Readers’ stories: researching Quaker missionaries in China

So far on the blog we’ve focused on what’s in the Library’s collections and work that’s being done to make them available.  There’s another story to tell – who uses the Library and why.

Here’s a guest post from one reader about her experience. Polly Ashmore is a recent history graduate from Oxford, now studying Chinese at Beijing University. She did research in the Library for her undergraduate thesis, and now plans to continue researching modern Chinese history.

Late in 2010 I embarked on an undergraduate thesis about Quaker missionaries in China during the early years of Mao’s regime. I had been given the instructions to ‘find something interesting’. Wondering just how that might be possible (I was used to large, plain rooms packed with bored or terrified students), I marched off to the Library at Friends House, Euston, to see what I could find. I walked in, pen in hand (yes, ink! – but I soon learnt better), with little idea of what one really did with archives…stalk the shelves hoping for luck? Read everything I could on Quakers in China and go from there? Rely on a librarian whose patience might match my ignorance?

I opted for the latter. It was even offered to me, joy of all joys, when a librarian asked what I was looking for and whether they could help? My desperation must have been palpable, for no sooner had I begun to mumble something about ‘missionaries in China’ than a long list of records was produced, full of potential leads: minutes from meetings, personal correspondence, letters to and from the mission secretary back at Friends House – this was, for a history student, a real gold mine.

As I got down to combing through these documents over the next two weeks, I began to appreciate not only the remarkable degree of information and advice willingly given by the librarians but their easiness and good humour too. There was always a friendly face waiting at the desk when I arrived each day, and always a cheerful ‘goodbye’ when I left; what I had dreaded for months actually became a fascinating investigation set in a pleasant atmosphere.

I began to see the Library in Friends House as a refuge: quiet, relaxed, bursting with new stories of men and women living through enormous historical change. It was different from the libraries at university and our public library at home; there was something altogether more interesting about this one.

Polly would love to hear from any Friends who had links with communist China in the past. You can contact her via the Library.

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1 Response to Readers’ stories: researching Quaker missionaries in China

  1. Andrew Hicks says:

    What a heart-warming blog story this is and it rings true as I can endorse the writer’s experiences totally. As it happens my research in the Friends Library has been about the work of the Friends Ambulance Unit in China through the forties and in particular as the communists approached and entered Chunking. The library has proved to be a remarkable resource and with such helpful and friendly staff it has been a real pleasure to be there. I hope I can now share some of what I have learned of the remarkable work the FAU did there in distributing medical supplies and providing key medical services and relief work.

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