Learning from history

As a momentary pause from all the tales of Co-operative Group troubles, let me make two comments. First, the cooperative movement is worldwide. We need to keep the global perspective to remember that elsewhere coops are demonstrating they are a robust and successful business model.

And secondly, there has been a cooperative movement in Britain for at least two hundred years and I am confident to predict that there will continue to be a British cooperative movement in the years ahead, whatever is happening at present at the Group.

I’ve been an active user of the National Co-operative Archive in Manchester for some months now, for research for a forthcoming history I’m writing on early productive coops, and yesterday the archivist Gillian Lonergan took time to take me downstairs and show me the archives stacks where all the material is carefully conserved. It’s a fascinating and valuable repository of the results of the cooperative impulse in Britain going back to the early nineteenth century, with some real treasures. I’m sure Gillian would like me to add that the archive is looked after by the Co-operative Heritage Trust (associated with the Co-operative College) and is there for all to use.

Out of the attic, into the archives: ensuring yesterday’s (and today’s) coop records are saved

One welcome side-effect of the Co-operative Group’s move into its new Manchester head office, I understand, is that a spring clean has been going on in the office accommodation which it has vacated and as a consequence a large number of old archive boxes have been making their way to the nearby National Co-operative Archive.

The Archive has a unique collection of material from the early days of Britain’s cooperative movement.  It’s a resource which I have been using on a number of occasions in recent months for research purposes and I commend its helpful and knowledgeable staff.

Using an archive brings home the importance of ensuring that more recent records from the cooperative movement are not lost to future historians.  I’ve been concerned for some time that material from the wave of workers’ cooperatives started in the 1970s and 1980s may be being lost.  I recently ensured that the records of a cooperative I worked in in the early 1980s in Milton Keynes are now secure in the Buckinghamshire County Records Office and I’d encourage others with boxes of similar material from that period to get them to an appropriate professional archive. Ideally I’d like to see these held centrally in Manchester, but frankly any record office is better than a skip.

That applies to today’s material too.  Sometime in the future, somebody will be looking high and low for adequate information about what we’re all up to today.