Social, Economic & Cultural History Collections

Argula Rublack
Subject Librarian

We will start our subject librarian introduction with Argula Rublack. She’s originally from Germany but moved to the UK to study her BA in History at King’s College London. After that she specialised in Medieval Studies and Digital Humanities at postgraduate taught level. She started in Senate House Library as a cataloguer and says that she was lucky enough to join the Collections team in 2019. We interviewed her and asked her some questions about the collections on social, economic, and cultural history.

Tell us a bit about yourself and the job as a librarian!

I became passionate about giving people access to knowledge because of how enriching my learning during my degrees was to me.
I spent some time volunteering in museums and archives, but eventually decided to become a librarian. Now, I am responsible for collection development and management, which means that I make sure the history collections at Senate House Library support our users’ research needs as best as they can. This includes selecting new publications and resources for the collection, but it can equally mean that I free up space for new materials by weeding them (a library term for removing books from the collection).

Besides that, I reach out to students and staff in the School of Advanced Study and across the University of London to promote our collections. One of our most popular outreach activities during the pandemic have been online induction sessions on different themes such as Victorian culture or Black London history and literature. I also co-organise an event each year together with the Institute of Historical Research Library, called History Day. It’s a free one-day event that aims to bring together students and researchers with information professionals from libraries, archives and research organisations.

The collection on social, economic, and cultural history holds a vast variety of items ranging from the Commonwealth to LGBTQIA+ history. Do you have any tips on navigating the collection?

Senate House Library’s collections really are vast and at times still confound those of us who haven’t worked there for decades, including myself. Not to sound like a cliché librarian but learning how to search a library catalogue really is an essential skill when navigating a huge academic library. Another tip I have is to think creatively about the terms you are using for what you’re looking for. Coming up with two or three different words that describe your research topic can open up tons of more interesting results that you may not have found otherwise. We run research support sessions that teach our users these skills. 

Transnationalism as a concept has been very influential to many interdisciplinary studies over the past decades. How is that reflected in the collection?

Senate House Library can at first glance seem like a very traditional Eurocentric academic library collection, but it doesn’t take long to realise that this is far from the full story. We were fortunate that with successive acquisitions we have been able to make our collections increasingly transnational. For example, we house the  libraries and archives of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and the Institute of Latin American Studies, which have expanded the collections available within the building on topics beyond the Global North enormously. I have been investigating the Institute of Commonwealth Studies’ archives recently and they tell fascinating stories of legacies of empire, decolonisation and global anti-colonial activism during the 20thcentury.

Movements such as decolonizing the curriculum and Black Lives Matter have had a big impact on society and education in the past few years. What impact have they had on this collection?

Like other institutions, we’ve had many discussions at Senate House Library about how we can make our collections more inclusive and do so with a view to making a long-term, meaningful and sustainable impact. We have taken some actions already, such as creating new categories on our e-resources list pointing people to resources on Black Histories and Studies and LGBTQ+ Studies. When we were asked to create new subject guides for our website, I made sure to include a guide on Black History. One of my aims for the history collection has been to include more titles on Black British history in the British history section.
I try to develop and represent the collection with the aim in mind to include many voices different from my own and those which often dominate academia. Yet I’m still keenly aware that being an ‘inclusive collections librarian’ is a constant learning process. Making a collection more inclusive is not a project with a timeline that you can complete one day. We need to constantly question our perspectives and invest real effort in learning about and collecting histories unknown to us. My aim is to work towards embedding this way of thinking into my work and continue to be challenged as I go along.  

Are there any hidden treasures in the collection and what is your personal collection highlight?

Speaking of transnational connections… one of my favourite items in the collection is maybe not visually exciting but it tells a fascinating tale of the history of mathematics in the 19th century British Empire. It is a mathematical treatise written by British-Indian mathematician Ramchundra, which is part of our De Morgan collection on the history of mathematics, collected by British mathematician Augustus De Morgan. De Morgan first became aware of Ramchundra’s work in 1850, when he published it in Calcutta and was so impressed that he sponsored its publication in England. One of SHL’s copies has their correspondence inserted into the volume. You can see it in our 150th anniversary online exhibition. That Ramchundra needed De Morgan’s help in promoting his work tells us a troubling story about imperial hierarchies, in which talented scholars were not recognised. It’s an issue that until this day affects the world of scholarly publishing and academic exchange.

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