Monthly Collections Blog Post: William Collins Archive

For May’s collection blog, we thought we’d turn to one of our readers to see how our collections are being used out in the field.

A few weeks ago, Robyn Pritzker, an MSc Book History student at the University of Edinburgh, headed over to Archive Services to delve into UGD 243, otherwise known as the William Collins, Sons, and Company Ltd., Publishers archive.

William Collins was born in Glasgow in 1789. He worked as a teacher until 1819 when he entered the publishing trade. His heirs and successors expanded the business, creating a global network of publishing outfits and a clientele which included Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and even Pope John Paul II. The collection is one of my personal favourites and so I was delighted to share my enthusiasm for it with Robyn. It is in many respects a typical business archive compiled of company minute books, ledgers and cash books, but it also contains something quite special in the files of authors’ correspondence: here, the boundaries between the personal and professional are blurred, showing a distinctive style of business.

After a quick cup of tea and a restorative biscuit in our tea room, Robyn got down to work. Her task was to survey a sample of the Collins Archive, examining it in its wider context as part of the Scottish Business Archive held here at the University of Glasgow, as well as digging deep into the author’s correspondence. This was a refreshing use of the collection from the outset. Of course, as custodians of historical material, archives are often seen as a means to an end. However, Robyn was able to treat the archive as an end in itself. As a student of Book History, she was not only interested in the content of the box, but how the box came to be there in the first place.

Indeed, Robyn notes that “the collection is still under construction.” This is down to the fact that the archive contains material relating to both living and deceased authors. Data Protection law prevents certain files from being accessed if they belong to living authors. This means that over time researchers’ access to the collection will grow as restrictions are lifted.

In its current form, however, the materials available are illuminating if you take the time to peruse the boxes of authors’ correspondence. Take this letter from P. L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins – perhaps its content is familiar if you’ve seen the 2013 film Saving Mr Banks starring Emma Thompson:

UGD 243/1/10/33

UGD 243/1/10/33

Films like Saving Mr Banks highlight the interest which exists in the stories behind our favourite books, and those who wrote them. Consider my joy, then, when I came across correspondence relating to a ‘Julie Edwards’ – the pen name of the embodiment of Mary Poppins herself, Julie Andrews.

The personal relationships enjoyed between author and editor divulge a unique snapshot of everyday life when correspondence slowly evolves from formal letters to cheery postcards, invitations to lunch, and even a map of Cambridge from 1969, thoughtfully indicating the best parking spots for a visiting editor. Having relished studying social history at university, it is sources like these which give business records another dimension, rooting them in a familiar relevance.

Robyn’s visit provided me with a fantastic excuse to showcase the Collins Archive. If you would like to know more about the Collins Archive (UGD 243) you can view its entry on ArchivesHub, or email the Duty Archivist to make an appointment to see the collection in person:

Categories: Archive Services

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