Encountering R D Laing’s Archive

The year 2014 marks 200 years of organised psychiatric care in the West of Scotland and 25 years since the death of Glasgow-born psychiatrist and author Ronald David Laing (1927-1989).

Special Collections have been involved with two recent events, to mark these significant anniversaries. Dr Cheryl McGeachan, School of Geographical & Earth Sciences, has worked with the Laing collection here for a number of years now. In collaboration with members of the Laing family, myself and colleagues working in psychiatry, she organised a conference in October, supported by the Wellcome Trust. ‘Encountering R D Laing: Mental Health, Care and Creativity’ considered Laing’s legacy, transitions in mental health care and Laing as a ‘renaissance man’ who was influenced by and influenced the Arts.

Given the importance of Laing’s archive in understanding his life and work, Special Collections hosted a creative writing workshop, also supported by the Wellcome Trust and led by Geraldine Perriam, prior to the conference. It proved to be a really rewarding day, providing an opportunity for a group of people with diverse experiences and interests to explore the collection. This was done through a selection of items, group discussion and writing exercises – rather different from the often solitary and silent experience which most researchers will have in a reading room.

Laing_composite

The workshop selection included a photograph of R D Laing (top left) as a medical student, University of Glasgow, a 1940s recording of Laing playing piano and 1950s notebook recording books he’d read. (MS Laing)

Laing’s archive extends over 20 metres of shelving and includes 1000s of letters, notebooks, photographs, recordings, patient notes (restricted), unpublished writing and ephemera. So, it was tricky to make just a small selection. I was keen that we included items in Laing’s own handwriting – that were unique and that he’d very obviously created and held in his hands. I also wanted to include material that related to Laing as a private person, not just the work for which he is so well known.

LaingLibrary

Some of the books from Laing’s library (Sp Coll Laing)

We also escorted our workshop guests into the stack so that they could have a look at Laing’s library on the shelves. Seeing the eclectic collection of books he had had on his own shelves had quite an impact and this was expressed in some of the subsequent writing. We presented a summary of the workshop at the conference and Cheryl and Geraldine read out some of the works. All of the contributions will be available soon in printed form and you can read Cheryl’s reflections on the day via the Asylum and Post-Asylum Spaces blog.

The conference ended with a special screening of a half-hour showreel of Laing on a speaking tour of the USA in 1972. You can read more about this film collection here.



Categories: Reflections, Special Collections

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