Monday, 15 October 2012


Ruskin College is entering an exciting new phase moving to new buildings. If you can why not go to the College’s Open Day on Saturday 27 October to see the new building, and find out what Ruskin will be doing.

Aspects of the move, however, have caused much consternation and raise broad issues about archives and student records.

That consternation has been reflected in the press, in hundreds of people objecting to the alleged destruction of archives at Ruskin College in Oxford. Emails, web postings, and letters of objection have been sent to the College Principal and the Governors. I did my bit to send the information around the labour history network and proposed at the meeting of the Independent Working Class Education project on Saturday 5 October sending a letter of protest. Although it raises some broader issues, it now appears to me to be all based on a regrettable misunderstanding.  

The following email alert was sent out by Anna Davin:

‘The archives of Ruskin College, pioneer institution of working-class education, have been partly destroyed, on the instructions of the college principal and despite protests and an offer from the Bishopsgate Institute to take everything. What remains may still be at risk.

'Papers have not gone to a landfill site but have been specifically destroyed. Even the removal firm seemed puzzled and sought clarification from the principal who allegedly confirmed that indeed such material must be destroyed', writes Hilda Kean in an article on the History Workshop

Please read Hilda's article for more information if you have time

And please urgently sign and publicize the petition at:

This is what I forwarded on to others. This in turn led to a query to the Principal Audrey Mullender whose reply was copied to me.
‘No, the story is not true. Thanks for checking! …….. We have actually expended a great deal of time and care on moving the College and MacColl Seeger archives into specially designed space in the new library. Do come to our grand opening on 27th October and see it and do please help spread the word that we are now in wonderful premises, set fair for the future. The one thing we have done is to digitise our student records in an interactive database, in a way that complies with data protection legislation but which will allow our alumni to stay in touch with us and with one another.’

Professor Mullender also emailed a general statement providing more detail: 

‘Ruskin College is now in wonderful new premises that mean we can look ahead from the firm foundation of celebrating our past. We have spent a lot of money on moving and housing our archives and memorabilia. The College archive is in a brand new rolling stack, affording access on request to bona fide scholars. The MacColl Seeger archive has its own room, with built-in display cabinets and its sound archive will be backed up on computer. The miners' strike banner had its own vehicle and two teams working on moving and hanging it. It is now in Stoke House at our Headington site. The Bowerman plaque is on loan to the Marx Memorial Library. The one thing we have done is to digitise the student files in a way that complies with the Data Protection legislation. Please come and see us at our grand opening on Saturday 27th October and please help quash these dreadful rumours.’
Some Questions

I then followed it up with an email to Professor Mullender, in which I asked her to clarify the situation based on the following questions:

(1) What happened in respect of instructions to the removal firm which could have led to a misunderstanding about the possible destruction of archive material?

(2) Has any part of the archive material been pruned and destroyed, and if so what did it cover.

(4) Is any further part of the archive material to be pruned and destroyed, and if so what does it cover?

(5) Can you give an assurance that no part of the archive will be pruned without discussion with the Governing Body and the wider body of labour historians and archivists?

(6) Are all original documents in the archive being kept even if they are digitised because of the danger of digital failure or replacement by new technology?

(7) Which sections of the archive are subject to the equivalent of 30 years rule as in the case of Public Records and 100 years as in the case of personal information about people who are still alive?

(8) Given that 100 years have now passed with regard to the personal records of staff and students up to this month, are these now available for public viewing?

Subsequent Discussion

In our telephone discussion Professor Mullender explained to me the following. 

The Archive & Library: There has been some rationalisation:

·         Raphael Samuel material has been sent to the Raphael Samuel archive held at Bishopsgate Institute. This seems to me to be perfectly rational. Prof Mullender cited for example that Ruskin had one half of a letter and the RS collection the other!

·         Middleton papers have been transferred to the People’s History Museum in Manchester.

·         Multiple copies of pamphlets have been reduced. Again this appears to be perfectly rational.

·         The MacColl Seeger Collection is in a special room in the new building including in display cases. The sound material is being digitised.  

Student Records 

·         The student records were not part of the College Archive as such but held in the Registry section, and were not seen to be part of the Archive. The decision to destroy student records was taken after looking at the College Data Protection policy. This states that records should only be kept for 6 years.

·         The records were not comprehensive e.g. some from the earlier years had not survived and the records of those who undertook social work courses at the College had not been retained. Approximately A5-size ledgers with entries for past students are being kept. An accessible database has been created of the names and subjects of former students.

