Archive integrity matters

The growth of the internet has posed both challenges and opportunities for the academic historian. My own doctoral research was undertaken in the pre-internet age. I had to make handwritten records of every relevant document in every archive I consulted; accessing these archives required a great deal of letter-writing, phone-calling and sheer legwork. I was one of the first historians to be granted access to the papers of the third Marquess of Salisbury once his family had transferred them to Christ Church College, Oxford. The scores of dusty boxes were labelled but their contents were uncatalogued, which meant that I had to sift through hundreds of documents - letters, memoranda and the like - in the hope that something of interest to me would turn up.

How different now is the world of historical research! Virtually every archive repository has a website. Many of these not only detail the collections that can be accessed and the conditions of access, but may even provide individual entries related to each document in each collection. An admirable case in point is the Wiltshire Record Office, which houses many surviving papers of the Victorian explorer, antisemite and pederast of note, Sir Richard Burton, author of the notorious unpublished essay entitled Human Sacrifice Amongst The Eastern Jews, which the Board of Deputies now owns and which the then-president of the Deputies foolishly attempted to auction at Christie's a decade ago.

Where preservation and cataloguing of its archives are concerned, Anglo-Jewry has a mixed record. Many of the official papers of Nathan Adler, chief rabbi 1845-90, are missing from the archives of the British chief rabbinate because they were inherited by his unscrupulous son, Elkan, who in the 1920s, in a fit of financial embarrassment, sold them to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (where they are expertly cared for).

The bulk of the official papers of Herbert, Viscount Samuel, the Liberal statesman, Zionist and first High Commissioner for Mandate Palestine, are housed in two prestigious but very distinct locations. At his death (1963) these documents were physically divided: most went to the House of Lords Record Office in London, but those deemed to concern "Israel and Jewish matters" were deposited in the Israel State Archives in Jerusalem.

Why is it that the Herbert Samuel papers were ever divided in the first place?

Whoever did the dividing did not do a very good job. When I consulted the Israeli collection in 1979 I was shocked to find correspondence related to the (British) General Strike of 1926! Perhaps for this reason, facsimiles of the material held in Israel are now available at the House of Lords. But why were the Herbert Samuel papers ever divided in the first place?

Stories such as this compel me to draw to your attention the fate of the hitherto closed files of the defence department of the Board of Deputies, and to the baffling decision not to move them to join the rest of the Board's archives, skilfully conserved and catalogued at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), but to deposit them instead in the Wiener Library.

Founded in Amsterdam in 1933 by the German-Jewish refugee Alfred Wiener, the Wiener Library is a jewel in the crown of the Anglo-Jewish archival heritage. Later this year the Library will move to Russell Square, close by London University's Birkbeck College, with whose recently-established Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism it has formed a partnership. The Wiener Library - dedicated to the collection of materials related to the Holocaust, its causes and consequences - has had more than its fair share of financial ups and downs. Its future now seems secure, and we must all be grateful to the Pears Foundation and to Birkbeck College for helping to make this possible. But this is no justification for the decision to, in effect, break up the archives of the Board of Deputies, and of its defence department.

Many materials related to the defence work of the Deputies are already housed at the LMA, for example records of the Board's executive committee. These materials do not exist in isolation. I do appreciate the sensitivity of the files now proposed to be transferred to the Wiener Library. But their security and access to them
can be assured just as easily were they to join the bulk of the Board's archival record. That is – surely - where they belong. Or is a subtle game of communal politics being played out here, quite beyond my limited understanding of things?

Geoffrey Alderman was awarded the Bermant Prize for journalism on Sunday at Jewish Book Week

    Last updated: 11:22am, March 14 2011