The WEA (Workers’ Education Association) is a UK wide education charity founded in 1903 that provides educational opportunities for the most disadvantaged. In 2017, WEA Scotland worked from six area offices across Scotland in an estate that was poor, expensive, and not fit for purpose. At the same time, the charity was facing significant financial challenges. With property costs being the second largest budget line, the WEA Scotland Board took the decision to move from our established premises to alternative accommodation that was more affordable.
Within each office, a huge number of books and materials had accumulated over many years. The emerging challenge was to determine which material could be responsibly disposed of and which material had significant historical value and was a vital part of the WEA’s regional or national legacy. There was also a real risk that the material could easily deteriorate or be destroyed if it was simply moved from one office to another. It also became clear there was no single national record of all the material that existed across Scotland. After some initial due diligence, it transpired that in addition to material being stored in local offices there was a significant amount of books and materials located in libraries and archive centres across Scotland.
This discovery of materials in other libraries and archives was the catalyst for the idea to establish a WEA National Archive where all WEA materials could be catalogued and stored safely in a single location and where the legacy of the WEA in Scotland could be preserved. This aspiration to establish a national archive led the WEA to meet with Glasgow Caledonian University Archive Centre and the immediate realisation that this was where the WEA Scotland National Archive belonged.
GCU as the University for the Common Good has much in common with the WEA sharing similar ethos and outlook in many areas. GCU’s Archive Centre has worked with various WEA staff members over the years and our existing collections compliment the history of the WEA especially the records of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.
While GCU’s work really begins now, the WEA used volunteers with professional skills to weed, list and box the records in their ownership. They liaised and worked with libraries and archives to deaccession collections to complete the mammoth task of bringing all of this material together. We are extremely grateful to everyone for all of their hard work. We have not yet started our work on the collection but reaction to its arrival and a launch event has only further highlighted the importance of this collection for the academic, community and public engagement, and cultural arenas. Our next step is to start the process of identifying funding opportunities to allow us to catalogue the collection. It is a history with a very exciting future.
To read a joint blog by the WEA and GCU about the WEA Scotland National Archive Launch, click here.
Text provided by Ray McCowan (WEA Scotland Director) and Carole McCallum (University Archivist)
Image: Carole McCallum (University Archivist) with a small part of the archive © Peter Devlin