The Rylands Reflects, a new blog series, will explore the history of the John Rylands Library, our collections, and our current practice as heritage professionals in the context of racism, colonisation and representation of marginalised groups.
The series begins with a statement from the University of Manchester Library (also shared on our website) on diversifying our collections and practices. Over the next months, we will be sharing regular posts, starting in September by exploring the links both John Rylands and Enriqueta Rylands, founder of the library, had with the Atlantic slave trade and cotton cultivation by enslaved people. We welcome feedback on these posts.
Statement: Diversifying Collections and Practices within the University of Manchester Library
Following the shocking murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 and the worldwide protests that it provoked, we have taken time to reflect on the implications for us and the steps that we need to take at the University of Manchester Library, to dismantle racism and hateful ideologies wherever we encounter them in our practice as information professionals.
This statement is the product of extensive discussions across the Library, who naturally have a range of perspectives and opinions. It is not intended to be the final word on the subject, but the first: it reflects our initial thinking, which will no doubt change as we continue to learn and to act. Our commitment to counter historic and contemporary racism and other injustices must be demonstrated not only in words, but in a series of long overdue actions, which are outlined below.
We recognise that racial inequality is only one of many inequalities which permeate our collections and our work, but we believe that this is the moment to commit to permanent changes which will increase diversity in the sector and the representation and contributions of communities previously obscured within the collections we curate.
The University for which we work is committed to challenging racism and becoming proactively inclusive, reflecting the diverse communities whom we serve and work with. As professionals within a largely white sector of librarians and archivists, we acknowledge the racial inequalities in our sector, in our practices and in the collections we care for, share and promote. We will deepen our understanding of the challenges of curating this material, while also seizing the opportunities found in our commitment to active reflection and change. We will engage in respectful discussion and take specific actions to improve racial equality both in our sector and in the wider world which we influence.
There are particular resonances at the John Rylands Library, which was created and developed within a particular historical context which benefited from enslavement and the slave trade. The materials that have accrued over its 120-year history have largely been collected by individuals and groups from privileged white backgrounds, and many are directly linked to British imperialism. The same is true of many other collections held by the University of Manchester Library.
We can and will situate these materials in their appropriate historical contexts; engage with communities reflected in this material; encourage critical reflection and reinterpretation of our collections to reveal neglected histories; develop the collections to more faithfully represent Britain’s diverse society; and use the collections to promote meaningful dialogue to counter interpersonal, structural and institutional racism.
- Provide space and support for staff to deepen their personal and professional understanding of racism and discuss its implication in our practices.
- Collaboratively review the ways we describe the material in our collections and work to identify and address racial bias through initiatives such as content warnings and contextualising or amending historic metadata.
- Advocate and act to decolonise the curriculum through increased understanding and the sharing of relevant resources with colleagues directly involved in teaching.
- Review our content development policies to give greater priority to material reflecting stories and voices of traditionally marginalised groups and subjects.
- Engage meaningfully with BAME communities to support the reinterpretation of collections materials and their research.
- Support the sharing of lived experiences, where this is appropriate, and listen with respect.
- Work to embed the stories and voices of diverse groups/histories in the way we interpret the library and its collections to visitors at the John Rylands Library, through exhibitions and public programmes.
- Support research and professional posts aimed at diversifying the workforce and improving diversity in the interpretation of collections.
- Express our views with empathy and respect and engage in meaningful debate where appropriate.
These actions will form a key strand of the Library’s operational plans and priorities, where they will be developed in greater detail and with measurable outcomes. We will regularly review and report back on progress towards diversifying our collections and practices.