McMaster University



The Original Purchase of the Russell Archives

The following article by Andrew Vowles appeared first in The McMaster Courier in 1994.

On a summer's day just over a quarter-century ago, Bertrand Russell stood beside his home in north Wales to watch a part of his life roll away.

Loaded in boxes in the back of a truck was most of the 94-year-old's monumental collection of correspondence and unpublished writings, on its way to a London literary agent to be catalogued and sold.

Accompanying the delivery van to London on that day in mid-1966 was the agent's project manager and a young researcher named Kenneth Blackwell.

On a trip to the United Kingdom after his graduation in 1965, he met Russell at his home in north Wales. That meeting landed Dr. Blackwell a brief stint sorting Russell's papers before they were carted off to be sold -- a stint that eventually led to Blackwell's being hired as Russell Archivist at McMaster.

A year and a half later, in 1968, the collection would be packaged up once more, this time bound for Canada and its permanent home in the Library of its purchasers, McMaster University . Ken Blackwell was also packing his bags, preparing to head back to his native Canada and a new job at McMaster.

Ensconced in a cubbyhole roughed out of the stacks and shelves that constituted the old home of the Russell Archives in Mills Memorial Library, Blackwell chuckled as he recalled how he was hired by William Ready, who was renowned for his work in acquiring important archival and rare book collections for McMaster.

Then the University's chief librarian, Dr. Ready had travelled to England early in 1968 in order to bid on the collection. A representative for an American university had already offered the equivalent of about £100,000 (the University of Toronto had also sent representatives to England, but Blackwell says they lagged in preparing an offer). When Russell's literary agents privately asked Blackwell what he thought of the American offer, he promptly replied that the collection was worth twice that amount. "That's what Ready eventually paid", says Blackwell.

Blackwell was a natural candidate for the job of maintaining, documenting and expanding the collection. During the intervening 27 years, he's seen Russell's estate sell a "second" archive to the University in 1972, and he's conducted his own worldwide paper chase to find correspondence, essays and book manuscripts. An excellent staff helped him greatly.

Today's archives, housed in new Library quarters in the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections, include the most extensive collection of original material by or about Russell in the world. Among its holdings are some 25,000 documents written by Russell. The collection includes about 50,000 letters, 80 books, 2,500 shorter essays, papers and articles, four personal journals, draft manuscripts of unpublished books, and Russell's own library of 3,300 volumes and numerous periodical publications and papers.

Part of Blackwell's job is to catalogue the archives' holdings as new material continues to turn up. The task of organizing the collection has caused no shortage of documents, in both paper and electronic form.

One major example is Blackwell's own Bibliography of Russell's writings, a project that he began back in the '60s and finished just last year with Harry Ruja of San Diego State University. Two books in the three-volume set make up the bibliography itself. They contain more than 4,300 entries for books, pamphlets, essays and papers by Russell as well as tapes, phonograph records and films. The third volume is a 304-page, 12,000-entry index to the bibliography.

Another example of the archives' efforts to catalogue the Russell holdings is the Bertrand Russell Archives Catalogue Entry and Retrieval System. BRACERS is a computer-based system that will eventually contain references to all Russell's original correspondence in the archives. Still another example is the 1992 publication by Thoemmes Press of Bristol of a large catalogue of the "second" archive. New acquisitions are reported in the semi-annual Russell: the Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies .

Both the bibliography and the computer system allow visiting researchers, McMaster faculty and students, and library staff to track down individual writings and pieces of correspondence quickly and easily. Referring to both projects, Blackwell says, "The last few years have been years of achievement as far as cataloguing goes. Now the task is to make these research tools electronically available from anywhere in the world on the Internet.

Major users of the cataloguing systems and the archives themselves include researchers from McMaster and from universities abroad. Blackwell says several dozen researchers visit the archives annually, from places as far-flung as India, Australia, Mexico, Europe and China, as well as the United States. Some return many times during a year. Blackwell says visitors' research specialities reflect the range of Russell's interests, including politics, religion, mathematics, philosophy, history, education and literature.

One of the most interesting parts of Blackwell's job is to track down Russell's correspondence and other material that exists outside either of the official archival bequests. A minimum of $4,500 is available in the annual Library budget to bid on whatever material Blackwell is able to lay his hands on. Like many paper chases, this one has led him to correspond all over the world and continues to turn up surprises:

  • One of the archives' most valuable acquisitions consists of microfilm of about 1,900 letters that Russell wrote to Lady Ottoline Morrell, his long-time confidante and sometime mistress. Blackwell found the letters while browsing through the University of Texas library one year on vacation.
  • A recent guest lecturer at McMaster had stumbled across Russell letters about philosophy dating back to 1908 in a chest of drawers in Oxford, England. "To find anything that old is very unusual", says Blackwell.
  • During a visit to England in 1977, Blackwell contacted Russell's widow to inquire about an unpublished essay . Blackwell would never have guessed at its existence until he saw the manuscript in a photo taken for a commemorative book published on the centenary of Russell's birth in 1972. Believing that the work hadn't been up to Russell's own standards, his wife had held the essay back from the second archive sold to McMaster in 1972. "I suspect there are more things like that", says Blackwell.

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