The Ron Heisler collection at Senate House Library is an extraordinary expressions of philanthropy that perfectly echo its subject matter. In a relationship that began in 2004 and is still active, Mr Heisler has donated material to Senate House Library on a scale which it is hard to appreciate from sheer numbers; however, over 25,000 books and at least 20,000 pamphlets form the core of the collection, with substantial runs of some 3,000 journals and newspapers, and three sequences of archival material. The variety of the collection is equally startling, while they are all unified by their focus on left-wing politics, radical political movements and the influence of these ideas on all spheres of human endeavour, including art, literature and drama.
The variety of the holdings mean that editions of works by canonical twentieth-century writers, consciously produced to be rare, sit alongside the most truly ephemeral printed evidence of protest in flyers and pamphlets collected after political rallies, produced solely to satisfy the demands of one day. The Heisler holdings contain numerous items which are exceedingly rare or unique for many reasons, potentially because they were banned, or produced in minute quantities, or simply because no one else saw the value in preserving them.
The collection’s earliest items are from the late eighteenth century, although its core is its representation of mid- to late-twentieth-century politics. It embraces movements of every degree of influence from Chartism to failed friendly societies with their elaborate and forgotten procedures. Similarly, while its central focus is on the United Kingdom and Ireland, it includes substantial tranches from Africa (and particularly South Africa), Australasia, the Americas and the West Indies, much of mainland Europe and the former Soviet Union.
The archival papers, had they not been saved by Heisler, would almost certainly have been lost. They are extremely eloquent of moments of history and of passionate efforts to improve society. Amongst records of a variety of local Co-operative societies, for example, items capture the daily lives of the men and women involved in numerous struggles, such as albums of photographs kept by prominent British communists.
Ron Heisler’s activity represents one ideologically motivated expression of an august but sadly dwindling tradition of charitably minded collecting. As the specific expressions of the movement he has recorded and quietly championed recede into history, the perceived research value of this vigorously increasing and astoundingly rich collection will doubtless increase. Perhaps the Heisler Collection’s most powerful message is that however their outward forms may alter, such campaigns continue to persist in a proud and unbroken tradition.