Formal opening of the James Currey Collection at St. Cross College

On Saturday 2 March the James Currey team – made up of James Currey ‘the man’ as well as James Currey the ‘concept’ (a leading publisher of academic books on Africa; an imprint of Boydell & Brewer; a community of authors, colleagues, co-publishers, freelancers and supporters old and new) – celebrated the formal opening of the James Currey Collection at University of Oxford’s St Cross College.

James Currey and the collection. Image credit: Stuart Bebb

Carole Souter, the Master of St Cross, thanked Wendy James, Douglas Johnson and James for helping to secure the collection for the college, and also thanked Boydell and Brewer for agreeing to add all new first editions for at least the next 10 years. This means that as well as being a valuable archive of past publishing, the collection is also looking forward and will continue to grow and be available to new scholars as the university develops its commitment to African Studies and African scholarship, and as St Cross becomes known as the place to access these books.

In 2017 St Cross librarian Sheila Allcock took delivery of over 1,000 books. These have now all been fully catalogued on the OLIS (Oxford Library Information System) and can be found via SOLO (Search Oxford Libraries Online). The books are all splendidly housed in the Library breakout room next to the library – or more formally – the Douglas and Catherine Wigdor Room. The books are available as a reference collection, and are, as St Cross announced when they first arrived, ‘an exceptional resource’ as they are the only complete set of file copies. The bookplate in each records the founding of the company in 1985 by James and his wife Clare Currey. It also records the donation of all first editions to St Cross by Boydell & Brewer.

The James Currey Collection in the Douglas and Catherine Wigdor Room.
Image credit: Stuart Bebb

But the road to the formal opening was an even longer one. It began in 2008 when James Currey Publishers became part of Boydell & Brewer and we started to pack up our Oxford office and were looking to house over 20 years of publishing archive. Crucial support at this time came from the Senior Archivist at the Bodleian library, Lucy McCann, who agreed that all the Editorial files for all the titles published since 1985 would be a valuable addition to their own archives, and these were duly boxed up and driven off in a van, along with the contents of the plan chest of cover artwork and other production files, to be catalogued and made available to researchers for reference. Meanwhile, James Currey and Douglas Johnson found homes for some of their own personal archives and books in places that would value them, ranging from a bookshop in Juba, South Sudan, …to the library shelves of Wadham and St Anne’s College … to the expanding Oxford African Studies Centre, now headed by Professor Wale Adebanwi.

Carole Souter with African Publishers Bibi Bakare-Yusuf; Margaret Busby; Nana Ayebia Clarke; Zaahida Nabagereka; Ellah Wakatama Allfrey. Image credit: Stuart Bebb

One big question remaining was what to do with the files copies of all the books published since 1985, and yet keep them accessible so that they could still be read and used for reference? A generous but temporary solution was offered by Douglas Johnson and Professor Wendy James to keep them in what was, until then, their dining room. Wendy fortunately had her ear to the ground and as a Fellow of St Cross College saw that plans for a library as part of the new West Quad development might be a longer term solution for housing the collection. Along with her St Cross colleague, the much liked and respected author, the late Jan-Georg Deutsch, and with huge commitment and enthusiasm from Sheila Allcock the Librarian, they worked hard to keep the idea of housing the James Currey collection in the plans over the long years of design and build.

At last in 2017 the call came! The library was built and the shelves were ready. It was extraordinary to walk with James into the sunny room and see the empty shelves behind glass doors lining each wall, ready and waiting for the books to arrive. Calculations were made with the help of antiquarian bookseller and bibliophile Paul Wilson of the quantities of books, the length of shelving available and how best to arrange them to allow for expansion where needed.

James Currey with John Lonsdale, Douglas Johnson & David Anderson. Image credit: Stuart Bebb

What followed were a few shifts back in Douglas and Wendy’s dining room, to get the books ready for packing. The process of taking each book down in turn, and opening them to add the bookplates, triggered a flow of anecdotes and associations (aided mainly by both James’s and Douglas’s phenomenal memory for detail) which would have been an archive in its own right if we had recorded the conversation as it drifted from author to author, title to title, year to year: the successes and near disasters, the background noise of political events/births and deaths, celebrations around particular titles or series (James being hosted by President Gaddafi in Libya for the launch of the 8th volume of the Unesco General History of Africa comes to mind now) … but importantly the long-term relationships with authors and co-publishers. What surfaced was the huge collective effort it took for each book to be researched, written, assessed, edited, typeset, printed with a cover (preferably with the right title and author) and then published with the aim that it should be read by scholars in Africa itself as well outside. And of course, the massive presence in the dining room back then, and at the celebration on Saturday and to which the collection bears witness, is the lifelong commitment that James Currey ‘the man’ has made to publishing well-researched books not just about Africa but also to making them available in Africa whenever possible, but particularly by working with Africa co-publishers.

The commitment by Boydell & Brewer to keep adding new books to the collection means that this includes any new co-editions with African publishers – the most recent of these being the Nigeria edition from Premium Times Books of Creed & Grievance (edited by Abdul Raufu Mustapha & David Ehrhardt); the Wits University Press edition for Southern Africa of Township Violence & the End of Apartheid; and next in line will be Sub-Saharan Publishers’ edition of Voices of Ghana.

Many thanks to St Cross for giving the James Currey Collection such a wonderful new home.

Tsehai Berhane-Selassie launching her book Ethiopian Warriohood. Image credit: Stuart Bebb

The opening of the collection was a fitting conclusion to a day-long event focusing on Africa and including a launch of Tsehai Berhane-Selassie’s new book on Ethiopian Warriorhood, and a lecture by author and Fellow of St Cross, Richard Reid, on the long-term impact of colonial history on people’s perceptions of the continent. This was followed by an impressive panel including some of the key African women publishers who have had such an impact on changing the landscape of ‘African literature and publishing in the global marketplace’: Ellah Wakatama Allfrey; Bibi Bakare-Yusuf; Margaret Busby; Nana Ayebia Clarke and Zaahida Nabagereka…. Follow the discussion and the significance of the debates around knowledge production and ownership, as they look to the future with ambition and pride to continue the publishing of more subtle and nuanced and varied understandings of the continent.

This guest post was written by Lynn Taylor, managing editor of James Currey, an imprint of Boydell and Brewer.

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