Like many archives, here at Hull University Archives (HUA) we’re very aware that our collections tend to centre the lives, voices and experiences of a limited section of the population – that is to say, male, white, and middle to upper class. We’re also aware that, historically, cataloguing practice tended to reinforce this, concentrating on the creators and organisers of records rather than trying to surface other, diverse voices which are recorded within the collections.
We know that many of our students and researchers are trying to locate and study diverse voices, so back in 2019 we started to look at ways we could help. We began with a 6-week intern project to assess our catalogues and highlight those which could be used to research the histories of women, people from ethnic minority backgrounds, LGBTQ+ people, and people from religious minorities. Our intern produced a fantastic report which highlighted some starting points for researchers, but at the time we were unable to take it any further.
Then 2020 happened, and during the first lockdown I suddenly had the time and space to build on the intern’s work. I could fully delve into our catalogues and create a skills guide, Diversity in Archives, to aid researchers searching for diverse voices. HUA has a set of these guides, aimed primarily at our students but accessible to all, and we aim to promote the use of our collections by helping researchers navigate our holdings.
What it covers
The guide has sections to help users locate records relating to women, people from ethnic minorities, enslaved people, and LGBTQ+ people within our collections. This includes highlighting particular collections which are likely to be useful and suggesting search terms to use with our catalogues.
We decided to separate out the history of the Atlantic slave trade from the main page about people from ethnic minorities. This was partly because many people are interested in slavery as a research topic, so it’s useful for them to have a dedicated page, but also because Black history is much wider and longer than the history of the slave trade.
Why did we choose these sections?
We chose to highlight these groups for two reasons: they are often under-represented in archive collections, and we receive enquiries from researchers asking about them. The categories are broad, and we acknowledge that it’s not ideal to lump large and disparate groups together like this, but the guide is intended to give researchers inspiration and a starting point rather than be an exhaustive list of every relevant record, and so we decided that broad strokes were acceptable.
The guide is careful to point out that the unwary researcher can be led astray by archival records. For example, many references to LGBTQ+ people before the mid-20th century appear in court records, but this does not mean that all LGBTQ+ people were criminals or criminalised. Many references to Black people are likely to be found in records relating to the Atlantic slave trade, but that does not mean that the history of slavery is the entirety of Black history.
We also highlight that many records are about people rather than of people. People from marginalised groups may appear in records created by dominant groups, rather than in records they have created themselves. Where we have records created by members of marginalised groups we’ve tried to mention them specifically.
We decided to include downloadable documents to give readers examples of the kinds of material they might find. These are scanned images turned into PDFs. However these are not accessible to all; people using screen readers are the most obviously disadvantaged group, but we also know that many students have specific learning differences, such as dyslexia, which can make working with archival documents challenging. To increase accessibility we decided to include text transcriptions of all downloadable documents (something which we are now doing across all our web resources). These are also PDFs, which we’re aware are not always completely accessible to screen readers, but we will provide other formats on request.
The guide is an evolving one, and we intend to continue adding to it over time. We would like to include pages for locating other under-represented voices, such as children, people with disabilities, and working class voices.
Interested? Read the guide here.
The Diversity Allies will be presenting an introduction to our work at the ARA Conference on Wednesday 1 September 2021. If you’re attending the conference do please pop along virtually and find out more about us.