Archives under threat at Ruskin College
By DAVID HORSPOOL
The move of a red-brick Oxford College from one part of the city to another is not an event one would expect to interest anyone beyond the postman and Pickford's. But a spot of decluttering presided over by the College Principal, Audrey Mullender, has caused some consternation. The College itself has concentrated on their "discovery" of a portrait of Bernard Shaw by the Fabian artist Bertha Newcombe, painted in 1892, and previously thought to have been lost during the Second World War. Actually, it has been on the wall of the College common room. “When we got it down, on the back it had a sticker that said “owner: Labour Party”, so I thought they might want it back", Professor Mullender explained to the local paper.
The Labour Party were pleased to receive the painting, and Professor Mullender was photographed with Ed Miliband to seal the deal. No one seems to have asked whether the Party might actually have donated it to the College, and whether they should keep it. GBS's biographer Stanley Weintraub thinks that the College's decision is "sheer blindness . . . .The label on the back of the painting offers no evidence of loan or gift. The Labour Party has no serious exhibition space for it and very likely it will go on the auction market once the issue quiets down, and make the big money Bertha Newcombe could never earn". Apart from any other consideration, one wonders, if the painting is sold, why the College, rather than the Labour Party, wouldn't want the money.
But if giving away prize assets seems a little cavalier, that is nothing compared to the upset caused by Mullender's decision to destroy admissions records from the College's early years in the move. A blog by a historian, Hilda Kean, who once worked for Ruskin, called this decision an "act of philistinism". Prof Mullender told me that the destruction of the originals happened after the data they contained had been digitized, though not the "subjective material" that, she says, would contravene the data protection act if it referred to people who were still alive. She also wanted to make it clear that suggestions that a banner from the 1984 Miners' Strike and a historic plaque had been lost were inaccurate. One was back on display in the College's new premises, the other is on loan to the Marx Memorial Library in London.
It is certainly debatable whether the provisions of the Data Protection Act do demand the destruction of personal material as Prof Mullender believes. At SOAS, the archive website declares that there are "exemptions provided by the Data Protection Act which allow the permanent retention of data for historical and statistical research. . . . SOAS's history should not be endangered by the overzealous destruction of data that could be retained as historical archives." At Bishopsgate Library, where the archive has previously accommodated material once at Ruskin, the archivist Stefan Dickers was not much reassured by the news that the records had been digitized. He believed that "no professional archivist" had been involved with selecting or transferring the material, questioned what level of access would be made available, and thought that the material would be "far more vulnerable" in digital form. At Bishopsgate, as at other libraries and archives, many documents and images have been digitized, but the originals have been kept.
We have been here before, with libraries large and small destroying card indexes, chucking out historic newspapers, and so on. Professor Mullender feels that the allegations are "unfounded and inaccurate", but does not dispute that material has been destroyed. Can it really be true that personal material must be destroyed? Can it not be kept for an agreed period, after which any sensitive material (tutors' comments on candidates, candidates' own statements) can be examined by historians and researchers without fear of upset. Mullender seemed worried that relatives might be offended by "completely inappropriate" material making its way into researchers' hands. But a hundred years from now, won't completely inappropriate material strike enquirers as merely interesting and potentially enlightening?