Wed, 01/27/2021 - 8:16pm Helena Clarkson

As an archivist working behind the scenes on the MAPP project, I am fortunate to be able to catalogue to item level - this means instead of generally describing a batch, or series of correspondence, I have the opportunity to read and describe every letter within a folder. Often, I have the chance to discover interesting aspects about certain folders. It is a privilege to catalogue the chosen MAPP folders to this kind of specific detail. Until we upload folders on to the site, only readers visiting the reading room, or those granted access to digital copies, will view certain Hogarth Press files and have therefore been able to read individual records within the correspondence folders.


To generalise, it is an Archivist’s job to look after and to provide access to material, ready for the researcher to study and draw their own conclusions. It is arguably safer and professional, to disallow our own opinions to influence a researcher in a catalogue description. We say only what we see.


Archivists are therefore expected to stay ‘neutral' and it is not usually our job to research a collection or convey our personal opinions on what we may, or may not, find fascinating.Neutrality and objectivity is a subject of gravitas for all archivists. A more in depth blog on the subject is linked here, named ‘The Hubris of Neutrality in Archives’.  


Can and should an archivist remain passive, is this ethical? It is a subject of great debate in our profession, especially now as we are so aware of the work that is to be done on decolonising the archive, which is further explored in this blog ‘Decolonising the archive: responsibilities for researchers and Archive professionals’. The subject of neutrality and decolonising archives are inextricably linked, and these two blogs shared here, are insights into the concerns of archivists everywhere. Catalogue descriptions can be influenced by our own opinions, and can therefore be shaped by them, but does remaining objective only serve to imbed world views that need to be challenged? These are issues constantly in focus, and this is where catalogue descriptions can be an area of contention.


So, with all this in mind, this blog is a great outlet to share what I find particularly interesting, and to express some of the thoughts that I cannot comment on within catalogue descriptions. Particularly the folder MS 2750/255, which is one of the more recent folders I have worked to share online. This folder relates to the work Kenya written by Dr Norman Leys a medical officer who worked in Kenya, and a staunch critic on imperialism. Kenya was published in 1924 (reprinted in 1925 and 1926). It is material where I have kept the aformentioned issues in my mind.


Item level cataloguing affords me much more time to get to know the material and one of the main aspects that struck me, involves the extent of letters written between Leonard Woolf and Norman Leys. Leys wrote frequently, caring very deeply about the process of publishing his work, beginning with who was to publish Kenya. After accepting the Hogarth Press’s offer, Ley’s expected accurate sales estimates and frequent updates. He challenged Woolf on these matters when he felt it necessary. Leys was also very active in promoting his work, sending many lists of addresses to Woolf and suggesting individuals who should receive copies of his work.


At times I had the impression he could become quite testing for Woolf, who was required to answer his lengthy letters in detail.


With such volume of correspondence, there comes greater context, and we can slowly watch a narrative unfold at various stages of the publication, from early letters dealing with various decisions, the reception of the book, reprinting decisions, and in this case, what happens after the author passes away. I choose only a few moments in this blog that feel noteworthy.


One of the earliest highlights of this folder is a letter written in 1924 by Leonard Woolf which introduces us to the Hogarth Press in his own words. I found this letter of particular importance whilst learning more about the history of the press, and a significant example of a contemporary first-hand account from Woolf himself, adding to his later published autobiographies which narrate the story of the Hogarth Press.






MS 2750/255/6

Letter from Leonard Woolf to Norman Leys (18/07/1924)

© Penguin Random House Archive and Library | © The Society of Authors



Moving along in time, as Woolf convalesces in bed with the Flu, Leys (who studied medicine) advises him on how much aspirin to take, and how he should occupy himself whilst in bed, though at the top of the letter he pushes for a more detailed reply to one of his previous letters when Woolf has recovered.






MS 2750/255/65

Letter from Norman Leys to Leonard Woolf (13/03/1925)

© Penguin Random House Archive and Library | ©The Estate of Norman Leys



I like to think it was reading detective stories that helped Woolf back on his feet.


What is also interesting is that although in Woolf’s next letter (MS 2750/255/66) he claims ownership of writing to Leys whilst ill in bed; most of his letters are typescript with only the signature in his own hand. Whilst ill, he sends a handwritten letter. After further discussions with the MAPP team, we now believe that this letter was written by Virginia Woolf, whilst Leonard has dictated the content. It has no valediction. Even unwell in bed, Woolf tries to explain that no one can predict what will happen with sales of Kenya, Leys is often preoccupied with this. You can read the rest this letter here: MS 2750/255/64






MS 2750/255/64

Letter from Leonard Woolf to Norman Leys (c March 1925)

© Penguin Random House Archive and Library | © The Society of Authors


Other highlights that have helped me to understand the context and certain aspects of the political backdrop of Leys life, were the individuals of the time: whether they have written letters themselves, or are mentioned in passing between discussions on publishing matters. One individual in particular is Lord Curzon (who failed to become a conservative prime minister in the 1920’s).






MS 2750/255/42

Partial Letter from Norman Leys to Leonard Woolf (c 1924)

© Penguin Random House Archive and Library | © The Estate of Norman Leys


One more remarkable individual in this folder is the activist and then editor of the Crisis magazine: W.E. B.  Du Bois, he writes to Leys, providing us with more wonderful contextual information, allowing us to catch another glimpse of the consistent energy Leys put in to promoting his work.




MS 2750/255/85

Letter from W.E.B. Du Bois to Norman Leys (20/10/1925)

© Penguin Random House Archive and Library | © Crisis Publishing Co., Inc



The last highlight I will share from this folder deals with the critical reception of Kenya. It caused a great amount of consternation for Leys; Woolf would later have to deter him from suing the Daily Express newspaper. Newspaper review clippings were sent along with the following letter and I have provided an example of just one cutting. It reveals the importance of this correspondence in reference to colonialism, highlighting the attitudes that Leys was fighting at the time. It is particularly poignant to remember some of the attitudes that we still face today.There is also a government white paper that has been retained within this file, available to read under an open government license.





MS 2750/255/105 

Letter from Norman Leys to Leonard Woolf (1/04/1926)  

© Penguin Random House Archive and Library | © The estate of Norman Leys





                     © Penguin Random House Archive and Library



There are so many more points of interest within this rich folder. Personally, I find all of these moments thought-provoking, but this folder can now be found online for you to explore and share your own findings.



The images shared in the blog are subject to the terms and conditions stated on this MAPP website.


Sources used


Lorna Cahill Bannister, “Cataloguing Fred Smith Part 3: Say what you see”, RCVS Knowledge blog (blog) 30 November 2016,


Sam Wynn, “The Hubris of Neutrality in Archives”, On Archivy (blog), 24 April 2017,


 Melissa Bennett, “Decolonising the Archive: Responsibilities for Researchers and Archive Professionals Part II”, Archivoz (blog), 8 April 2020,



Further reading



Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia, Anti-Racist Description Resources