How co-ops can start an information revolution

Sharing information has been key to the success of the co-op movement. Steve Thompson, of the Yorkshire Co-operative Resource Centre, says that, as local authorities cut library services, it...

Sharing information has been key to the success of the co-op movement. Steve Thompson, of the Yorkshire Co-operative Resource Centre, says that, as local authorities cut library services, it may be time to step back in …

The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society marked the beginning of success for the co-operative movement. Until then, the aspiration of building a co-operative commonwealth to give people an alternative to private enterprise and capitalism had met with disappointment and failure.

Over 300 co-operative societies had started and failed. That co-operative ideas caught on in the first place is largely due to Robert Owen and Dr William King.

Dr King produced a newspaper called The Co-operator from 1828-1830, and this proved to be an inspiration and guide to the early pioneers of co-operation. Co-operative newspapers and publications have held the movement together ever since, keeping the membership informed, aware and involved.

What marked the turning point in the fortunes of the movement was recognition of the importance of education by the Rochdale Pioneers. The very nature and culture of the Rochdale Society was to help and support and give advice to others who were starting co-operative societies. From being relatively isolated projects, co-operatives were becoming a movement.

Education was written into the values and principles of the Rochdale Society, and this became accepted by all co-operative societies. Famously, the upstairs room of the store on Toad Lane housed a reading room and library for members.

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This enabled members to read the co-operative press and general newspapers at a time when many could not get such access. Classes in literacy, numeracy and co-operative education were held there, equipping members to take an active part in running the society, and in democracy and governance.

When a local Friendly Society was disbanded, the Pioneers Society bought its library, and so the upper room had a members lending library as well. These were times when local authorities did not provide education and libraries.

Every store the society opened had a reading and education room above the shop. Talks, lectures and lantern slides were organised. This became the pattern for all the other co-operative societies as well.

Until relatively recently, most co-op shops had a room upstairs for the members to use. As time went by, the Co-operative Wholesale Society commissioned co-operative films to be made for screening at events. Many of these films have survived and are kept for future generations in the National Co-operative Film Archive.

For the co-operative movement to be successful there needs to be a co-operative culture. There needs to be awareness among the membership. How can its significance be realised without this?

The co-operative reading rooms and libraries helped build this movement, but times changed. Local authorities provided libraries and schools and further education. The market changed with highly competitive supermarkets rising to compete with the co-op, and the significance of the co-op was lost to popular culture.

Today, the movement has difficulty in articulating its significance to the general public. Its educational wing is established in the Co-operative College – an excellent institution, but one which does not touch the ordinary co-op member.

The Co-operative Group organises members’ events, but these are isolated events and not a permanent part of the co-operative community.

The influence of local authorities in education and library provision is in retreat. This is symptomatic of society as a whole devaluing education and encouraging people to live in a fantasy world of the quick buck by a win on the lottery – but perhaps the Yorkshire Co-operative Resource Centre (YCRC) can start to address some of these concerns.

The Yorkshire Co-operative Resource Centre
The Yorkshire Co-operative Resource Centre

YCRC, which is also known as Principle Five, is a collection of co-operative educational and research resources which began with a realisation of the immense value of back editions of Co-operative News.

The co-operative movement has been served well by Co-operative News, which has been published since 1871. Co-operative Press, which publishes Co-operative News, is a readers’ co-operative.

I have been saving the News since around 2001 and from 2003 onwards my collection is complete. As the paper reported weekly and now fortnightly on the whole movement with editorial independence, this collection represents a comprehensive picture of the unfolding events of the movement.

The first purpose of the resource centre is to make the Co-operative News collection available to co-operative researchers and to keep current editions available for reading. In keeping with the co-operative principle of openness and providing information, reports of co-operative societies, and in particular the Co-operative Group, are available in the centre, both current and historic.

The Group, Co-operatives UK and other societies publish many pamphlets, and these are always available to visitors, along with back editions of the Journal of Co-operative Studies. The Co-operative Review, Co-operative Gazette and The Millgate Monthly and a good deal of additional archive material will also be of interest to co-operative historians.

The collection supplements the historic co-operative material in the Sheffield City Libraries’ Local Studies and Archives. The centre aims to build a relationship with Sheffield City Libraries and the National Co-operative Archive.

The lending library started with around 25 of my own books. But to this has been added the generous gift of the libraries of the old co-operative societies in the East of England, which were given to YCRC by East of England Co-operative Society.

There is also information about the day-to-day activities of the movement in the city and the region.

The purpose of the centre is to give co-operators and anyone interested in co-operatives access to co-operative heritage, culture and information. It is a learning and information resource for all co-operatives and for co-operators in all parts of the movement.

From this starting point it is hoped that through co-operative collaboration the collection will be added to and refined.

Most visitors will know roughly what they want to research before they arrive at the centre. But many will like to come and browse the material. It is a comfortable and friendly place situated in a co-operatively owned building. We look forward to welcoming you there.

  • Principle Five, the Yorkshire Co-operative Resource Centre, is based at Aizlewood’s Mill in Sheffield, a co-operatively owned building which is home to the Sheffield Co-operative Development Group. For more information or to book a visit, contact Steve Thompson on 0114 2589412 or email steve@sheffield.coop.
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