The Oxford English Dictionary defines radical as ‘advocating thorough and far-reaching political or social reform … characterized by independence of or departure from what is usual or traditional’. In Great Britain, the word has the further association with the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Liberal Party’s stance on reform of society and Parliament.(1) Senate House Library is particularly rich in collections which preserve and quietly champion the thought of both those who defined themselves as radical in that historically specific sense, and those who have more generally advocated for extensive societal improvements through reform. In fact, the Library has organically developed into a hub for collections of radical voices of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Revealing this strand in our collections not only sheds light on enormously influential but subsequently neglected figures, campaigns and organizations, but also on the University’s own institutional history, and potential futures.
The Library’s status as a repository for radical ideas begins with one of its founding collections, the library of George Grote, historian and self-identified Radical politician. A Vice-Chancellor of the University, Grote helped to shape the progressive identity of the institution as well as the future shape of the books on our shelves. Amongst the many complementary holdings since then is the library of the Family Welfare Association, the progressive charity that funded philanthropist and social researcher Charles Booth, and the library of the hugely popular, and later equally divisive, Labour leader and MP John Burns. The books and papers of pacifist Caroline Playne, and the archives of Afro-Trinidadian journalist, activist and historian C. L. R. James continued that tradition of radical thought through the twentieth century. What is featured on this site is the extraordinary collection donated by Ron Heisler, trade unionist and lifelong socialist, to which descriptive categories must be added library philanthropist. These books and manuscripts are being made available to readers digitally in the hope of inspiring and informing, allowing the echoes of these voices to reverberate through new research and new projects.
(1) ‘Radical’, OED Online.