·         Prof Mullender tells me that she did not know about the 100 year rule convention e.g. re-Government held personal information. As the College is not government or government-related it is less clear that the 100-year rule would apply to it as a private institution. As the records are private property of the College it is taking legal advice about the 100-year rule.

·         Files were offered to Ruskin Fellowship members rather than to all alumni, whom it would not have been feasible to contact. Some Fellowship members requested them and these were posted to them at the College’s expense. Because the records were in the Registry she did not see them as archives and only thought about them in terms of Data Protection.

·         She accepts that there are different views to be taken on this: those who would argue that personal records should be kept and then made available after 100 years, but there are others who argue against the keeping of personal records and then their release.

·         She also stresses that in former days there were no controls over tutors’ comments on students in records. They could write what they wanted, and sometimes students themselves recorded very personal detail in connection with their applications. 

Artefacts. Prof Mullender explains that a lot of money (chiefly her own, through personal donation) has been spent on repairs to artefacts and on framing/re-framing items.

·         A miners’ strike banner. This is already on display in one of the refurbished buildings, having had its own vehicle and two teams of skilled workers involved in moving it.

·         The Bowerman plaque is on loan to Marx Memorial Library.

Future of the Library/Archive. The College does not have an archivist. The Archive is held in the Library.  

Ruskin’s Past, Present and Future. Prof Mullender stresses that she and the Governors are proud of the College’s history and wish to promote alongside current and future work.  It seems to me that the recent row may have damaged the reputation of Ruskin which could undermine its ability to deliver in the future. On the other hand a lot more people now know about the unique contribution that Ruskin has made. It may be a case of any publicity is good publicity. But if you agree with me that the row has been based on a misunderstanding then Ruskin deserves positive support from now on. 

On-going Debate

Following my sending the above to my Labour History elist I have received a number of responses, drawing my  attention to three issues, which I emailed Prof. Mullender about. 

Firstly, given the shredding of student records (confirmed in the Telegraph piece. there does not appear to have been a guarantee that all surviving student records from the 1940s will be retained and that as a priority assurances are needed that no further destruction of archival material will take place. Of course this makes the assumption that the student records are archives. 

Secondly, a real concern that student records from between the foundation of Ruskin in 1899 and the 'strike' in 1909 may have been among those shredded. 

Thirdly, issues relating to Data Protection and Freedom of Information. I set out below my understanding of points made to me by archivists. as a section to be added into my Blog. 

I suggested to Prof. Mullender that it would be very helpful if she would consider the following: 

(1)        making it clear whether or not student records from 1899 to 1909 were in existence and were shredded or whether they had not survived from earlier times.

(2)        stating that all remaining student record files will be retained while the College considers the matters raised by archivists below. 

Data Protection and Freedom of Information

It has always struck me that Data Protection and Freedom of Information are mine fields, at it is no wonder that things can be misunderstood. It is therefore very helpful to have received advice from archivists on the following matters arising from the Ruskin affair.  

1.         Although one of the 8 principles of the Act does advocate the destruction of records including personal and sensitive personal information as soon as they are no longer required, this does not mean that such records cannot be retained for future use as historic archives.

2.         The Society of Archivists (now Archives and Records Association) did establish a Code of Practice on the retention of records including personal information for future historic research that have been approved by the Information Commissioner.

3.         Managers of organisations do need to seek advice from an Archivist/Records Manager.

5.         JISC has created excellent records management guidance for further education bodies that provide support in such circumstances. See

6.         Unfortunately the Principle of the Data Protection Act (in 1. above) is being used by many organisations as an excuse to prune manual/electronic corporate records that in many cases have survived and can be used for amazing research.

7.         The lack of knowledge and not seeking advice about the above points has led to this unfortunate destruction. Extracting student details as part of a database is not a replacement for the original records that would have included so much more information that would have become available to researchers after a restricted access period.

8.         Such electronic records will incur future digital preservation strategy requirements. Procedures will need to be put in place to cover these requirements.

9.         The Ruskin situation highlights the problems that can occur of limited awareness of information management and Freedom of Information responsibilities by public authorities, which include further and higher education bodies.

10.       In many cases, researchers who have access to records including personal/sensitive personal information may be asked to sign a disclaimer document in the archive agreeing that they will not mention names of individuals but will make such entries anonymous to protect individuals, so best practice guidelines are available to cover such eventualities, including the DP guidance mentioned above.

11.       There is no such thing as a 100 year rule. Many archives implement a ‘restricted access period’ of 100 years or even these days 110 years, so that individuals are no longer living when access is granted to researchers. Access to information contained in records can be challenged by individuals under Freedom of Information legislation (and the ICO has guidelines on such things) and it is important for any public authority to have an overview of how the Data Protection Act and Freedom of Information and other information legislation interact when deciding whether to provide access to information held in records.

