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Ex libris: the destruction of a great commonwealth treasure.

BLACK Friday: December 20th, i991. The Library of the Royal Commonwealth Society closed its doors after 123 years of continuous service. |We Never Closed', like the Windmill Theatre in war or peace (except for a few days after a two ton bomb ripped through the building, destroying over twenty thousand volumes).

Recession has succeeded where bombs failed. The Royal Commonwealth Society, facing insolvency, has had to use its only valuable asset, the library, as security for a 3[pounds] million overdraft. Whether the administration were unlucky, stupid or culpable, is not here to discuss. But the fact is the library faces mortal danger of disappearing into the inflated maw of bricks and mortar for the rebuilding programme. It faces not only the danger of being sold, but sold in devastating bits, for the whole is much greater than the parts when it comes to books. A small fund-raising committee has now been set up under Sir Patrick Sheehy, chairman of BAT Industries to raise 3[pounds] millions and floor space may be available in Cambridge. But the monetary outlook is bleak. The dispersion of the library would be a cultural crime; but reading through a century of British struggle and muddle, one can only sadly conclude, that the library should have been independently funded years ago in the sunshine days.

Like so many august bodies, the Royal Commonwealth Society started in casual British fashion when two or three gathered together in June 1868 to discuss the question of a Colonial Society, to establish a reading room and library and to provide recent and authentic information on colonial subjects. The two or three whose flavour has remained included Viscount Bury (the first president), the Rt. Hon. Chichester Fortescue (Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies) and Sir Charles Nicholson (ex-Chancellor Sydney University). A small committee was set up and the incipient Society bumped its way through temporary homes and finally came to rest in the six storey building in Northumberland Avenue in 1885 and there remained. Only the name changed, reflecting political tides, to Royal Colonial Institute (1870), Royal Empire Society (1928), Royal Commonwealth Society (1958).

The library was recognised as the heart of the Society from the start and by the turn of the century held 75,000 books, rising to 100,000 in 1914. An early attempt to transfer it to the newly established Colonial Institute was fiercely resisted, not least by its guardians. The first librarian was appointed in 1869 and the first salaried librarian, the Australian-born Joseph O'Halloran in 1885. The Society has been magnificently served by his successors down to the present and first woman incumbent, Terry Barringer. (Women were first admitted as members in 1922.)

Evans Lewin was the Master Librarian who served for thirty-six years, 1910-1946 and was the real architect of the amazing development and international reputation built in that period, years of optimism when the Library covered the whole first floor with its separate news and periodical section, map rooms and law library. This included a difficult two years of exile (and some twenty miles of string) in Carlton Terrace 1934-6, while rebuilding went on and led to ever increasing work loads for the Library's meagrely funded staff. The Library became and remained the centre for endless and peculiar queries, whether the style of Heligoland's flag when under British control, or pioneer work on African music. One staff, unable at a minute's notice to provide Dante's Inferno, was heard to mutter: |Hell is not a British possession--yet'.

Evans Lewin saw the Library through two shattering wars. Many London libraries closed in 1939: Chatham House, the London School of Economics and the British Museum--but not the Royal Commonwealth Society. It rapidly became the vital and practically the only source of consultation for the Colonial Office, the BBC and Governments in Exile. But on the night of April 16th, 1941, 450 German bombers hit London, including St. Paul's, the Commons and the Royal Commonwealth Society, spreading flood, fire and devastation in the news and law libraries. Basic services, however, re-opened within a week. Real rehabilitation took months and final repair to war damage was not completed until 1956. But a much needed Information Bureau was established in 1946 and lasted a valuable twenty years. And Evans Lewin at last went home, long past retiring age. in 1946.

Despite the euphoria surrounding the Commonwealth in the 1950s, political tides began flowing against the Society -- typically, newsroom space was taken for the fledgling Voluntary Service Overseas (1961-3), which began life under the wing of the Society. In 1956 after ten years as an assistant, Donald Simpson became Librarian and steered the Library through its most difficult peace time years until his retirement in 1987. No mean scholar himself, and well known as a local historian, he became chairman of the Standing Conference on Library Materials, chairman of the British Asscociation for Canadian Studies, editor of the Dictionary of East African Biography and probably the most complete one-man information department about the Commonwealth ever known. He also wrote a pioneer study Dark Companions, about the African contribution to European exploration of Africa.

The Library was also well served by its own supportive and efficient committee. Perhaps its most outstanding chairman was Sir Alan Burns. Born in St. Kitts, he entered into the Colonial Service of which his father and grandfather were serving members, he also made an outstanding contribution. He ended his career as Governor of the Gold Coast and British Representative to the Trusteeship Council, on which he contributed a witty book of depressing reminiscences of the United Nations called In Defence of Colonies. More seriously, he wrote the standard histories of Nigeria and the West Indies and a study called Colour Prejudice, an early contribution to a subject which has now engendered a vast literature. The Royal Commonwealth Society never operated a colour bar and its first Asian members were Ji ju Sanjo, son of the Japanese prime minister in 1872 and the Political Agent for Native Princes. The first African member was Samuel Bannerman from the Gold Coast in 1879. Sir Alan turned his not inconsiderable energies to supporting Library publications, he inaugurated talks by experts and developed Library Notes, scholarly articles attached to the invaluable monthly list of accessions. Sadly he resigned over attempts to sell off Library books to supplement the Society's general income, a dark presentiment of financial dispute to come.

