Made by history – a book collector’s story

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Martin Luther King’s call to be a “transformed nonconformist” (in the book From Strength to Love written in 1963) is history, but it is a call that remains valid in our modern world.

King felt a shift had occurred from individualism to collectivism arguing: “We are not makers of history; we are made by history.”

Rather than adopting a “view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everything”, King urged people to:

Take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion.

This is a position that many PR historians take. We seek to challenge prevailing opinions, and we are non-conformists among a practice that has limited understanding of, or interest in, its antecedents.

History week

This post is the first in a short series that coincides with the 7th International History of Public Relations Conference (IHPRC) at Bournemouth University. At PR Conversations we champion “makers of history” and this week my intention is to focus on how history is being made with a post a day.

On my wishlist of places to visit is The Museum of Public Relations (and Library) in New York. I remember the first time I discovered its website and couldn’t believe there was really such a place. Sadly, I’ve not yet made the journey across the Atlantic for a visit.

However, my colleague Adrian Crookes at London College of Communications has taken groups of UK students to the PR Museum, and his thoughts feature in a post that looks at how artefacts are acquired. We have permission to link to a fascinating video that has recently been unearthed, which I’m really excited to be able to share.

As well as a physical museum, there is a great website and the PR Museum Facebook site is a constant source of new information.

This will be followed by a post on archival research, with insight from Emeritus Professor Tom Watson who established IHPRC. It considers finding, organising and “prospecting for gold” in existing materials. I’d love to see more organisations adopting the practice of archiving materials and making these available for historians, and feel this post could help with that goal.

The next post will look at the transparent age of historical research as I reflect on my paper at this year’s IHPRC that discusses issues arising when using online resources, including social media, as historical artefacts.

We end the week with reflections on PR history literature, where Tom Watson looks back on editing the book series National Perspectives on the Development of Public Relations: Other Voices series ahead of publication of the final edition which offers new perspectives on North American history/ies. This is a great series revealing both makers of history and how public relations is made by history.

To start the week, what follows is a personal post about book collecting.


Becoming a book collector

When I started working in public relations, like many people, I didn’t really really know what this occupation was about. I had no idea that there were books about public relations, or that you could gain a specialist qualification.

I bought my first public relations book around 1990 – this wasn’t a historical text, it was contemporary practice. Now this book, and others I bought at that time are history.

This means I became an accidental collector of historical PR books as the passage of time turned my contemporary texts into an artefact of a particular place and time.

About half the PR texts I own have become history over the course of my career – but the other half are my “special collection” of previously owned, vintage books.

I was inspired by the History of Public Relations and Advertising Collection at Bournemouth University.

What have I discovered in collecting old books over the last seven years or so?

  1. What to collect: I started by looking for some of the books that were in the Bournemouth collection. Other texts I’ve spotted in the reference lists of old journal articles, history papers or other books. I’ve found books by happenstance or following an online thread from something that caught my attention.
  2. Where to buy: I’m a big fan of Abebooks, but I have also found Ebay can be useful. Because the vast majority of historical PR texts were written in the US, they have made their way into independent sellers there. Many are ex-library books, but in good condition.

Serendipity plays a role in my collection as I’m not a classical type of bibliophile. I don’t have a list of ‘must-have’ books and I also won’t pay a ridiculous amount of money. I don’t really like buying digital prints of old texts as I prefer owing the original. But I’m not sniffy about later editions. And, of course, I like to read and refer to the books, they are not ‘white glove’ texts to me.

As an amateur book collector, I’m not into buying and selling. But I am thinking carefully about how I should store these books – my pile ’em high approach really needs replacing with appropriate shelving. I’m also researching database software to catalogue my collection. With dozens of vintage and ‘becoming’ vintage books, I think I should create a catalogue – but then again, maybe that’s a bit formal for me.

I’m also keen to rescue books – so if you or anyone you know has one or more older PR texts looking for a good home, then get in touch. I’ve heard stories where these have been dumped for want of somewhere to take them. This applies to libraries clearing out old stock as well as individuals, or their families, disposing of unwanted books.

The PR Museum also has a library of old books, as does the History of Advertising Trust in Norfolk, UK.
There is a list of archive materials on the IHPRC site: https://microsites.bournemouth.ac.uk/historyofpr/resources/

I have been sharing chapters and updated thoughts from a 1948 book: Your Public Relations, at PR Conversations – to open up access to the content of voices and insight from the past. But sometimes I wonder if I alone in collecting old PR books as an individual? I doubt it, although I’m not in touch with anyone who shares my habit. Please get in touch if you are also a PR book collector, maybe we could start an association!


This is the first post in the PR Conversations inaugural History Week. See links below to all five posts:

Part 1:  Made by history – a book collector’s story by Heather Yaxley

Part 2:  The Museum of Public Relations – archives and artefacts under the gaze of Bernays (and Lee and Page and Byoir…) with thanks to Shelley Spector, and Adrian Crookes

Part 3: PR History – prospecting for archival gold by Tom Watson

Part 4: Conducting historical interviews in a transparent age by Heather Yaxley

Part 5: The dimensions of PR history: 60 x 75 x 94 x 350,000 by Tom Watson

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