For most of recent history, access to the means to read, write, publish and collect texts was restricted to society’s most privileged. Most of the 150,000 rare books that are looked after by UCL Special Collections were donated over the past two centuries by members of the same privileged group. Collecting books is never neutral: the choice to purchase books in a certain discipline, or on specific topics or by particular authors also implies the choice not to purchase other materials. The interests and prejudices of the collectors themselves and the society they lived in deeply influenced those decisions.The result is that the rare printed collections that we have inherited overwhelmingly document the experiences, achievements and concerns of white men of European heritage. The experiences of less privileged people – those of non-white ethnicity, women, those living with a disability or people who are LGBTQ+, for example – are much more difficult to find.
Uncovering obscured histories
To start addressing this challenge, we set up a volunteering project called Liberating the Collections in 2021. Thirteen volunteers searched our catalogue for books, pamphlets and journals that relate to the experiences of people from marginalised groups. Focusing on topics such as women book owners, same sex love and desire and BAME authors, they compiled a list of 650 books from our collections that provide glimpses into some of those obscured histories. A new display at the Student Centre, which is opening on 15th February ’22, will showcase a selection of images from the items that the project has uncovered.
Complex questionsSearching for these underrepresented voices in our collections brought up many questions that don’t have easy answers. Are descriptions of non-Western traditions by representatives of the nations that colonised these countries examples of preservation or exploitation? How do you uncover women’s histories when the surviving historical evidence is scanty? Can we apply modern notions of sexual identities to texts that were written by historic people?
These issues are reflected in some of the items that are included in the display. There is a copy of a sixteenth-century epic poem that was signed by Mary Rich and Margarit Riche, whose identities we can only guess at. Another item in the display is a volume of poetry by Katherine Philips (1632-64), who some consider to be a lesbian poet, although others have called this reading anachronistic. Also included is an illustration from Kaladlit okalluktualliait (1859-61), an anthology of Inuit folk tales that was published by a Danish colonial official.
Next stepsListing items from our collections that relate to underrepresented and marginalised groups is only the first step in amplifying these voices. Through updating our catalogue records with the findings of the volunteers, we will make these items easier to discover. For example, where volunteers have identified women who previously owned books in our collections or women printers who used their late husband’s name, we are adding these names to the catalogue record. We are also planning to digitise some of these items so that they are freely available online, and we are using the list as a basis to diversify the items we use in our exhibitions, classes and events.
The Liberating the Collections project has only scratched the tip of the metaphorical iceberg, but already we are finding treasures as the ice starts to melt.