RLUK Collections: a virtual tour of our shared treasures

Durham University Library and Collections is a member of Research Libraries UK (RLUK), a consortium of the most significant research libraries in the UK and Ireland. As many members entered lockdown in March, Dr David Prosser (Executive Director of RLUK) took a virtual tour of RLUK member’s special collections via Twitter (#RLUKCollections), including those at Durham University, to highlight just a small selection of the extensive, diverse, and unique collections held within the member libraries and archives.

We have (with permission) highlighted here Durham’s brief entry, and provided links to each of the others, as an opportunity to quickly sample some of the many treasures held within the British Isles.

In several instances, each “visit” approached the collection with a particular theme or lens; in Durham’s case, how particular items or collections might end up being held by one particular archive.

Our Sudan Archive was founded in 1957, the year after Sudanese independence, and is one of four collections at Durham University which hold Designated Collection status under Arts Council England’s Designation Scheme. The others are Bishop Cosin’s Library, and the Egyptian and Chinese Collections at Durham University’s Oriental Museum.

The Sudan Archive includes a wealth of material, much of it from British officials and their families who lived in the Sudan between 1898 and 1955. As well as a significant amount of official, semi-official and personal papers, the collection also includes over 50,000 photographs, 1,000 maps, portraits, cinefilms, archeological reports, museum objects and a large amount of related printed material. It was established through the work of Durham University staff (including the first director of Durham University’s Oriental Museum,  Professor Thomas Willaim Thacker) and former Government officials, with contributions from hundreds of individuals over the decades which followed and support from a number of research grants (Ward, 2015).


Meanwhile, The Cremation Society of Great Britain was founded in 1874 and played a pivotal role in the promotion of cremation as an alternative to burial, and advocating for clarity in the legal basis for allowing cremation and the establishment of crematoria in Britain. The Cremation Society first gave journals and part of its archive to Durham University in 1998, with a further substantial addition in 2015. Funding provided by the Wellcome Trust has helped catalogue the archive, providing access to a valuable resource for research at Durham and beyond.

Serendipity in research is one of our favourite themes; whether that is the importance of creating environments for serendipitous discovery when browsing our collections and how that juxtaposes against the different needs for space from our communities of users, or the journey a book might take through the hands of various owners before arriving in our collections.

The archives of ‘Radical Jack‘ was a significant acquisition for the University in summer 2019, and being able to make the collection available to study for the first time in 40 years will offer great potential for research, teaching and public engagement.

JGL/A/41/7/2/1 (Letter from the Lambton Archive relating to the Reform Act of 1832)

The purchase itself was made possible through the hard work of a collaboration between professional staff within Durham University Library and Collections, and academic colleagues across the University to secure the funding from internal and external sources. The acquisition was a great endorsement of the value of archives and other collections to teaching and research in arts & humanities and social sciences, and the University’s willingness to invest in this.

The press release video can be seen here:

The Lambton Archive also provides a wonderful complement to the Earl Grey papers that we already hold within our special collections. Lambton married Lady Louise Grey, the daughter of Charles, 2nd Earl Grey, who became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1830, both being integral to the passing of the Reform Act of 1832. The Earl Grey papers are another vitally important collection of primary source material covering the political, colonial and diplomatic history of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

GRE/A/2239a/35 ‘Journal of Viscount Cantelupe during a voyage to America and campaigns there, 13 March – 4 December 1777, with account of part of the return voyage, 8 – 20 March 1778.

As we head into two new decades which will see bicentenaries of events to which these collections bear witness, and at a time when Britain’s history and its relationship with its people and colonial Empire are being cast under new lenses for examination, these collections offer a rich resource for researchers to explore.

If this has caught your interest, you can explore this #archivesunlocked tour of RLUK member collections by clicking on each members log below.

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