Saturday, 11 February 2012

Beatrice Webb on the web

100 years on…Beatrice Webb launches LSE’s digital library

One century on and Beatrice Webb, one of the founders of LSE and its library, would be proud to know that her diaries are launching LSE’s Digital Library.

A savage attack on bankers, reflections on a demoralised Labour party, preparations for the monarch’s diamond jubilee and a celebration of the joys of retail therapy. They might sound like a portrait of the contemporary world but in fact are some of the highlights from the diaries of social reformer Beatrice Webb – today published digitally and in full for the first time.

Beatrice Webb, co-founder of both the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Fabian movement, left a fascinating 70-year account of social upheaval and history in the diaries which have now been made freely available online to launch LSE’s digital library.

They record not just her personal struggles but her place in the front-line of public life from the late 19th century to her death in 1943.

The financial crisis of the early 30s, for example, drives her to an attack on financiers and politicians which sounds strangely familiar to a modern audience. Writing in September 1931 after the formation of a national government forced by the great depression, Beatrice thunders:

“We know now the depth of the delusion that the financial world have, either the knowledge or goodwill to guard the safety of the country over whose pecuniary interests they preside. They first make an appalling mess of their own business – involving their country in loss of business and prestige – and then by the most bare-faced dissimulation and political intrigue they throw out one Cabinet and put in their own nominees in order to recover the cost of their miscalculation by hook or crook from the community as a whole.”

She also recorded the effects of the crisis on the Labour party whose conference that year she found:

“Dull, drab, disillusioned but not disunited”

The Webbs founded LSE in 1895 and Beatrice was a busy researcher all her life, publishing studies on poverty, housing, wages, equality and co-operatives among other subjects.

The diary is now available online for the first time. Two versions of the diary have been digitised - the actual manuscript as well as a transcribed version that is cross-referenced with the date fields indexed from the manuscript version. Both versions can now be viewed side-by-side for comparison. The diaries are fully-searchable and contain a wealth of information not just on Beatrice's personal and working life, but on the social history of Britain and the world, spanning 70 years of social upheaval.

The diaries were chosen as the launch collection for the new LSE Digital Library. LSE is one of the first academic libraries to provide a digital library, a service which is becoming more and more necessary due to the requirement to collect, preserve and provide access to digital material. This is compounded by the popularity of social media today and its importance as a historical record, particularly to an institution like LSE.

A range of collections will be added to LSE Digital Library in the future. There is plenty of material held in LSE’s archives such as Fabian Society pamphlets, Charles Booth’s Poverty Map and 19th Century photographs. However it opens the doors for a much wider range of material such as LSE theses, blogs, working papers and podcasts from LSE’s lively public events programme. Library staff are also considering statistics, posters, microfiche, audio visual content, historical broadcasts, exam papers, websites and material relating to LSE history and staff.

LSE Library's collections are at the heart of the life and research of the School and of internationally recognised importance to the social sciences. They have been growing in breadth and stature for over 100 years and include many rare and unique materials. Collecting and preserving digital material is central to the continued distinction of these collections and a part of LSE Library’s role as a research library for the next 100 years.

"Webbs on the Web" project was made possible with funding from the Webb Memorial Trust, to provide online access to the works of Beatrice and Sidney Webb. LSE Digital Library provides a single access point through which users can search and browse this material, with the intention that additional material, such as manuscripts, correspondence and other major collections will be added in the future.

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