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Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge Papers

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0103 SDUK
Held at: University College London
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Full title: Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge Papers
Date(s): 1826-1848
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: 200 volumes, 121 boxes
Name of creator(s): Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge | 1826-1848
Detailed catalogue: Click here to view repository detailed catalogue


Administrative/Biographical history:

The Society was founded in 1826, largely at the instigation of Lord Brougham. The object of the new Society was 'the imparting useful information to all classes of the community, particularly to such as are unable to avail themselves of experienced teachers, or may prefer learning by themselves' (SDUK Prospectus, 1829). It sought to achieve this object by acting as the intermediary between authors and publishers in several different and often ambitious series of publications. The Society fixed the form and selling price of treatises, frequency of publication and payments to authors; the publisher made arrangement with the printer and organised the distribution and sale of publications. In charge of the Society's affairs was a General Committee of not less than 40 and not more than 60 members. Prominent on the Committee besides Lord Brougham were James Mill, Lord John Russell, Lord Althorp, Zachary Macaulay, Joseph Hume, Robert Aglionby Slaney and Augustus De Morgan. Sub-committees were appointed and their function handed over to a reconstituted Publication Committee, though even after this date, ad hoc sub-committees persisted. The Society was responsible for many series of publications including: Library of Useful Knowledge; British Almanac; Library of Entertaining Knowledge; Farmer's series; Maps; Working Man's Companion; Quarterly Journal of Education; Penny Magazine; Penny Cyclopedia; Gallery of Portraits; Library for the Young; Biographical Dictionary. In 1829 there were 515 annual subscribers to the Society but that number fell to 49 by 1842. Together with the fall in the number of subscribers went a general fall in the sale of publications. Perhaps the main reason for the fall in popularity of the publications was the fact that too many and too diverse sets of treatises ran concurrently, with an extremely cumbersome review procedure for each treatise. This led to the erratic appearance of treatises, with consequent delays in the completion of readers' sets. The publications were also felt to be of a miscellaneous and non-controversial nature and therefore aroused little interest. The Society's active life lasted until 1846 and its affairs were wound up in 1848. A very useful study on the Society is Monica C Grobel, 'The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge 1826-1846 and its relation to adult education in the first half of the XIXth Century' (unpublished London University PhD thesis, 1932).


Scope and content/abstract:

The collection consists mainly of minutes, financial records, manuscripts of unpublished texts and correspondence. It provides interesting detail on what one section of society thought would provide education for another. There is much useful information on the reading preferences of the public, and on the growth and development of Mechanics' Institutes. Most of those concerned with the founding of the Society as a project in self-education were also involved in the founding of the new University of London (now University College London) and some, like Augustus De Morgan and George Long, actually taught there. There is also considerable information on the work of publishers, illustrators, engravers and booksellers and on writers, whether already established authorities in their field or young hopefuls, like G H Lewes, who sought to establish themselves through the Society's patronage.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

Conditions governing access:

Open. The papers are available subject to the usual conditions of access to Archives and Manuscripts material, after the completion of a Reader's Undertaking.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Normal copyright restrictions apply.

Finding aids:

Basic online catalogue available. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1826-1848: A handlist of the Society's correspondence and papers, compiled by Janet Percival (London, 1978); and name index.

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Deposited by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in 1848.

Allied Materials

Related material:

National Register of Archives: Click here to view NRA record

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:

Rules or conventions:

Date(s) of descriptions:
1999, revised Aug 2001

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