SCOLMA letter on the proposed closure of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies

31 October 2020

Professor Wendy Thomson, CBE
Vice-Chancellor, University of London

Dear Professor Thomson

We in SCOLMA (the UK Libraries and Archives Group on Africa) are extremely concerned to hear about plans to close the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study.

As librarians and archivists of African collections across the UK, we are all aware of the great importance of the ICWS and its collections to the African Studies field. More than this, it occupies a unique and interdisciplinary space at the intersection of Area Studies and scholarship on the British Commonwealth and empire, holding colonial and postcolonial studies in creative tension. It is also an important base for the study of Black British history in the UK.

This combining of subjects and disciplines has generated an outstandingly rich intellectual life, focused on the ever-active hub of the ICwS, which has attracted many senior scholars and gained wide international recognition. We recall, for example, many conferences and seminars (such as that which helped put Dag Hammarskjöld’s death back on the agenda, and those which investigated the emerging story of the migrated archives); publications of immense importance including the British Documents on the End of Empire series; and projects capturing crucial first-hand accounts such as the Commonwealth Oral History Project.

The Institute’s research and teaching have generated library and archives collections (now part of Senate House Library) that are extremely important in the field of African Studies. The archives include, for example, the high-profile papers of South African activist Ruth First, while the printed collections are extensive and include particularly valuable holdings of political pamphlets and ephemera as well as official publications.

We are concerned both for preservation of and access to these collections, should the Institute close, and for the continuing acquisitions and curation necessary to keep such collections current and ‘live’. Has any consideration been given to these questions? In particular, what weight can we give to assurances made now, when the collections may lack the necessary advocacy of students and scholars in the long term?

Should the ICwS close, the loss of this critical institutional base can in no way be replaced by activities planned by the Institute of Historical Research. To abolish the Institute at this time of Brexit and Black Lives Matter would seem utterly counter-productive. Similar considerations apply to the Institute of Latin American Studies, also threatened with closure. The Commonwealth, and the world at large, will become increasingly important to the UK in future.

We therefore strongly urge you to reconsider this hasty decision to close the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

Yours sincerely,

(Dr) Marion Wallace
Chair, SCOLMA (the UK Libraries and Archives Group on Africa)

SCOLMA (the UK Libraries and Archives Group on Africa) BLACK LIVES MATTER STATEMENT

SCOLMA (the UK Libraries and Archives Group on Africa)


Agreed at the SCOLMA AGM, 8.6.20

We in SCOLMA (the UK Libraries and Archives Group on Africa) wish to add our voice to those condemning the recent death of George Floyd in police custody in the US.

Systemic racism is far from being a US problem. Black people living in the UK are more likely to suffer death in police custody than white people, and they experience discrimination in education, employment, health care and the judicial system. Black children are twice as likely to live in poverty as white children. As individuals, we can all seek to understand, acknowledge and reflect on these issues, and to call out racism wherever it occurs.

SCOLMA stands in solidarity with library and archives staff and users, and the communities with whom we work, who experience discrimination based solely on their race or ethnicity. As librarians and archivists in African Studies, we are particularly aware of the past violence and racism that has led to the structural inequalities of today. Many of us are responsible for collections that have their roots in the history of British relations with Africa, including the slave trade, conquest and colonisation. We are also aware of the white-dominated nature of the library and archives professions in the UK and that the workforce lacks diversity (in 2015, 96.7% of professionals working in public, academic and commercial libraries identified as white – see SCONUL Research project BAME staff experiences of academic libraries).

As SCOLMA and as individual professionals, we regularly work with African colleagues and engage in activities to foreground African voices. We commit to building on these efforts in the following ways:

  • working to make our collections as widely available as possible;
  • seeking to engage meaningfully with the decolonisation movement;
  • supporting efforts to make the UK library and archive professions, as well as SCOLMA itself, more diverse;
  • and pointing to relevant resources on our website.

Change is long overdue, and we commit ourselves to the fight to dismantle racism in all areas of society.



Oun a ní la ? gbé l’árug? 

(It is the heritage we have that we must celebrate):

 Publishing, Collecting and Accessing African-language Materials 

Postponed from: 8 June 2020

It is with great regret that SCOLMA has decided to postpone its annual conference, which was due to be held on 8 June 2020, owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

We’d like to thank everyone who has shown interest in and support for the conference. We hope to see you all next year instead, and are looking at rescheduling the conference (on the same theme) for summer 2021. We’ll send out more information in due course.

In the meantime, stay safe and well everybody.

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