually, right now! We conclude by circulating a selection of NUS materials and spend the rest of the session identifying issues part and present that are frighteningly similar. Every time we have run the session it is clear the participants realise they are the custodians of something bigger and they often find inspiration in the achievements of their forebears.  We’ll come back to documents but for a moment let’s go back to myth.

The Myth

The story is this. Space was tight in Endsleigh Street which NUS occupied from 1925 until 1983 and so archive materials were stored at a warehouse in Leytonstone. At some point, no one really knows when, flooding destroyed a large part of the NUS archives. There is no explanation of the extent of the damage, or what, if anything, might have been saved. We don’t really if there was a flood or if the materials were indeed at Leytonstone, one account says there was a fire and the materials were fire damaged: what we do know is there a significant gap in NUSUK archive materials.

Preservation and some acts of vandalism

The main archive holding is held at the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick. You can search the files they do have here. They hold materials relating to NUS travel, International affairs (with some files relating to specific countries), Endsleigh Insurance, financial reports, policy and communications, they mostly date from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties, although there are some minutes from 1952  and a file from 1934 that preserves correspondence to and from the then NUS President Denis Follows about the King and Country debate held by the Oxford Union, this is the only item that predates the second war. There is a large file called MISC which represents largely uncatalogued materials that were sent to the MRC during a clear out of the NUS basement. All these materials were scheduled for destruction and only action by myself resulted in the removal firm being asked to take them to Warwick rather than a landfill site, much to the annoyance of management at the time.

It is these slender moments that result in the preservation of our history or their loss forever. A couple of warning stories will suffice. Let’s take that transfer of the miscellaneous materials to Warwick, amongst the materials were reel upon reel of cinematograph material, no-one knew what was on them and the pressure was on to throw them away on those very grounds, we did not know what was on them. But they went, and some thirty years later I received a phone call from the MRC asking if it was OK to put the now digitised materials on the MRC website, I said yes.

Two of the films, one made about NUS in 1963 and one in 1972, form an eloquent record of the changes that took place between those years, as an image of our organisation you could not find a starker contrast. I have often been told by student officers that it was a pity I had not visited them some weeks earlier as they had thrown out what they saw as “crap” from their files, even more disturbing if is a former employee of NUS who threw out the entire archive of NUS-USI on the grounds it was taking up space and no-one was interested, given the very significant part that students in Northern Ireland played in community building and the peace process it was an act of vandalism not keep and preserve evidence of that role. In 1971 the Scottish Union of Students collapsed, its members leaving to join what had become NUSUK. It seems no-one thought to remove the archives and make them safe before their HQ was abolished. Today you can’t even find a list of the former Presidents, and bear in mind they would have materials sent by NUSEWNI (England, Wales and Northern Ireland). The records of an entire organisation that had contributed to Scottish public life gone in an instant.

We are aware of some significant collections of NUS papers in other archives. For example, a number of activists involved in (what was then) the Gay Rights Campaign in the 1970s and early 1980s have donated papers and ephemera to the Hall-Carpenter archives at LSE, preserving much material from those early days which is not to be found in the official NUS archives. Similarly, our noted wartime President Brian Simon donated all of his papers to the archives of the UCL Institute of Education, including those relating to his time as President and his efforts to keep NUS from being closed during the conflict. There are presumably other examples we don’t know about but it would be very useful to understand where.

As we approach our hundredth anniversary I am hoping we can use the opportunity to rebuild our archives and develop an awareness of the value of our heritage to capture and celebrate our part achievements and to inspire the current generation of student leaders and activists. NUS recently made an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to establish an archive and digitisation project in partnership with the MRC, the National Library of Wales, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and Glasgow Caledonian University. The bid was not successful so we will need to look at other ways to preserve materials currently in our Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh offices. The Edinburgh office also contains materials collected from alumni and elsewhere that were donated to help the production of the NUS90 book. If these materials are catalogued they can be transferred to the MRC, but of course finding the capacity to sort and catalogue materials is a challenge and with so much happening for students right now is rarely seen as a priority.

So what’s to be done?

We have a large backlog of materials located in various offices across the NUS group that relate to our history from 1980 – present.  Unless we take action these materials could well be lost or destroyed accidentally. We do not have a significant amount of material from the period before 1960, so we need to proactively collect them. There might be materials surviving in the private collections of former officers and staff, this alumni initiative could help a process of seeking out donations but they in turn would need to be catalogued. The donors need to trust the organisation to look after their materials and given our chequered history in this area we need to earn that trust.  

To take this work forward and tackle the two aspects of the archive problem it is recommended that we:

  • Develop a clear archives policy that gives guidance to colleagues within the NUS Group on what materials to preserve
  • Resubmit the Heritage Lottery Bid based on feedback and guidance from the HLF team
  • Depending on the outcome of the re-submitted HLF bid seek out other trusts and sources of funding for heritage/archive activity
  • Liaise with both MRC Warwick and Glasgow Caledonian University Archives on the development of our archives policy and develop new partnership agreements
  • Ask friends and alumni to donate materials to Warwick, for example Stanley Jenkin’s papers are held there under his name.

If Friends have any thoughts, advice and guidance on what else we might do, if you know of NUS-related materials in other archives, or even if anyone can clarify what happened to our records possibly in Leytonstone then it would be great to hear from you. Please email mike.day@nus.org.uk

Friends of NUS is the alumni association for those who have served as NUS officers, committee members or staff. You can join here.

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