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3 posts from February 2018

15 February 2018

Researching American political pamphlets

Pamphlets have for centuries been an important medium for disseminating news and ideas and rallying public opinion, but their typically subversive nature made them a thorn in the side of rulers in Early Modern Europe. Pamphlets were notoriously vulgar and unreliable, and as such, the term ‘pamphlet’ and ‘pamphleteer’ were often used in a pejorative sense –– at one point even used as a synonym for a prostitute.1 But what of the pamphlet in 20th century America? How did new and improved technology and a radical, modern political landscape alter the nature of the pamphlet?

Having carried on much previous research on the radical politics of the interwar period, I was very excited at the prospect of exploring American political pamphlets from 1920-1945. This project is an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership between the British Library and the University of Sussex, which makes use of the extensive collection of American political pamphlets held at the Library. The full scope of the pamphlets available is not yet known, and one of the major aims of the project is to produce a coherent and comprehensive digital database of the pamphlets for the Library, making them more accessible for both researchers and the public.

I feel extremely privileged to be given the opportunity to work with these pamphlets, many of which feature wonderful illustrations and photography. For example, this pamphlet issued by the Friends of the Soviet Union is filled with photos of working life in the Soviet Union, intended to display the ‘tremendous achievements’ of the first Five Year Plan.

Page from Soviet Pictorial: Forging Ahead, published by the Friends of the Soviet Union in 1931. Shelfmark YD.2007.a.2167


This pamphlet by Pioneer Publishers (publishing house of the Socialist Workers Party, formerly the Communist League of America) is just one example of the some of the striking, politically-charged artwork to be found within many of these publications. This example features work by Laura Gray, who often produced illustrations for the Socialist Workers Party. Other notable radical illustrators to be found in the collection include Hugo Gellert, Robert Minor and William Gropper.
American Workers Need a Labor Party, Pioneer Publishers (1944). Shelfmark

  The history of pamphlets is not a topic that has been researched extensively, and what has been written focuses more on their uses in early modern Europe. This project hopes to bring to light the significance of the political pamphlet in modern America, eventually contributing to a more comprehensive history of the pamphlet overall. Some of the questions I will be asking include:

  • Where were the centres of pamphlet production, and how did changes in press restrictions impact the production of pamphlets and the radical publishing house in general?
  • Likewise, where were the main distribution centres for political pamphlets?
  • How many of these American political pamphlets found themselves in the hands of groups across the Atlantic? If so, how, and what kind of influence did they have?

With regards to the content of the pamphlets, I am especially interested in exploring the interaction through pamphlets between the Left and conservative and fascist anti-communist groups and organisations. For example, how either side dealt with the other as a respective threat. The interwar period was marked by increasing ideological polarisation across the world, and America was no exception. On the one hand, this period saw the creation of the Communist Party of America along with many other left-wing organisations that had been inspired and strengthened by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and on the other hand new fascist-inspired groups were formed while older far-right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan saw its membership reach its peak of 4 million in the 1920s. The raison d’être for the majority of the far-right became fighting the supposed international threat of Jews and Communists. At the same time, political repression on federal, state and local levels was overwhelmingly justified on anti-communist grounds. I want to explain how pamphlets were used by the Left and civil liberties groups to counter these threats, and how successful they were in doing so.

To be a PhD student with the British Library is an invaluable experience – from the extensive access to important resources, the support and expertise of staff, and the many opportunities available. I have enjoyed every moment and I am excited to unlock all the potential of this project.


[1] Joad Raymond, Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early Modern Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 8, 9.


By Jodie Collins,

AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library and University of Sussex


13 February 2018

Diplomacy and bibliophily: a gift from Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Grenville?

Thomas Grenville (1755-1846)  is best known in the British Library as the owner of a library of some 20,000 volumes, which he bequeathed to the BM thanks to the negotiations (some say machinations) of Anthony Panizzi.

Born in 1755 into a political Whig family (his brother, Lord Grenville, was Prime Minister from 1763-65), Grenville retired from public life in 1818 to devote himself to his library, which he kept in his residence at Hyde Park Corner.  Now demolished, it has been replaced with an up-market hotel.

Thomas Grenville by and published by Charles Turner, after John Hoppner mezzotint, published 18 November 1805 (1805) NPG D34934 © National Portrait Gallery, London

But prior to retirement he had been a diplomat. He represented Britain at the conference in Paris in 1783, which negotiated the independence of the United States of America.

Among the American negotiators was the multi-faceted Benjamin Franklin.

Grenville’s copy of Franklin’s edition of Cicero’s Cato, on Old Age (G.17543), bears in a bold hand on the fly-leaf: Grenville. The small and neat hand above it is Grenville’s.

