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REAF6: Decolonizing university libraries

I have not written a REAF post for a while, so I am very happy to be sharing an amazing post by Alice Corble, a university librarian and AHRC-RLUK Practice Fellow working on a project to explore the foundational role of Sussex Library and Archives in the university's (post)colonial origins, development and aspirations. In a recent blog post Alice uses the occasion of the opening of the library by Queen Elizabeth in 1964 to think through the space of libraries - materially, pedagogically and politically - within universities. The library was designed, like much of the original campus, by Sir Basil Spence. You can read the full post, including some great historical photos, here.

Outside the Sussex library in 1964, reproduced from Alice's original post

58 years ago, on 13 November 1964, University of Sussex Library was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II. At this point in time, Sussex was in the first term of its third academic year of life as a new university of the post-war, postcolonial British era. Other British historical events of note in 1964 included (in roughly chronological order):

  • power disputes between the government and trade unions with threats of large-scale industrial action

  • the retirement of Winston Churchill from the House of Commons (aged 89)

  • the election of a new Labour Government led by Harold Wilson

  • the enactment of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act

  • the opening of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies

  • Zambia became an Independent Republic, thus ending 73 years’ of British Rule of Northern Rhodesia

  • the House of Commons voted to abolish the death penalty for murder in Britain

  • Reverend Martin Luther King delivered a scholarly sermon on race relations to a 3,000-strong congregation at St Paul’s Cathedral. He was on his way from the US to Oslo to collect his Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership of the civil rights movement.

Although the University of Sussex and its library were designed and established at a time of epochal change, which showed signs of more egalitarian social progress and the decline and dismantling of the British Empire, this does not mean that imperial legacies are not present in its architectural and epistemic structures.

Prior to the opening of the grand new Modernist Library building in 1964, the library collections (many of which were acquired through donations from aristocrats and retired professors from traditional redbrick universities) had been stored in the nearby Stanmer House in rooms which had originally housed the private library of the Earls of Chichester, with teaching materials made available via temporary accommodation in Brighton. The Manor House of Stanmer has history entangled with that of colonialism. It was originally owned by English Whig politician (of Dutch descent) Peter Gott (1653-1712), Sheriff of Sussex and Lewes, who later became Director of the East India Company and the Bank of England.

The new university library set atop Falmer Hill was designed by Sir Basil Spence (1907 – 1976), who was born and spent his childhood in Bombay, British India, before moving to Edinburgh and London where he trained as an architect. His formative professional experience as a young man included a year working as Sir Edwin Lutyens’ London office designing the then Viceroy’s House in New Delhi. The imperialist architectural vision of Lutyens is widely reported to have had a profound influence on Spence.

The central importance of the Library in the new university geographic and epistemic vision was clearly articulated by Spence in his “Building a New University” chapter in David Daiches’ 1964 edited book The Idea of a New University (p. 207):

"The Library should be sited centrally since its function as a storehouse of knowledge is common to all faculties. This important fact determined the position of the broad masses of Arts and Library on one side and the Sciences on the other."

Early campus design sketch by Spence

"It is impossible to imagine a university without books. Upon them its work largely depends. They are essential to teaching and research in every subject. ‘The character and efficacy of a university may be gauged by its treatment of its central organ – the library. We regard the fullest provision for library maintenance as the primary and most vital need in the equipment of a university. An adequate library is not only the basis of all teaching and study; it is the essential condition of research, without which additions cannot be made to the sum of human knowledge’ – thus wrote the University Grants Committee in its first Report in 1921. It cannot unfortunately be said that for a long time much heed was paid to its words. The ambitions and needs of all learned libraries remain yet unsatisfied."

Cox goes on to comment on the staggering demands placed on university libraries in an era when student numbers and academic publishing outputs were expanding exponentially, hence the mid-century modern period of academic research library history was significantly outpacing the slow growth of the great European libraries of antiquity. Despite the increased knowledge production pressures associated with keeping up with the increased bibliographic and study space demand and supply, Cox reflects on the communitarian rewards of this work on both local and global scales (1964, pp. 156; 167):

“The library, with the union, is in most universities the place to which all students come, and come moreover on equal terms. […] A university library does not serve its own institution alone but the world of scholarship in general.”

