In 2018 I was approached by a colleague in the University Library who said “Did you know that the Library’s collection of postgraduate dissertations includes ones written by Battersea students?”. This was the start of an interesting conversation, because, although I was aware that Battersea students and staff had carried out research work, and indeed, that is what had led to us becoming first a College of Advanced Technology in 1956 and then the University of Surrey in 1966, it had not occurred to me that there might be such a physical record of this research. And nor had it occurred to me to query what form or output such research might take. In as far as I had considered it, I suppose I had imagined people working over Bunsen burners (an image conjured, I suspect, by our photograph collection) and that being the end in itself.
My contemplation was then interrupted by the follow up question “Would you want these dissertations in the archive once we have digitised them?” And that was even more interesting. The University Library is responsible for the PhD dissertations and so they would not normally come to the archive. Moreover, the Library was digitising them and making them available via their online catalogue. So, regardless of whether the physical items were transferred to the archive or not, they would be both looked after and made accessible (which is, if you think about it, the whole point of an archive – identify material of importance, look after it to ensure its continued survival and ensure people can see it. Job done when it came to the dissertations). And the archive as it is currently constituted, does not hold research outputs. So, was there an argument for the archive to take custody of the physical items? And if so, why just Battersea? And given that the Library was making them available online and would retain the hardcopy if we didn’t take them into the archive, what would be the rationale behind taking them?
To answer these questions I had to go back to the foundation of Battersea Polytechnic. When it opened its doors in 1894 many children left school at the age of 11. (The compulsory school leaving age was raised to 14 at the turn of the century). Battersea’s remit was continuing the education of these young people after they started work, providing the theoretical background to the on-the-job training they were receiving. That seems a world away from carrying out the level of research which would result in being awarded a PhD.
There is research to be done looking at this series as a whole. For a start, I can confidently tell you that the earliest dissertation we hold dates to 1922. So, the foundation stone for Battersea is laid in 1891, the first students arrive in 1894 and 30 years later Reginald McNicol is writing on The Preparation And Optical Properties Of The Normal Aliphatic Ethers Of d-Octan-2-Ol and submitting it to the University of London for his MSc. And another interesting thing… Battersea did not have the authority to award degrees, let along postgraduate degrees. So what you will find is that quite early on Battersea students were working for undergraduate degrees which were awarded by the University of London. And it was clearly the same for the post-grad work.
Also interesting is thinking about who was writing these dissertations and what it tells us about Battersea’s student cohort. The earliest woman I can identify is Winifred E. Dickes in 1923 writing on refraction for her MSc in 1923. And a number of the names are familiar because they became staff at Battersea and often then at the University of Surrey.
Finally, these dissertations show changes in communication technology. Nowadays, pictures, charts, text, footnotes are all available to us in our word processing programmes. But, spare a thought for students in the days before desktop computer – there are dissertations with photographs and charts physically pasted in. Scientific formulae pose problems for the average typewriter, and can you imagine handling footnotes?
So, taking into account all this and that research has been pivotal to Battersea Polytechnic becoming the University of Surrey then yes, we decided these items had a place in the archive, not because of the research they contain but because of the place they have in the institution’s history. We also extended the time period to include the early years of the University of Surrey (1966-1968) in order to have evidence of how research moved from being submitted to external bodies to being awarded by the University.
The catalogue records for these are now available on our online catalogue – search for BA/F/17 for the Battersea dissertations or US/F/5/1 for the University of Surrey dissertations. And if you are interested in viewing any of these volumes do email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to make an appointment to visit our Archives Research Room. Also remember that digital copies of the dissertations are available via the University Library’s catalogue.