Long read Rylands Reflects

Diversifying our collections and practices: reflecting upon actions so far

Part of the ‘Rylands Reflects’ series, in this post Lianne Smith summarises some developments in working practices since the University of Manchester Library’s statement on diversifying our collections and practices was shared last summer.

At the end of August 2020 the University of Manchester Library shared a statement on our intention to diversify our collections and practices. I’d like to use this post to reflect upon three of the elements included in this statement, and actions that I, in collaboration with colleagues, have taken in my working practices, to begin to work towards these aims. Please note that some of the work mentioned commenced before August 2020 and was being undertaken by staff while our institutional statement was being finalised.

‘We will 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.’

I have curatorial responsibility for archives and printed items related to the Christian Brethren, an evangelical Christian movement which has historically been involved in missionary activity all over the world during the 19th and 20th centuries. Evidence of these endeavours features strongly in the archives, but as one might expect, this evidence is recorded by and represents the British missionaries whereas the stories and voices of the indigenous people encountered and converted by the missionaries are less visible.

Slide titled ‘India’s Need’, from the Christian Brethren lantern slide collection (ref: BLS/27)

This month I’ve started a project with Hannah Banks and Matthew Bridson, two MA students from the Institute for Cultural Practices at the University of Manchester, in which we are attempting to redress this balance in some of our mission-related photographic collections by highlighting alternative contexts and perspectives. Through targeted research, we aim to develop a better understanding of these images and the indigenous people, places and practices featured in them, in order to create additional resources designed to aid researchers by situating the items in their historical contexts. We’ll be sharing more about the project on the blog over the coming months.

‘We will work to embed the stories and voices of diverse groups/histories in the way we interpret the library and its collections…’

I’m now going to cast a look back to Black History Month in October 2020, for which I was one of a group of colleagues responsible for planning the themes for inclusion in our blog posts. The planning process brought with it additional challenges this year, due to the fact that COVID restrictions limited our access to the libraries and collections, but we were determined that the items and stories had to meet two sets of criteria. Firstly, we wished to highlight stories which were celebratory, and highlighted the strength, creativity, talent and ingenuity of the people featured, even if it was against a backdrop of adversity. Secondly, we wanted to focus on items in which the voices of the black people featured were present, and the stories were told in their own words. Within heritage settings often Black History Month activities are about black people rather than by them. While I was involved in the planning of Black History Month as a mixed-race member of staff, like most Special Collections libraries, most of our staff (and blog-post writers) are white. Therefore, it was especially important for me that we focussed on documents and books in which our blog post subject’s voices were present, and that our role was simply to highlight and amplify those voices.

Front cover of ‘Hustler’ magazine, a black community newspaper published in 1968 in Notting Hill, London. From the Dave Cunliffe archive

‘We will provide space and support for staff to deepen their personal and professional understanding of racism and discuss its implication in our practices.’

I’m a member of the Special Collections Teaching and Learning Group, which brings together colleagues from across the Library to develop and promote teaching and learning activities using Special Collections across the University. As a group, we decided to dedicate every other meeting to issues relating to diversification and decolonisation, and the historic marginalisation of particular demographic groups within Special Collections environments in order to gain a greater collective understanding of the issues at hand and think about practical ways in which we could develop and improve our working practices. We trialled a model whereby members of the group took it in turns to find readings and devise questions which would then be discussed at meetings, both at a conceptual level and with reference to our day-to-day work. Topics covered included understanding what ‘decolonising’ and ‘diversification’ actually means, and what the differences are between the two; the importance of language, and examining the concept of ‘white privilege’.

This process has resulted in some positive engagement, and personal and professional growth for many of the participants; as an example, these discussions helped me develop some of the ideas for the project referenced in the first part of this blog post. I believe that a few factors contributed to the success of this trial – firstly, as an existing group with a strong working relationship we were able to speak openly and honestly about what are uncomfortable topics, and secondly, the breadth of our professional and personal experiences meant a wide variety of perspectives were heard. What’s important now is not to lose the momentum and the progress that has been thus far, and now other colleagues are looking into how similar discussion groups could be developed across Special Collections.

These are just a few very small ways in which I and others have been developing our working practices. As individual acts, they are not particularly grand gestures, and really just illustrate the starting point in what is a substantial amount of work needed in this area. However, these small changes have a cumulative impact which will grow as I and my colleagues continue to embed diversifying practices into our work. I feel very fortunate to be in a position to shine a light on some of the stories that have previously been neglected and I’m looking forward to seeing the stories we will have shared a year from now.

I’d like to thank all of the colleagues – too numerous to list – who have been involved in the activities described in this post.

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