A Black History Resource Guide: steps towards decolonising the library

Annie Price and Nandini Chatterjee
University of Exeter

Annie Price is Common Ground Project Archivist, Special Collections, University of Exeter, and Nandini Chatterjee is Associate Professor in History, also at Exeter, and co-Chair of the History Decolonising Working Group. They chatted about the valuable new Special Collections resource, a Black History Resource Guide, which Annie has created.

Nandini: Hello Annie, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me about Decolonising the library and archives and your engagement with it. Will you please tell me a bit about yourself – your education and your work?

Annie: Hello! It’s a pleasure, thank you very much for inviting me to talk with you. I’m Annie and I currently work as a project archivist at the University of Exeter Special Collections, which is part of the University Library. I didn’t always want to be an archivist or even know what an archivist was! History was the subject I most enjoyed at school, so I studied for a degree in History and German at the University of Liverpool. I became interested in the heritage sector and, following graduation, I volunteered and worked in several archive repositories and museums in England and Germany, gaining valuable experience in caring for archives as well as engaging with the public. I then returned to the University of Liverpool to qualify as an archivist, graduating with an MA in Archives and Records Management.

Since joining the small and friendly team at the University of Exeter Special Collections, I have worked on projects to catalogue the Syon Abbey archive and the Common Ground archive. My main responsibility as a project archivist is to arrange, repackage, and describe the different components of an archive. This is done by creating a hierarchical structure of sections, series, files, and items that provides contextual information about how the records were originally used. Each component is given a unique reference number and the descriptions are added to a database. Users can then search the database via an online catalogue to identify material of interest and request to view it in our reading room. I would just like to emphasise here that archives are available to everyone, and can be used as much for academic study as for general interest or pleasure.

In addition to cataloguing, I like to find other ways to enable access to archives – the essence, really, of what I think being an archivist is all about – including through giving talks, managing the University of Exeter Heritage Collections Twitter account (@UoEHeritageColl), and creating online guides to our collections.

Nandini: This brings us nicely to the Black History Resource Guide, which you have created this year. What led you to prepare this guide?

Annie: Recent events around the Black Lives Matter movement have made me think more about structural racism, white privilege and what I can do to be anti-racist in my personal and professional life. There is a growing concern in the UK archives sector about the lack of ethnic diversity in archives, both in regards to the workforce and the holdings. Archives are not neutral and decisions made by archivists over what is and what isn’t collected has resulted in the widespread exclusion, misrepresentation and marginalisation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic voices in archives. Earlier this year, the online petition ‘End Structural Racism in Britain’s Archives Sector’ highlighted the concerted efforts needed to revise the way we work, collect and recruit, as well as the individual actions we can all take.

Aware of the important work around decolonisation and combating inequality already taking place at the University of Exeter and the University Library, I started thinking about representation within our Special Collections. I realised that archives and rare books relating to ethnically diverse communities are difficult to identify through our webpages and online catalogues. Anyone seeking these resources might quickly be disheartened and abandon their search, and the relevant collections we hold might continue to go unused. Motivated by Black History Month and the recent work of other archivists around the UK, I decided to create the Black History Resource Guide as an easy access point into our collections. I hope it will be a useful tool for students and staff at the University of Exeter and the wider community, and complement other library resources, such as the Library’s guide to Black History Month and Black Lives Matter Collections.

Nandini: What kinds of teaching and learning are you hoping to facilitate through this guide?

Annie: Many of the archives and books featured in the resource guide have been under-used or, in some cases, have not been accessed at all. We would be really pleased if the resource guide generated fresh interest in this material from staff and students. The Special Collections team has been supporting teaching staff for many years in delivering seminars that give students the opportunity to engage with archives and rare books. Some of the resources featured in the guide have already been successfully used in seminars, such as the Anti-Apartheid collections and the Gale and Morant Family papers relating to enslavement. Archives such as the Gale and Morant Family papers can, for example, be recontextualised to spark discussions around what they reveal and conceal about the lives of those enslaved on plantations, as well as how the Transatlantic Slave Trade continues to have an impact on the lives of Black people today through its legacy of racism. We would warmly encourage teaching staff interested in using our collections in seminars to get in touch with us to discuss their ideas. Equally, everyone is very welcome to use the collections for private study in our reading room, which is available by advance appointment.

Nandini: What were the challenges in preparing this guide?

Annie: One of the biggest challenges was identifying the relevant resources within our collections. This was a time-consuming task that involved using a range of different key-word searches, as well as trawling through the collection descriptions on our catalogue. Archives and books are catalogued differently, and different techniques are required for navigating and searching them. Though we try to make our catalogues as user-friendly as possible, it can take time, patience and several searches to find all the relevant material. I think this can be a real challenge, especially for people who are new to using catalogues. One of the reasons I hope the resource guide will be useful is because it spares people some of the time and effort usually required to identify relevant sources by making them more immediately visible. However, I would also like to encourage everyone to practice using library and archive catalogues. It can be really enjoyable and rewarding, especially for those who enjoy detective work! There are plenty of tips on search techniques online, or ask an archivist or librarian for advice.

On a more personal note, I also found it challenging and sometimes uncomfortable to judge whether or not something in the collections constitutes as ‘Black History’, perhaps especially as I am white myself. Before creating the resource guide, I first looked at guides created by other archive repositories in the UK. There seemed to be a general consensus in focusing specifically on archives by and about people of African and Caribbean descent, so I decided to take the same approach. I do, however, appreciate that such definitions are subjective and ‘Black’ may mean different things to different people. I was also unsure whether some archives and books – especially those written from a white colonial or enslaver’s viewpoint – should really be included under the heading ‘Black History resources’. Is it Black History if Black voices are silent? Ultimately, I did decide to include them, as they provide evidence of the oppression experienced by many Black people, and in some cases include important personal details – such as names and ages – that we might not otherwise know. These challenging considerations made me realise just how important it was to include an introduction that would sensitively and honestly place the resource guide into context, both in regard to how and why the guide had been created, as well as the limitations of our collections for the study of Black histories.

Nandini: Thank you for offering us a sense of the meticulous and self-critical thoughtthat has gone into your work. This is also the time to celebrate your achievement; what did you find joyful and satisfying about this work?

Annie: I was delighted to discover that we hold more collections relevant to the study of Black History than I had initially anticipated and – most importantly – that Black voices are represented in several of the collections. My day-to-day work usually concerns only one archive, so it was also a pleasure for me to find more about our wider collections. Regarding future plans, the Special Collections team has started discussing ideas around re-evaluating our collections and work practices. To begin with, we will review and revise catalogue descriptions containing racist language, ensuring offensive terms appear in inverted commas and records are described accurately and sensitively. We would also like to work with researchers – particularly, given our setting, with university students – to bring to light the stories of Black and minority ethnic people in our collections. And in the long term, we will be looking to review our collecting policy, and work towards increasing the representation of ethnically diverse communities and people in our collections. This will be a long process, but one that we are looking forward to, and we would be pleased to hear from people at the university and the wider community who are interested in discussing and supporting this work.

Nandini: Wonderful, look forward. Thank you for sharing your work and plans with us!