Cato Major G.17543
Shelfmark G.17543.

A large proportion of Grenville’s library was devoted to the Classics, as was to be expected of a connoisseur of his time. Grenville’s academic credentials went further than that: he and his brother produced an edition of Homer, with the aid of their old Oxford tutor William Cleaver. So great was Grenville’s attachment to this project that he kept the proofs and working papers.

Among his other talents, Franklin was a printer, and his work is praised in the highest terms in a Library of Congress online exhibition []:

  1. T. Cicero’s Cato Major, Franklin’s personal favorite from his press, is considered to be the finest example of the printing art in colonial America. Furthermore, this work of the Roman philosopher statesman [remind you of anyone? BT] is the first classic work translated [by James Logan] and printed in North America ...

In his ‘Printer to the Reader’, Franklin explains that he has printed this piece ‘in a large and fair Character, that those who begin to think on the Subject of old-age ... may not, in Reading by the Pain small letters give the Eyes, feel the Pleasure of the Mind in the least allayed.’

What better gift for the book-loving Grenville?  If our copy of Cato was indeed presented by Franklin to Grenville on the occasion of the Congress of Paris, he could be sure that it was going to a good home.


Barry Taylor, ‘Thomas Grenville (1755-1846) and his books’, in Libraries within the Library: The Origins of the British Library’s Printed Collections, ed. Giles Mandelbrote and Barry Taylor (London, 2009), pp. 321-40

- Barry Taylor

09 February 2018

“Why can’t we study ourselves?”: The case for Caribbean history in the West Indian Gazette

‘A community, like an individual, to grow in wisdom needs to know and accept its own past.’[1]

 Writing in the West Indian Gazette in 1961, Shirley Gordon put forth the case for a reinvigoration of West Indian history in her article ‘The Teaching of W.I. History’.[2] Founded in 1958 by Claudia Jones a Trinidadian-born political activist and commentator, the West Indian Gazette was the first Black newspaper to be sold on the British high-street. Shirley Gordon was a life-long advocate of, and activist for the development of West Indian history, recognising the problems that arose out of historical neglect and distortion.


West Indian Gazette, May 1961

My current research at the library looks into the multiplicity of ways in which history manifested itself in Caribbean popular culture in 1960s and 1970s Britain. At the moment, I am focusing on history segments in British-Caribbean publications such as the West Indian Gazette and Flamingo, with an emphasis on the moment of Caribbean independence across the 1960s. Whilst searching through the West Indian Gazette ‘Know Your History’ features I stumbled across Shirley Gordon’s article. Although not part of the ‘Know Your History’ feature, Gordon’s writing about history teaching encapsulates what history segments in journals and newspapers were trying to achieve.

Using an analogy of the human life-cycle she compared the trauma of slave society to ‘the long and unhappy childhood of the community’, and ‘the post-emancipation society’ as a form of ‘adolescence’ which suffered ‘under its prolonged colonial tutelage’.[3] Moving into the present, for Gordon this represented the ‘problems and challenges’ associated with ‘human as well as political adulthood.’[4] These problems and challenges included overcoming the historic imposition of European colonial history, which had overshadowed a much needed locally-oriented yet transnational West Indian narrative. Through this life-cycle analogy, Shirley Gordon depicts history as part of a personal, or rather communal, search for identity. In this case, history is the nation.


West Indian Gazette, May 1961, p.6

The profundity of remedying West Indian history-telling was no doubt connected to the dawning of independence on the region; ‘a new nation must have a history to refer to’.[5] Although a ‘new nation’, the assertion of a unique West Indian history at this moment in time, was deeply focused on evidencing historicity and diversity. Commonly found among the pages of British-Caribbean newspapers and journals were reconstructions and stories of the native peoples of the Caribbean – the Arawaks, Caribs and Taínos – and of its powerful and regal African roots and connections. My drive to research the meaning and expressions of history is no doubt boosted by Gordon’s implication that history is integral to national development, especially in the post-colonial context. It seems that history, in its countless forms, shapes and styles was critical for exploring the Caribbean’s identity, strength, and ability to imagine and build a future. Such cultural manifestations of the region and its diaspora’s history will be explored and displayed in the upcoming ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’ exhibition, opening on 1 June 2018. The Caribbean’s historical tapestry has been woven out of novels, music and political movements amongst other things; from Andrea Levy’s Small Island to Lord Kitchener’s calypso tunes, this renegotiation and reimagining of the Caribbean will be made visible in the exhibition’s diverse offerings.  


Naomi Oppenheim



Naomi Oppenheim is a PhD candidate on a CDP at the British Library and UCL. She is currently researching British-Caribbean popular culture and the politics of history in the post-war period.



[1] West Indian Gazette, May 1961, p.6.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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