In a University of Sussex pamphlet about Sussex’s Modernist architecture (2014), Dr Alistair Davies describes how Spence’s campus design reflected his deep “preoccupation with the link between the present and the past”, in particular European antiquity, which is apparent in the leitmotif of concrete arches repeated across several buildings referencing the Roman Colosseum, and Library Square echoing an Athenian agora (p. 10). Davies connects these classical architectural references with the vision of Sussex founding Dean of European Studies and Professor of History between 1962-1972 Martin Wight, who argued in the Daiches 1964 book (pp. 102-103):

"The great civilizations demand a different academic treatment from regions of derivative or primitive culture. […] The more important the literature, the more it demands to be taken into account. […] Europe is the seat of our own civilization: it is ourselves. The social scientists in a School of European Studies are anxious to join the Common Market; the students of literature, historians and philosophers have never left it. Ideally, perhaps, a School of European Studies might be a School of European and American (including Latin American Studies), or of Western Studies, to cover not only Europe but all her brawny and obstreperous children as well. But life is short, and degree courses are still shorter, and no academic organization reflects adequately the unity of knowledge. Antiquam exquirite matrem. The concern of European Studies is the root and stock of our culture. What does this mean for my research into (de)colonial maps of learning at Sussex? How is the university library and archive connected with “the root and stock of our culture”? And whose culture is it anyway?"

What does this mean for my research into (de)colonial maps of learning at Sussex? How is the university library and archive connected with “the root and stock of our culture”? And whose culture is it anyway? My analysis of under-represented organisational and cultural history records and lived experiences will enable a rethinking of library collections and lead to a more expansive understanding of the university.

As Sussex Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies Gurminder Bhambra (2020) argues, “a failure to recognise contestations in the past contributes to the politics of selective memory that is reproduced every time we evade our past instead of confronting it directly and truthfully”. My project is aligned with Bhambra’s, which she defines in her 2014 book Connected Sociologies as part of the need to defend the public university against the increasing parochialisation of academic disciplines and privatisation and dismantling of higher education, in which “the very processes of knowledge production are at stake” (p. x). This is in part what has driven recent global student movements to decolonise the university (about which Bhambra has written in her co-edited 2018 volume), which has its own local legacy here at Sussex.

In November 1964 the School of African and Asian Studies was opened, which “set out to challenge existing conceptions of race, ethnicity, identity, culture and economy in the postcolonial world” by combining diverse disciplinary areas across the humanities and social sciences, including academics recruited from both colonial universities and those with recently obtained independence (Sussex Africa Centre, AFRAS History booklet). In the same year, the lesser-known Centre for Multi-Racial Studies (CMRS) was established at Sussex, based within the School of Social Studies and which by 1967 had established a sister site in Barbados, in partnership with the University of the West Indies.

From the late 1960s onwards, with significant momentum driven by the interventions of home and international students and scholar-activists in AFRAS, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), and CMRS, Sussex became known for its anti-apartheid, anti-imperial, anti-war, and socialist scholar-activist projects. The institutional archival records, library special collections and alumni communities that embody this legacy are the primary sources for my present research project.

My analysis is informed by Bhambra’s decolonial approach to developing connected sociologies of knowledge, as well the associated theory of ‘sociology of absences’, developed by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, which Bhambra (2014, pp. 101-102) summarises as referring “both to the general silences around particular experiences and the way in which these silences are actively created through particular processes”. These local and global social processes are complex and manifold, but I argue that with regard to the erasure or marginalisation of racialised or subaltern voices in Eurocentric academic knowledge production, these processes necessarily include the hidden infrastructures and practices of library and archival collections and operations.

Attention to these particular processes is all too often missed in decolonial scholars’ work on epistemic injustices. This is one of the central gaps my project seeks to bridge. In solidarity with Santos’ manifesto of Another Knowledge is Possible, I argue that building such alternative, reparative and redistribute maps of learning has to involve librarians and archivists as much as it does academic faculty, scholars, and students. References Bhambra, G.K. (2014) Connected Sociologies. London New Delhi New York Sydney: Bloomsbury Bhambra, G.K., Gebrial, D. and Nişancıoğlu, K. (2018) Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press. Bhambra, G.K. (2020) ‘Learning about our past and how it affects the present’, University World News, 13 June. Daiches, D. (1964) The Idea of a New University: An Experiment in Sussex. London: André Deutsch. Santos, B. de S. (2001) ‘Nuestra America’, Theory, Culture & Society, 18(2–3), pp. 185–217. Santos, B. de S. (2008) Another Knowledge is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies. London: Verso. Sheppard, J. (1967) ‘The Barbados Centre for Multi-Racial Studies’, Race, 9(1), pp. 107–108.


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