These are clearly matters that need to be considered by all institutions considering pruning and destroying records in the future.

Prof. Mullender’s Response 

Prof Mullender has replied to the above saying that she has referred the whole matter to the College Data Protection Officer.’ Interestingly, and in the light of the very sensible questions in your blog’, she has also asked one of her correspondents from the University of Oxford what Oxford does with its student files.  

The Future of Archives 

The reaction to the initial information is understandable given the wider context relating to Universities and archive organisations. Both are under increasing financial pressure.   

·         London Metropolitan University (LMU) played funding brinkmanship over the future of the TUC Library. Although the TUC and the University have reached agreement how long will this last.

·         LMU’s  threat to close the Women’s Library has resulted in LSE agreeing to take it over, although there are continuing concerns about its relocation to the LSE campus from its more accessible community area setting, and question marks over the future of its staff.

·         The lack of money for archives and specialist collections to expand their storage space means they cannot accept additions to their collections. In my experience this has been  a particular problem with specialist record collections of 78 and LPs, whose preservation is needed because of the differences in listening experience  to CDs, and the as yet unknown life of CD and digital recordings. There is also going to develop into a crisis as hundreds of community and voluntary organisations going into liquidation due to funding problems whose archives will need to be preserved.

·         The increasing commercial deals meaning that non-academic researchers have to pay for access to digitised archives.

·         The ring-fenced nature of an increasing number of digested archives and collections mainly to academics, even though large sums of public money have been spent to create them.

·         As I have previously argued we need to strongly advise organisations to have archive preservation policies, and in the event of emergency crises of collections needing to be provided with temporary homes while their longer term futures are decided.

·         The threat to local archives and study centres as part of the crisis facing funding of local authority libraries.

The Future of Policies on Student Records. Should there be a discussion across the University world as to whether student records are archives or registry documents? If they are registry documents should they be classified also as archives? Should Data Protection Policies on student records:

·         provide for the keeping of  student records closed for up to 100 years subject to their own files being accessible by former students?

·         provide for the destruction of records after a set number of years subject to the individual former student being offered the options of (a) having the file sent to them, (b) to have it destroyed, or (c) to be retained and opened after 100 years?

·         include provision for the creation of accessible databases of key information about former students, where year books are not published?

·         be discussed with Convocations of graduates? 

Grand Opening and Gala Evening

Ruskin Hall • Dunstan Road • Old Headington • Oxford OX3 9BZ

For information on venue:

Saturday 27 October 2012

10.00 a.m. – 8.30 p.m. 

All-day events include opportunities to tour the new building and visits to the walled garden together with displays, activities, a new café and much more. All welcome, free, just come along!
Programme of Events (Subject to change) 

10.00    The new Academic Building and the renovated Rookery open to visitors. Visits to the walled garden commence.

10.30    Ribbon cutting in the walled garden by Peter Thoday, TV presenter of The Victorian Kitchen Garden and former Horticultural Director of the Eden Project. Speeches and poems.

11.30    Ribbon cutting on the main entrance by Gordon Marsden MP, Shadow Minister for Further Education, Skills and Regional Growth.

11.45    Ribbon cutting on the Callaghan Library (upper ground floor, through reception) by Baroness Jay of Paddington, daughter of the late Lord Callaghan and former Leader of the House of Lords/Lord Privy Seal Minister for Women.

12.00    Speeches in the Conference Room (rooms 2.09/2.10) to celebrate the grand opening of the redeveloped Ruskin College.

13.00    Ribbon cutting on the mosaic in the atrium by the artist, creative team and their WEA tutor, with brief explanatory talk.

14.00    Book launch and seminar on: Gendering and Diversifying Trade Union Leadership, edited by Sue Ledwith and Lise Lotte. Hansen, Conference Room (rooms 2.09/2.10).

14.30    Design and construction workshop on the redevelopment project, Board Room (room G.01, just inside the main entrance).

16.30    World première of the play: Our Lady of the Trees, the story of Wangari Maathai, the first Black woman to win a Nobel prize. Conference Room (rooms 2.09/2.10).

19.00–   Gala evening, Conference Room (rooms 2.09/2.10), with top of the bill: Peggy Seeger. 

All Day:

·         Opportunities to tour the new building

·         Visits to the walled garden

·         Academic subject displays

·         Mosaic project display

·         Corporate displays by the design and construction teams

·         Preview of exhibition, ‘Lake of the Whispering Spirits’, for Native American Heritage Month in November

 Further details:

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