Senate House Library - University of London Archives

Theses Room, Senate House, Nov. 1940

In our previous post about the Ministry of Information (see here) we noted that the ‘exigencies of war’ alongside the occupation of Senate House by the Ministry caused various problems for the University of London.  One of these was a question over what to do with the libraries.  In the lead up to this year’s Bloomsbury Festival (15-20 October 2013) which takes as one of its themes the idea of the Ministry of Information transformed into a Ministry of Communication, we decided to have a look into the University archives to find out a little more about what happened during the Second World War.

What to do with the Libraries?

The question over what to do with the University’s extensive, comprehensive and in many cases rare and unique collections of books, manuscripts and ephemera The Bodleian Library, Oxfordbecame all the more urgent in 1940 after an incendiary bomb gutted several university buildings housing parts of its library.  In the Senate Meeting the Court reported that:

“on receiving the Report by the Librarian of 4 December 1940 on the damage suffered by the University Library through enemy action decided that steps should be taken to remove some of the sections from London to places of greater security.”

The report suggests that the Bodleian Library and Cambridge University Library should be approached to see if they could “render any help”.  Success was found at Oxford.  The Bodleian offered shelving space underground which was “well protected against damp” which by “close packing” could take the greater part of the Goldsmith’s Library, the rarer books of the Harry Price Library, and several important sets and works from the Middlesex Libraries.  Initially Cambridge was unable to find a suitable space but it would seem that a breakthrough occurred sometime later and room in the University Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology was offered.  Between 9 January and 14 February 1941 696 packing cases full of books were removed to Oxford and then on 18 February 400 further cases were filled and moved to Cambridge.

Moving 65,000 books to make way for the Ministry of Information

“the removal and reinstatement of a library is a task calling for special skill and experience in the contractors, and one which cannot be undertaken in haste without damage to the books and confusion of their arrangements”

Two years later the length and degree of war seems to have made further book moves more difficult.  Controversy arose when the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) were ordered to be moved out by the Ministry of Information. The IHR and the Committee were deeply anxious at the prospect of removing a library of some 65,000 volumes.  They impressed upon the Ministry of Works in “emphatic terms” that ‘the removal and reinstatement of a library is a task calling for special skill and experience in the contractors, and one which cannot be undertaken in haste without damage to the books and confusion of their arrangements”.  It was further noted that the Institute did not have trained library staff available if such ‘confusion’ occurred.

University books used in war effort

Although many books, including those of the IHR were temporarily removed during the war, not all books left Senate House.  The report to the Senate in 1941 noted that:

“The books which are most likely to be required by the Ministry of Information have been arranged with the reference sections of the Middlesex Libraries in the room in the Tower on the second floor, where they should be both accessible and reasonable safe.”

Amongst these were books about wireless transmission and reception, which the RAF, Royal Corps of Signals and the Royal Engineers made good use of in attempting to break enemy codes and refine their own.  A report by the Library Committee dated 7 December 1942 confirmed that:

 “Senior Members of the Ministry of Information and other Government departments continue to make good use of the library for reference and research purposes. Information is supplied to them by all departments of the library and inquiries are received continuously during the day in the Reference library and by telephone.”

You will be able to hear and see more about Senate House as the Ministry of Information and about the university’s library collections at this year’s Bloomsbury Festival.  This year we have an exhibition about the Ministry of Information at Senate House, various talks, poetry events, and events held in the library itself.

Check out our Festival Highlights post for details of events at this year’s Bloomsbury Festival.

The Bloomsbury Festival runs from October 15-20, 2013. The full schedule of events at the School of Advanced Study is available here. We are also running a series of exciting competitions in October. Follow us on @SASNews for festival news and updates.

Finding the Ministry of Communication:

Senate House, Malet Street, London