Seeking ‘Random’ Information: The Archive and Working Library of the UK’s Largest Publisher

Natalie Ford, Penguin Random House Library



The Random House Group Archive and Library is part of Penguin Random House UK (or PRH for short), the largest publisher in the UK. Authors published by PRH include literary greats such as Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, Salman Rushdie and Iris Murdoch; and popular writers such as Terry Pratchett, James Patterson, Sophie Kinsella and Danielle Steel. Children’s authors published by PRH include Jacqueline Wilson, David McKee, Shirley Hughes, Malorie Blackman and John Boyne.

The Penguin and Random House companies merged in 2013; the process of merging the services of these publishing giants continues. The Penguin book archive is in Rugby, Warwickshire, while the Penguin research archive is at Bristol University; we look forward to working more closely with them.

We are located in Rushden, Northamptonshire, approximately 80 miles from the company’s London offices where most of our enquiries originate. With extensive collections of books (including 1st editions and rare books), artwork, contracts, correspondence and more, the Archive & Library is an excellent and unique resource for both internal and external customers. For our team of five dedicated staff, no two days are ever the same! We could receive any kind of enquiry – usually by email but also by telephone – and new stock published by the company imprints is delivered every week for us catalogue and add to our unique collection.

Contracts, Permissions, Rights and Royalties

Emails from these departments comprise about half of the enquiries we receive. Recent paperwork is scanned and uploaded to Biblio, the company’s publishing management software, before being sent to us for archiving. However, older documents are not usually on Biblio, often because a book was published before the documents were stored electronically and were accessible company-wide. This involves searching in approximately 4,800 bankers’ boxes of contracts, licences, renewals, reversions and other documents. The boxes are in A-Z order of author and title; the contracts date from the 19th century until the present day. Digitising all the paperwork could be a future project – it would be a mammoth task, bearing in mind that each box contains up to 20 files and each file contains several documents.

Queries involve identifying the correct document and either providing information from that document (e.g. agent’s name or the date the contract was reverted) or scanning and uploading it to the correct section on the title’s Biblio record. Sometimes the paperwork is not on file – but then you realise the enquirer expected it to not be there. They are just covering all bases to check that an agreement does not already exist! Moreover, with so many company mergers and office moves over the last 150 years, the archive collections are incomplete. Undoubtedly, war is responsible for some loss of documentation; Hutchinson, one of our imprints, lost many of their papers in the Blitz. Another imprint, Chatto & Windus, sent theirs for salvage in the Great War.

For queries from the Permissions department, we establish whether we published a book, and if so, whether the company still has the rights and can grant permission for quotes to be used, or if the enquirer should be referred to an agent, an author’s estate or another publisher. This involves looking for paperwork, particularly for reversion letters in which the rights in the work are given back to the author. In the absence of documentation, the internet often yields results; sometimes it transpires a book was published not by Random House UK, but by Random House Inc., the U.S. branch of the company.


Editorial, Production, Publicity

We provide a library service to internal customers; most of our stock is catalogued on our library management system BARD and is shelved according to Dewey Decimal number, so it is straightforward to find a book on the catalogue and retrieve it to send to a customer. Editorial staff ask for book loans; for example, they may wish to read an older book to see if it’s worth publishing a new edition. The production department request books to check for errors and to produce e-books faithful to the original printed edition; they also request information such as extent (page numbering) for a particular book or scans of book covers. We also catalogue new stock and provide a loan and enquiry service for third parties: Octopus Publishing Group (now part of Hachette) and Egmont UK. The editorial and production staff from these publishers often request books when updating content for new editions or for research on particular topics when editing new editions.

Both Editorial and Publicity are interested in the contents of our author files; these contain non-contractual materials such as correspondence, photographs, marketing plans, press cuttings and typescripts. They are filed in A-Z order of author and title, according to the company or historic company the imprint is part of. They are a rich resource for all kinds of information about a work. Staff might, for example, be editing a new edition of a classic work and are looking for extra materials to provide interest to the reader. Publicity staff might be launching a fresh marketing campaign for an author and want to draw inspiration from previous publicity materials.

The library catalogue is a good resource when handling bibliographic enquiries, such as full publication dates, ISBNs, copyright holders and print runs. We also have a large collection of printed sales catalogues which are useful for historical publication dates or researching the publications of an imprint. Details for all recent PRH publications are found on Biblio, but the Archive & Library is the best resource for information about older books.


Researchers – Academic, Commercial and the Public

All kinds of researchers make use of our collections. Students and professors in particular make use of materials on literary authors but we also receive enquiries from biographers, film companies, owners of book-themed websites and members of the public researching their family history. The research is conducted from a distance, but where there is a substantial amount of material we invite researchers to the archive where they will find a quiet working environment, helpful staff and a treasure trove of publishing history.

We have a partnership with the University of Reading, who catalogue, organise, store and preserve the early archive material of the Chatto & Windus, Jonathan Cape, Bodley Head, Secker & Warburg and Hogarth Press imprints. Their Special Collections service facilitates access for researchers from academic institutions all over the world. Correspondence between authors and publishers forms a major component of the collection but there are sales ledgers, stock books, press reviews, readers’ reports and more.

For further details please visit:

A wealth of information!

New documents and new stock are continuously sent to the archive for cataloguing and storage; trade publishing is still going strong and printed books remain popular. This poses challenges for organising our collections while leaving room for growth and ensuring that enquiries (and future enquiries for many years to come) can be effectively answered. The information and knowledge contained within our collections is unquantifiable and simply amazing. We are finding new gems and items of interest every day.

We welcome visitors! If you would like to visit for research or a tour of the Archive & Library, please get in touch. Our team email address is:

Company website:

Refer 31 (3) Autumn 2015


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