Monthly Archives: January 2015

The International Institute of Social History

In this week’s post Gareth Curless draws attention to the archives at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam:

The history of international labour organisations and movements has long been neglected. In recent years, however, a number of studies have emerged to fill this void, including Daniel Maul’s Human Rights, Development, and Decolonization; Globalizing Social Rights edited by Sandrine Kott and Joëlle Droux; and the collection of essays in American Labor’s Global Ambassadors, which is edited by Robert Anthony Waters Jr. and Geert van Goethem. Arguably the emergence of these studies is indicative of a broader trend within the historiography of the twentieth century, with historians paying increasing attention to the role of international organizations, the emergence of ideas and discourses relating to global governance and human rights, and the harnessing of technical expertise to development initiatives.


Above: The Reading Room at the International Institute for Social History.

A key archive for material relating to these topics, but one that is sometimes overlooked by historians, is the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. The Institute is only a short tram ride from Amsterdam’s central train station and contains a wealth of material that is of potential interest to historians of imperial and global history. The countries and themes tabs on the Collections page give an indication of the range of topics and countries covered by the archival material. The archives are truly global in scope, covering traditional social history topics, such as labour, housing, and student movements to more unusual historical subjects, such as vegetarianism.

Among the key collections housed at the Institute are the records of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the Socialist International. As well as material relating to international organisations and groups, there are also more general collections, some of which have been donated by individuals or organisations, such as the African Labour History collection. There are also a number of collections relating to leftist organisations from the ‘global south’, which have often been the target for state suppression, such as the Communist Party of Sudan. In this respect, the Institute’s archives contain original or rare material that is no longer available elsewhere or has been excised from the official record.

One of the most popular collections at the Institute is the material relating to the ICFTU. During the 1950s and 1960s trade unions and industrial relations in the global south became a key area of Cold War contestation, with the colonial powers and the U.S. State Department regarding instances of labour activism and industrial unrest as symptoms of communist insurrection. As a consequence, officials in Paris, London, and Washington sought to channel material and moral support to supposedly ‘western-orientated’ trade unionists through organisations such as the ICFTU and AFL-CIO. What emerges from the ICFTU records is that trade unionists in the global south were particularly adept at exaggerating the threat posed by communism in order to extract support from the ICFTU. This support sometimes took the form of material goods, including cars, filing cabinets and typewriters, and at other times it was simply hard cash, which was the preferred option. However, although African and Asian trade unionists willingly sought out and accepted this support, they did not necessarily sacrifice their own autonomy. The ICFTU material is replete with complaints about trade union lethargy on certain issues, labour leaders’ support for policies that were perceived to run counter to the West’s agenda, or the use of strikes to cause what Western officials regarded as unnecessary political instability.

As well as documenting the Cold War politics of industrial relations and the inability of the Western powers to direct trade union affairs in Africa and Asia, the ICFTU material also offers important insights into social, political and economic conditions in many colonial and former colonial territories. ICFTU officials, who were often stationed in regional outposts, such as Singapore or Accra, may not have been able to influence events to the extent they wanted to but through their routine meetings with colonial officials, embassy staff, and local representatives of civil society groups and political parties they were at least well informed. Their despatches back to ICFTU headquarters in Brussels therefore offer a useful counter-reference to states archives in London and Washington, yielding important insights and opinions regarding local politics and social conditions. In sum, the International Institute of Social History is not simply for social historians of Europe, its varied collections are of potential value to historians of empire, social movements in the global south, and the Cold War.

Key Info



Opening Hours: Monday, 10.00 to 17.00; Tuesday to Friday, 9.00 to 17.00.

Archival Research in New Delhi, India: Sources & Resources

The Imperial and History Network blog has been quiet over the autumn term. Fortunately though, this has been for good reason. Following our successful first conference, which was held at the University of Exeter in June 2014, we have been preparing a selection of the papers for publication as a special issue in The Journal of World History. The collection is currently with the editorial team at JWH and we’re hopeful that it will appear sometime in 2015.

In our first post of 2015 Vipul Dutta, a PhD candidate at King’s College London, talks us through archival research in New Delhi:

Archival research for historians, just like countless distinguished seminar speakers in the world- ‘requires no introduction’. Registration woes, issues relating to access and short cuts to the process have created a universe where anything and everything you may have heard about them may be true. This has however, not diminished, but in fact enhanced their stature- wherever they have managed to survive. A renewed interest in the study of South Asia and the Indian subcontinent has increased the ‘footfall’ in New Delhi, where the principal record keeping institution- The National Archives of India (NAI) is located. Set up in 1891 as the Imperial Record Department in Calcutta, it was later relocated to Delhi, following the establishment of the latter as the new capital city in 1911. Most researchers on India regard NAI as the first port of call and this was reaffirmed during the course of my fieldwork tenure in Delhi recently.

