Friday, 14 March 2014

Remembering Revolutionaries - Mandela, Tutu, Tony Benn and the Women's Library

Suffrage Banner
The last 2 weeks have been busy with remembering those who have made a revolutionary change to our lives. This post considers the way we remember the lives of Nelson Mandela and Tony Benn, and the revolutionary lives and history of women contained in the Women's Library.

Mandela and Tutu

I was lucky enough to attend the Service at Westminster Abbey to celebrate the life and work of Nelson Mandela. It was a wonderful way to remember him and the highlights were the Soweto Choir and Archbishop Desmond Tutu's speech (more below).

There is an active digital approach to remembering related to Mandela. The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory is to quote them is the "Nelson Mandela Digital Archive Project. Our aim is to locate, document, digitise, and provide access to all archival materials related to Nelson Mandela. This is a work in progress."

Desmond Tutu in his wonderful speech stated: "Madiba was appalled by this vicious system [Apartheid] and it was for this noble resistance that he and many others were incarcerated for life. What would have happened if Mandela died in prison as was the intention and hope of the upholders of Apartheid?  I suppose, most would have regarded him as no better than a terrorist.
After all, persons in high positions in Britain and the United States did dismiss him as such. Mercifully for us, and for God's world, Mandela did not die in prison and this is thanks very very largely to the amazing international anti-Apartheid movement... I use this great pulpit to say on behalf of our people, Thank You, Thank You, Thank You... Thank you, you who regularly picketed South Africa House, thank you, you elegant ladies who boycotted South African goods... thank you all those incredible young people in other parts of the world, thank you, thank you, that you over there changed the moral climate in your country... without the anti-Apartheid movement, all of you extraordinary human beings, Mandela could have so easily died in prison

You can hear the speech in full here.

Remembering will be a key part of South Africa's national building and remembering the way in which non-elites contributed to the change is also vitally important. These iconic figures, such as Madiba or Tutu, are like a golden thread, which highlights the beauty and strength of the cloth made whole by the many threads interweaving to make a new tapestry.

Manifesto for a Digital Tutu Archive

I have campaigned for over 10 years now for the creation of a Digital Archive to provide free access to the personal papers of Desmond Tutu. Each year we get a little closer. Here is my manifesto of what such a resource should do and be:
  • A Digital Tutu Archive would be a unique information resource that should provide free open access to an increasing range of Tutu's personal papers. It could contain some 200,000 documents, including speeches, letters, audio recordings and writings.
  • The Archive should be created, owned, managed and curated by the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation with the help of other South Africans and the international community.
  • Major learning resources for South African schools should be made available through the creation of mixed-media teaching and learning packs, including CD, audio and printed materials created from the core digital content. This will ensure access to the Archive materials where access to the internet or to computers is impossible or inappropriate.
    Schools worldwide would benefit as the Archive would offer learning opportunities for many curricula; including citizenship, history, politics and cultural and religious studies.
  • Capacity-building and investment in infrastructure and technical skills which will enhance the capabilities of all project partners to pursue further digitisation projects should be part of the mission. The creation of the Archive will transfer new skill sets between the partners and enhance current capabilities in areas such as management, technology, digitisation, software development, digital asset management and preservation, and education.
  • The Archive content would be of significant interest to researchers, teachers and students in higher education across many discipline areas, including: African studies; history; philosophy; theology and religious studies; human & social geography; library, archive and information studies; communications & documentation; media studies and journalism; politics; social studies.
I remember a story told me by Desmond Tutu that highlights the strength and the importance of women to the anti-Apartheid movement. To paraphrase, he pointed out that his wife, Leah, bore the brunt of State harassment and physical abuse he was spared by his position. He once asked her if she would forgive him for the travails she and their children suffered for his public position on Apartheid to which she replied fiercely, do you think I could ever forgive you if you stopped. For Leah, and many other women like her, their story in the fight against Apartheid and for peace and reconciliation is somewhat untold and I'd certainly hope the Digital Tutu Archive could include her story as well. Women's narratives are so often missed from the historic record. Hence the value of a resource like the Women's Library.

The Women's Library

Emily Wilding Davison's funeral - from The Women's Library
The Women's Library is the oldest and most extensive collection on women's history in Europe. It was in the news again this week as it reopened its doors in a new location at the London School of Economics Library. I was fortunate enough to attend the formal opening ceremony for its new permanent home, the excellent 4th-floor reading room at the LSE library. The key speaker of the night was the former Irish president and UN high commissioner Mary Robinson.

The Women's Library Reading Room

Mary Robinson said: "As a former female head of state, I am aware of the fierce efforts made by those women before me. The Women’s Library should be a constant source of knowledge and inspiration to us; allowing us to fulfil our responsibility to listen to women’s lives, in their own words and in their own time. LSE’s custodianship and plans for the Women’s Library will help in an area of study that I believe is critical to the continued advancement of human progress through the progress of women.

Here is the Press Release, and a Guardian newspaper article, plus some photographs here.

LSE library director Elizabeth Chapman told BBC Radio 4: "It [the collection] was in a building which had been purposely refurbished for it and so there was a lot of objection to moving it but LSE has brought it into the orbit of a huge social science collection... I would say it's a critical part of our national heritage.
It documents the struggles of women not just to get the vote but many other campaigns - largely a campaigning collection coming right up to date.
The Women's Library @LSE is freely accessible by any member of the public.

Digital Resources

The Women's Library @ LSE: Take a journey through the personal, political and economic struggles that have symbolised women's battle for equality over the past 500 years, through a representative selection of the broad range of materials in LSE Library and The Women's Library @ LSE. A chronological presentation of more than 300 items from the 16th Century to the present day can be found in the timeline and in the additional items below.

My relationship with the Library dates back 15 years to the digitisation of the Suffrage Banners which are wonderful works of art and evocative artefacts of the fight for the right to vote in the UK. You can see the Suffrage Banners here and a case study on the digitisation here.

Tony Benn

Source: The Public Catalogue Foundation

Tony Benn passed away on the 14th March 2014. He was a great orator, campaigner and diarist. His 5 questions for those in power resonate strongly today:
"What power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.

He also serves to link our two topics above due to his long lived support for the anti-Apartheid movement, women's rights and also for libraries.
A couple of resources to remind us of how special he was.


  1. Tony Benn also had the good sense to thank librarians in his farewell speech to parliament (at 34.22)

  2. Dear Simon
    Thank you for the wonderful, amazing memorable work that you are doing for the son of our African soil and the women of our struggle. I have been raised by the struggle myself and can relate many stories to you from a perspective seldom heard. My daughter was a toddler when she shook the hand of the Late President when he visited the university crèche where I worked. My dad, a self made artist did an artwork of the Late President where he was practicing his boxing, and presented the artwork to the late President himself when he visited the township to launch a children's book about the Struggle. This was a very down to earth individual for whom we 'Struggled' as students even though we did not even know what he looked like. Back then, every pamphlet or booklet that was found in our possession was incriminating evidence to be locked up. I am a librarian and appreciate greatly the work archivists and librarians are doing globally. Thank you for keeping the flame of our struggle burning. Our democracy is still a young adult. We still have a long walk towards real freedom and we must not disappoint our late President and all the women who sacrificed live and families for freedom. Regards
    Julia Paris - DFC Campus, University of Johannesburg

  3. Dear Simon,

    I work for the Anti-Apartheid Movement Archives Committee, and I thought you might be interested to know that we're launching a website on Thursday It contains interviews from former activists and a digital archive of videos, photos, posters and documents about the movement in the UK.