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Katherine Webb

(Elected 2006)

Biography

With a reputation among administrative staff as ‘the person who knows everything there is to know about Birkbeck’, Katherine Webb retired as Deputy Clerk to the Governors in 2006, after 30 years at the College.

Katherine graduated from Edinburgh University in 1968 with a degree in classics. After working at the National Library of Scotland and the Scottish Record Office, she studied for an MPhil in Combined Historical Studies: The Renaissance at the Warburg Institute, University of London, graduating in 1975. In October 1976 Katherine joined Birkbeck.

Her first post was as Executive Officer in Registry, dealing mainly with student awards. ‘This gave me an insight into the difficulties faced by Birkbeck students and a lasting admiration for their determination in overcoming them,’ she says.

In 1979 she was appointed Committee Clerk in central administration, and later acted as Deputy Clerk to the Governors, working with the College Secretary and the Registrar on servicing the major College committees and other aspects of governance.

‘During my time at Birkbeck I saw many changes: enormous growth in student numbers; several new buildings; a number of organisational changes; and a great enhancement of the College’s public profile. Birkbeck has always seemed to me a most worthwhile institution to work for. I have always been most fortunate in the people I have worked with.’

Oration

Master, Distinguished Governors, Graduates and Guests.

James Joyce said of his compendious novel Ulysses that if Dublin were ever destroyed by some cataclysm, he wanted it to be possible to rebuild it stone by stone from the detailed evidence of his novel. If Birkbeck were similarly to be razed to the ground, we would certainly have to have recourse to the memory of Katherine Webb.

Katherine went from her home town of Newark in Nottinghamshire to study at the University of Edinburgh, from where she graduated in 1968 with a first-class degree in classics. Then followed a period working for the National Library of Scotland and the Scottish Record Office, no doubt incubating that preternatural precision and attentiveness to detail of which we at Birkbeck were later to be the grateful beneficiaries. But before then, there was to be another spell as a student, this time undertaking research, first at the University of Oxford and then at the Warburg Institute, from which she obtained an MPhil in 1975.

Katherine’s Birkbeck career began 32 years ago, when she became an Executive Officer in the Registry, with special responsibility for student awards. Three years later, she had become a Committee Clerk in the college’s Central Administration and subsequently Deputy Clerk to the Governors. This was the position that she made entirely her own, and, for three decades the person and the office became entirely indistinguishable. Rarely can a name have encoded a destiny as aptly as Katherine’s. In the days before and since the World Wide Web, we have had in Katherine Webb our own living web of knowledge. There is no better way of describing her than as a kind of institutional neurotransmitter, ensuring that all the different parts of the college were kept in swift and effective communication with each other. Everyone you speak to who worked with Katherine evokes with awe of her encyclopaedic understanding of the workings of the college. It would also have to be said, however, that she was no Wikipedia, for there was nothing open-source about her knowledge; only she had the key to the system that governed it. Though she was thought to possess several desks, nobody knew for sure how many, since they were so entirely covered by decade-deep drifts of papers, all impeccably ordered,  but on geological principles, with the oldest buried deepest and each new committee season laying down another stratum of minutes and working-party reports.

When I became Orator, I fondly imagined that I would be led down creaking staircases into rooms full of ledgers and bulging box-files, where I would find the history of the college set out for me. It turned out that, although 700 boxes of such material are alleged to exist, only Katherine Webb knew where exactly. She herself was the mistress of the last 30 years worth of committee minutes, but the bulk of the materials were and are in store ‘somewhere beyond the M25’ as Katherine once rather mysteriously intimated to me). Certainly, as College Orator, called upon to write about the lives and careers of eminent Birkbeckians of the last two centuries, I have often had to rely on Katherine’s ability to pinpoint the right date, conjure up the right document, or tip me the wink as to whom to telephone.

And, for all her prodigious powers of memory, there were also times when Katherine was also able to deploy the precious arts of forgetfulness. It is said that whenever she was annoyed by somebody she would write their name on a piece of a paper and put it in her desk. Far from providing the means for the working of unsympathetic magic, the incriminated name would lie unattended until, some months later, Katherine would turn it up, and wonder what the person could have done to be thus marked down for perdition. Thereafter, having served their period of purgatory, they would be restored to the lists of felicity.

There are only a few individuals in myth and history whose proper names have become common nouns – and now, as one speaks of an ‘Alexander’, a ‘Hercules’ or a ‘Cleopatra’, so we will now refer to a ‘Katherine’. Her successor, Katherine Brock, is fortunate enough to share a name with her legendary and illustrious predecessor, and so, of course, has rapidly become known as the ‘new Katherine’. This is just as well, since one has the feeling that, for some considerable time, applicants for the post of Deputy Secretary who are not in fact called ‘Katherine’ need not apply. 

She has a love for and intimate knowledge of the work of Jane Austen, and could often be moved to a comparison of the prose styles of the divine Jane and the officers of the Higher Education Funding Council, rarely, I fear, to the advantage of the latter.  There are times when an institution’s destiny can turn on the framing of a single sentence, and Katherine’s spectroscopic mind and classicist’s mistrust of fluff, bluster or murkiness of meaning has often helped save us from things we never meant to do or say.

Though she seemingly knew everything about everyone and everything that had transpired in Malet Street or its provinces, Katherine has always been characterised by her bottomless powers of tact and discretion. The ex-Master of Birkbeck, Tessa Blackstone, with whom Katherine worked for ten years, once remarked that getting her to betray a confidence would require the vigorous application of a thumbscrew and the removal of toenails one by one: even then, one would have scant chance of getting the bird to chirp. In her later years, Katherine did in fact develop a passion for birdwatching. One can see why, since she had perfected the art of sitting very, very still in committee rooms for extended periods of time, herself apparently impassive and almost entirely unobserved, but missing nothing of the bizarre courtship and aggression displays unfolding in the vicinity. Perhaps her legendary taciturnity within the walls of the college accounts for the fact that she so exults in various kinds of extramural vociferation. She continues to sing in several choirs, and scarcely ever misses an opera in Covent Garden, where her singleminded pursuit of Placido Domingo and her inevitable and irrepressible sobbing at La Bohème have become institutions.  

Katherine’s office looked out upon the magnolia tree which used to bloom at the front of Birkbeck and now blushes relatively more unseen at the back. Not content with keeping track of the shifting human scene, the coming and going of Masters, Deans and Heads of this and that, inside the building, Katherine also kept a ledger of the times of the magnolia’s budding and blooming. Indeed, when she retired, she requested a print of this glorious tree rather than a mugshot of some Birkbeck worthy. It is fitting that, on the day when she is gaudily arrayed as a Birkbeck worthy herself, the magnolia tree should also be parading in its annual pomp.

Institutions need such persons to remind them who they are, what they have been and what they might be. Katherine Webb has been our minder, our reminder, our matrix, our mentor, our monitor, our chronicler and conscience, our omniscient, ever-at-hand right-hand woman. In 1901, Bertrand Russell came upon a paradox in logic that centres on the conundrum of whether, when a library has a catalogue, it should include that catalogue in the catalogue of all its books (or, more strictly, as sticklers will be quick to point out, whether the set of all sets that do not include themselves as members can or cannot be a member of itself). Today is the day that the Birkbeck chronicle of honour comes to enrol its own recording angel, as we welcome Katherine Webb as a fellow of Birkbeck College.