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Wednesday 28 March 2012

Yet more depressing news about the disposition of valuable research resources

I already mentioned the bad news about the uncertain fate of The Women's Library and the TUC Collections (and I do exhort people to go and sign the petition to save TWL.

I've also been distressed at the news that the Birmingham Medical Institute is selling off its historical collections of books and manuscripts and that the Wedgewood Collection continues to be threatened with dispersal.

And now I hear that the New York Public Library at 42nd Street is proposing, if not to get rid of its research materials, to outhouse them so that they will no longer be readily available to the researcher. I once made a flying visit from Boston to consult rare periodicals which could be found nowhere else, and was able to accomplish this within a day, a not inconsiderable advantage given the constraints on my research time and budget.

This is all very distressing and seems like a wide downgrading of the importance of actual primary research materials in a world in which it is (wrongly) assumed that everything is digitally accessible.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Shocking news

The Women’s Library is seeking a new home

On Wednesday 14 March, London Metropolitan University’s Board of Governors announced that they will be seeking a new home, custodian or sponsor of The Women’s Library’s collections.

If a new home is not found by the end of December 2012, the Library will move to opening hours of one day per week for a period of three years, with a further review at the end of that period. We will keep you informed of further developments, and we are in the process of contacting key stakeholders.

If you have any suggestions of potential custodians, or any queries, please email us:
and London Met are also looking for a new home for the Trades Union Congress Library Collections (statement by Unison London Met Uni Branch.)

Thursday 15 March 2012

A question of shame

I was recently very excited by the ideas put forward in David Nash and Anne-Marie Kilday's recent book Cultures of Shames: Exploring Crime and Morality in Britain 1600-1900 (Palgrave 2010), which came to my attention frustratingly late in the day for the purposes of revising Sex Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880.

I found their critique of a prevalent assumption that a modern 'guilt' culture (in which internal constraints influence behaviour)  prevailed over an older 'shame' culture (in which community rituals of shaming enforced social norms) very illuminating. When one thinks about it, of course shame is an enduring human emotion and not just about traditional practices within small communities such as preaching over unmarried mothers or raising 'rough music' against transgressors against community standards. Within a given context, a raised eyebrow might induce tremendous social shame.

 Their argument that
Shame... could borrow from old established ideas and idioms while still using the most modern forms of communication technology and social networks with astonishing effectiveness. We would further argue that any definition of shame must clearly appreciate the importance of dynamic interactions between people, institutions and ideas within its influence.
seems compelling to me. Their recuperation of the importance of shame could engage in productive dialogue with Anna Clarke's very useful concept of 'twilight moments' in sexual behaviours (for surely a lot of that is about shame), and also cries out for further consideration of the role of the media in creating shaming narratives.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Chelsea neighbours

I have just noticed that a blue plaque to commemorate the novelist Jean Rhys is being put on Paulton's House, Paulton's Square, Chelsea, where Rhys lived 1936-38. This was the Chelsea square where Stella Browne was living with her sister Sylvia from 1936 to some time after 1941 (the sisters moved to Liverpool some time during World War II).

One wonders if these two women ever met in the 'fine tree-y garden' of the Square.

Jean Rhys was somewhat younger than Stella but pretty much of the same generation, born well before 1900, but it's hard to imagine the two women having much in common: apart that is from their common experiences of having had abortions at a time when this was illegal. Rhys used her own ordeal (which nearly killed her) in her novel Voyage in the Dark (1934). Stella, who had had three abortions, famously testified to the Birkett Committee that these had neither killed her nor damaged her health, as part of her argument that abortion should be legalised.

The number of allusions I have found in various literary and biographical sources suggests that, while the campaign for legalisation quite rightly focussed on the immense problem of backstreet abortion among working-class women, the spectre of needing to access this operation haunted women writers, bohemians and intellectuals of the interwar period. Few, however, unlike Rhys or Browne, even felt able to make public mentions at that time.