From the records of the late Mughal era and the East India Company to the records of the Nationalist movement and the more recently released files from the Foreign Ministry, the breadth of holdings at NAI is remarkable. The collection does seem to be growing and efforts to catalogue this burgeoning resource are being made. Modest attempts to digitise rare manuscripts are published on their website (, and a broad, relatively useful catalogue is also present (online, on-site). Even a casual glance at the catalogue lists ( would reveal that it should cater to a broad range of research interests spanning across multiple time scales.

While there is no comparison between NAI and its place in the public life of Delhi vis-à-vis Kew or the British Library, it is nonetheless, heartening to see the ways in which NAI has responded to a surge in the population density in its Reading rooms- ‘per square file’ as a Chinese friend who visited Delhi recently described it to me. In contrast to the more modern, well-endowed archives of the West, an experience at NAI would give one- the much needed endurance test, which everyone in academia must take at least once! Requisitions are done manually over set time periods, so a full calendar day at NAI really does begin early in the morning.

However, topics dealing with post-independence years may not find much mention in the catalogues. I mainly study the evolution of the Indian Army through the two world wars and examine patterns of recruitment from the 1920s to 1960s. For subjects broadly relating to the military, the NAI is a fairly good starting point. Apart from Viceregal documents and private papers, the Military catalogue is also a useful guide to documents (but it ends at around 1910c., for documents after that, check the Microfilm Catalogue list). Until the First World War, it is a good idea to first present your credentials at NAI. But if you think your moment in history arrives later, check out another famous Delhi institution- The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). Foreign nationals may require letters from their embassies (in addition to institutional letters) for registration at all of these places.

The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library or Teen Murti as its commonly known, is a library cum archival complex which was set up in the 1960s. Aside from its strength in the more known branches of social sciences, military historians are also quite frequently spotted here. This is facilitated not least by the fact that the complex sits next to the erstwhile residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army and was later the residence of India’s first Prime Minister, now converted into a museum. So, if you’re looking to write and think about the ‘State’ and chart its political, military and ideological coordinates, park yourself here ( NMML has a complete online catalogue on its website and includes listings of manuscripts as well as collections of Private and Institutional papers. For military historians in particular, there are collections of individual papers (of officers of the Indian army as well as the revolutionary nationalist outfit- the Indian National Army, INA) and records of oral history transcripts as well. Also complementing NMML is the fact that it’s just a 20-25 minute rikshaw ride away from NAI as it is situated in the same Lutyens’ zone of central Delhi. A well-stocked library at NMML also includes memoirs of army officers and a wider collection of secondary literature pertaining to the Indian army. With an extensive Newspaper archive (in microfilm as well as print editions just behind the reception desk inside the reading rooms) it wouldn’t be incorrect to call NMML- the BL of Delhi. The staff is professional in its dealings and extremely cooperative.

Researchers interested in the Great War should also visit the United Service Institution of India, USI (Delhi). In addition to its collection of rare books and old issues of its historic journal (, the USI also has an archive, which is worth looking at if one is interested in combat operations of the First World War as well as the Second. The USI is also at the forefront in organising the Great War Centenary events in Delhi this year. Another great site is the History Division of the Defence Ministry, perhaps the richest but also the most under studied archive in Delhi. It boasts of several records on the two world wars and has sizeable Naval as well as Air Force war staff files. Cataloguing and digitization is in full steam, but the biggest spoiler is access. Unfortunately, the archive is closed for foreign nationals and even for Indians access is strictly regulated. For scholars working on more contemporary themes relating to security and Defence, there is the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA, adjoining the USI), and apart from its Library (with editions of old defence journals and magazines), it offers a stimulating environment for researchers working on related aspects of contemporary global security studies.

The archival and research geography in Delhi is essentially aligned across two but well connected corners of the city. In the central parts, one finds the NAI and NMML with their extensive, quintessentially archival, ‘footnote-worthy’ references. On the other side are equally vibrant institutions but which will offer their wares at a higher level of commitment and which depends on the amount of time an individual has. Pre-independence (i.e. pre 1947) documents on almost any subject are at the heart of NAI’s collections. NMML has more intellectually cosmopolitan resources and regularly hosts an inter-disciplinary research audience. Since my interests relate to the recruitment and socialisation of officers in the 20th century, I found the atmosphere at USI and IDSA quite stimulating and productive. NMML too has been a great repository and sounding board for my ideas. Almost all of Delhi’s researchers, students and faculty visit the Nehru Library and its research community and seminar series give it a dynamic character. Most requests for Research assistants, translations, discussions relating to ‘the future trajectory of the social sciences’ and other desperate world shaking requests encrypted in emails and messages- usually first arrive in oral discussion boards at NMML over a cup of tea and samosa.