Dr Matt Shaw and Michael Townsend talk about the Institute of Historical Research’s (IHR) plans to develop its library holdings and respond to the important charge that discussion and initiatives around ‘decolonisation’ is sometimes just another form of ‘equality talk’.

There aren’t many awards for libraries, but if there were, a case for a speech similar to that made by Joachim Phoenix at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards could be made. For his best actor speech, Phoenix took the industry and the awards to task for its racism and lack of action in addressing inequality:

‘… It’s more than just having sets that are multi-cultural. We have to do really the hard work to truly understand systemic racism.

‘I think it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it. So that’s on us.’

Swap out ‘sets’ for ‘shelves’ in the quotation, and it might be a good text for our imagined BAFTA library awards. While the contents of a library might be increasingly diverse, and their staffing might also be, particularly when compared to other parts of a higher education institution, libraries ‘know we have a problem’. This was stated firmly in ‘BAME Staff Experiences of academic and research libraries‘, a 2019 report by Mohammed Ishaq and Asifa Maaria Hussain for the Standing Conference of National and University Libraries (SCONUL).

History as a discipline and a profession also knows that ‘we have a problem’. Last year’s Royal Historical Society (RHistS) Race, Ethnicity and Equality report addressed head-on history’s structural inequalities, in which 96.1% of university professors identify as white and only 11% of university history students coming from a black or ethnic minority background, a lower proportion that most other university subjects.

There is a danger that much of this, like Phoenix’s speech is just ‘inequality talk’. Historians might note that there is a precedent for actors turning down their awards in protest; as welcome as it was, there was no equivalent of Sacheen Littlefeather’s speech at the Oscars in 1973 here.

But, as well as identifying the many problems facing the discipline, the RHistS report also proposed a series of responses and positive actions that can be taken, not least listen to other voices. The IHR has also begun to reflect on diversity as it develops its mission and strategy for its second century.

Within the IHR’s Wohl Library, such questions have been very much part of our work. But we are aware that we need to listen more to others, and to seek input and opinion. With this in mind, we are sharing our current thinking and practices, and we welcome input, thoughts, suggestions and critiques. It is of course limited, incomplete, partial and inadequate. But it is, we hope, a start.

Structures of inequality are, of course, intersectional, and diversity means more than race: gender, socio-economic background, disability, neurodiversity. This forms one important strand of our work, and books, including ‘Akala. Natives: race and class in the ruins of empire’ and ‘Al-Kadhi, Amrou. Unicorn: the memoir of a Muslim drag queen’, give a flavour of our collections development work, as well as texts that are informing our thinking. We also have a number of collection guides, such as to black history, which surface aspects of the collection that may otherwise be hard to find. Annual membership of the library is also now free to all wanting to undertake historical research.

Movements to decolonise the university/museum/library/archive have also created new ways to look at our work. There are a growing number of good examples of practical responses to this call, from asking students to recommend texts to deliberately selecting texts published in the global south to add to reading lists. Talks, blog posts and conferences in the library sector have shared best practices, offered challenges, and critiqued the terms and assumptions used.

One concrete result of these discussions has been revisiting our classification systems. As the documentary ‘Changing the Subject’ explores, assumptions, biases and exclusions are embedded in classification systems, such as the Dewey Decimal system. Our classification is bespoke, but colleagues have begun to ensure that it can deal with the range of human experience and culture. We expect to continue to learn more from our colleagues elsewhere in the sector and beyond.

Collection development is one important way to respond to the important charge that discussion and initiatives around ‘decolonisation’ is sometimes just another form of ‘equality talk’, and which also coopts the labour of those whose voices have been appropriated or silenced. Again, this is something we need to listen to.

The are deeper structures of inequality, and ones that take place earlier in the educational and cultural contexts. Some of these can only be fixed by hard cash, or at the very least profound changes in educational and employment practices; just blaming the ‘leaky pipeline’ is not enough. The King’s Fund’s recent BAME graduate trainee post is one example of an intervention that has the potential to erode some privileges built into the way things have usually been done, and we have been thinking hard about how this might apply here. Please join us as we think further, and, if necessary, hold us to account.

Dr Matt Shaw (@_MattShaw), librarian at the Institute of Historical Research, is responsible for management and development of the IHR’s Wohl Library. The Library is a primary and secondary collection of 200,000 items and central to the IHR’s role as a research institute.

Michael Townsend (@MichaelRTownsend) is the IHR’s collections and metadata librarian

This extract is from an article that first appeared in On History. The full version is available here.