A rich sideline supported by the Committee was the photographic section which held some 70,000 items, much of it now on microfiche. Prints were welcomed from early days and this unique collection includes the Queen Mary albums of the 1905 Indian tours and the Albemarle album of the South Seas including two prints of Robert Louis Stevenson. Other early pictures include the Zulu war of 1879, the Rhodesian Pioneer column marching into Mashonaland in 1890 as well as the 1898 Sudan campaign. Imagine if the Roman Empire had been thus documented how we would have treasured these scraps--or would we?

There are two special reasons for shock and dismay at the loss and dismemberment of the RCS Library. With it goes the knowledge of our imperial past and Commonwealth present. It is a turning away from the sense of history, one of the few things that distinguish man from beast, and always a danger to the dictator. Alexandria here we come.

The first reason is sad recognition of a general trend; it epitomises our descent into an illiterate and televisual society, where Beano equates with King Lear and the sweet sensuality of books is replaced by the cold abstraction of microfilm. Those great Victorians who laboured for our literacy and library system would not have believed our indifference. Gladstone, at the opening of St. Martins in the Field Public Library, thundered |that these libraries were instruments with which a war was carried on against ignorance, against brutality'. Sadly, even some of their rightful guardians think otherwise today. Bill West in his horrifying small book: The Strange Rise of Semi-Literate England: The Dissolution of The Libraries, (Duckworth, 1991), arraigns the borough librarians for a mindless selling off of their books. He lists nearly 300 culprits. Brent threw out over 100,000 in the eighties. Socialist Stoke Newington disposed of a whole collection on India. Sadly the criterion for disposal seems no longer to be professional or literary, but crude racial and political censorship, currently known as |political correctness'. It is a terrible reflection on our cultural present that libraries need protection from librarians. Quis, alas, custodiet.

The second reason for keeping this precious Library lies precisely in its unique ambience. It is the most comprehensive single source for the history of the world's greatest empire from its 16th century beginnings to its present fifty-nation Commonwealth, an empire which at its peak ruled over a quarter of the world's peoples and lands. The ambience of many libraries is both daunting and even dirty. The RCS has always been welcoming and free, set like a jewel in Commonwealth Trust House; as part of a social and learned Society it continues to demonstrate living history. For as you study your Fijian Hansard, at the next table may well be a Fijian, or a Nepalese from Patna seeking references to Christianity in Tibet. These are all people making, or made by, the Commonwealth. Outside the Library but inside the building, cluster such relevant societies as the Royal Africa Society, the Round Table, Commonwealth Forestry, Corona, the Kipling Society with its own fine library and the West India Committee. Outside the Library but within the building are bedrooms and restaurants for home and overseas members coming and going from Malta to New Guinea. There is always something happening, whether an Australian wine-tasting party or the annual multi-faith commonwealth service. There is a stream of lecturers: one day Chief Buthelezi, another day Lee Kuan Yew, the next King Moshoeshoe II of Lesotho.

An off-shoot of all this multifarious knowledge is what are called the |Library Babies'. It is hard to think of any single book about the Commonwealth which has not been researched, if not engendered in the Library, from Thomas Pakenham's Scramble for Africa, a seven hundred page prizewinner to Jan Morris's Pax Britannica trilogy. Here also, for the novelist is all the delicious imperial pulp and ephemera, so much more vivid than learned tomes, on life in Victorian Malaya or the 18th century Raj. This last tradition is upheld by June Knox Mawr, herself a hardworking member of the Library Committee, who has won the 1991 Boots Romantic Novel of the Year prize with Sandstorm. Here are huge sources of Commonwealth literature hardly touched, only listed in the annual bibliography which runs from Sanders of the River types to distinguished Third-World writers in English. The Library itself has put out erudite pamphlets on Shakespeare, Dickens and the Empire--from Prospero and Caliban to Mrs. Jellaby and transportation. Every English-speaking writer is touched by a vast awareness of this rich imperial background--and all of it gathered in this one endangered institution.

Just now when there is a conscious and increasing desire to study this past, the doors have closed. Only a few desperate scholars are now let in, studying with bizarre erudition, African football, and Lawrence Durrell as editor of the Cyprus Review. They at least know what they miss. O si sic omnia . . . .

[Molly Mortimer has for many years been a user of the RCS Library in her many works on Commonwealth history and affairs.]
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Title Annotation:The Library of the Royal Commonwealth Society
Author:Mortimer, Molly
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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