The Open University Archive: An Introduction

Archives Hub feature for February 2024

About Us

Established on the official granting of a Royal Charter in 1969, The Open University turns 55 this year and remains a world leader in distance learning – it is the largest university in the UK by student number. The Open University Archive is housed within the Betty Boothroyd Library on the main university campus at Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, and operates to serve staff, students and external researchers alike.

Photograph showing The Open University Charter document, with a large red wax seal attached.
The Open University Charter, granted 1969.

The collections of The Open University Archive largely delineate into three categories:

Teaching Materials. Due to its distance learning remit, unlike many other academic institutions The Open University is in the rare position of being able to retain copies of all the teaching material offered to students since the first courses were launched in 1971. This includes: physical module books and units; the original Home Experiment Kits which were issued through the post along with the teaching material; historic audio-visual content originally broadcast on the BBC and other platforms; and most recently the teaching websites on which content is now accessed by students.

Historical Open University Material. This category covers a wide variety of content – some of it concerned with the governance of the university such as committee papers, and other collections more relevant as social history like the regular newspapers produced for both staff and students. We also retain university serials – both for internal and external publication – a vast photographic archive, and a complete set of OU prospectuses. Outputs from many of the research groups which have been based in the university’s faculties are also retained in our Academic Archive.

Special Collections. These are collections which have come to us via donation and are usually either focused around unique projects, or are the papers of significant Open University figures. We worked with former OU Chancellor Baroness Betty Boothroyd to accession a collection of her papers, largely covering her time as Speaker of the House of Commons. We also have the papers of Lord Perry of Walton (Walter Perry), the university’s first Vice-Chancellor, and Baroness Lee of Asheridge (Jennie Lee), who as Minister for the Arts was instrumental in the formation of The Open University.

Baroness Lee of Asheridge, standing behind a microphone stand, with a foundation stone in the background.
Jennie Lee

The Open University Digital Archive

The Open University Digital Archive was launched in 2015 in order to make audio-visual and other historic material available (where possible due to copyright and intellectual property restrictions). It contains a growing number of OU television and radio programmes, along with images, texts and graduation ceremonies. Where the content cannot be – or has not yet been – made available, there is usually a metadata entry at least in order to aid researchers, who may be able to arrange to come in to the Archive and view them in person.

There are currently around 1,500 audio or video files publicly-accessible on the Digital Archive, including some of the very earliest Open University TV broadcasts, and around 800 images.

Alt text: Black and white photograph of a television studio. A presenter is being filmed, with camera crew and equipment in the foreground. Cables and lighting are visible.
Open University filming.

The Digital Archive can also act as a ‘shop window’ for Open University projects, events and people from the past 55 years, and contains both short ‘Featured items’ and longer ‘Exhibitions’ which tell specific stories about the university and related partners using video and audio clips from elsewhere in the collections. For instance, one popular exhibition covers the full life of Jennie Lee – before, during and after her involvement with the OU.

A reasonably recent addition to the Digital Archive is the Sampson Low Collection (selected content is also collected in an exhibition). This collection features over 200 digitised letters from two volumes of letters written to – and kept by – the Victorian bookseller Sampson Low (1797-1886). It includes letters by clients and friends, amongst them Charles Dickens, Florence Nightingale and the Duke of Wellington. Our Digital Archive Developer has created an application which allows readers to view the original digitised letter alongside a text transcript of the content.

Photograph of the Sampson Low Collection, comprising two volumes of over 200 letters. There is a closed book with a black and brown 
leather cover entitled Autographs. This is overlapping with another volume that is open to display one of the letters.
Sampson Low volumes


There is not really any ‘standard’ working day in The Open University Archive. Incoming queries can take us in any direction and it is difficult to predict what researchers are going to ask for permission to see. We do have a dedicated Research Room which allows any in-person researchers to spread the materials out, or refer to content on any number of legacy formats or devices. In most weeks the Archive team has at least one pre-arranged researcher appointment in the calendar, and it can often be several.

Although the variety of requests is wide, the Jennie Lee papers are one of our more frequently-requested collections, and we field a regular amount of Open University alumni asking for information about the content of modules they may have studied in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

We are a small but busy Archive – when we’re not fielding enquiries or helping researchers, we are usually to be found digitising material or cataloguing new collections.

Colour photograph of the interior of The Open University Archive reading room.
The Open University Archive reading room.

Matthew Taylor
Digital Archivist
The Open University


The Jennie Lee Collection, 1906-1995

The Walter Perry Collection, 1926-2003

Descriptions of other archives held by The Open University can be found on Archives Hub here:

All images copyright The Open University. Reproduced with the kind permission of the copyright holders.