News, Culture and Opportunities

Diversity and Inequality in the Library

By Matt Shaw and Michael Townsend

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’, as a 2019 report by Mohammed Ishaq and Asifa Maaria Hussain for the Standing Conference of National and University Libraries (SCONUL) ‘BAME Staff Experiences of academic and research libraries‘ stated firmly.

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 not 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 postitive 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, and I’m sure that there will be more to be found on this blog over the next months and years.

Within the Wohl Library of the IHR, 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, 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 the books listed below 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 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.


  • Since the IHR’s foundation in 1921, the library has collected works (and still does) on West European, North and South American and Colonial History, and assumptions about nations, political structures of power and influence of empire informed much thinking about history, and even the physical arrangement of the library building.
  • Some biases have accumulated in some of the collections skewing the view of historical narratives towards white European and North American narratives/historians.

Current practices

  • Whilst still ensuring we don’t duplicate too much with the other history collections held in Bloomsbury, we now collect enthusiastically to erode these biases, ensuring that all collections represent all historical narratives, and include historical authors from all backgrounds.
  • Our collection guides will highlight the diversity of voices in our collections and avoid erasure of indigeniety.
  • This drive to recalibrate the collections will encompass historical narratives and authors of race, gender, sexuality and disability.
  • Regularly attend events outlining how other libraries and institutions have changed/are changing to ensure their services and space are inclusive to all.

Future Goals

  • Complete a new collection policy document in collaboration with others, outlining, among other things, our commitment to acquire and make accessible works that represent all historical narratives and authors.
  • Continuing to market our collections in the library and as part of wider IHR events.

Selection of titles acquired between 2018 and 2020. These can all be located on the .

Race and Migration

  • Akala.
    Natives: race and class in the ruins of
  • Al-Kadhi,
    Amrou. Unicorn: the memoir of a Muslim
    drag queen
  • Arday,
    Jason & Mirza, Heidi Safia (ed.) Dismantling
    race in higher education: racism, whiteness and decolonising the academy
  • Barbas-Rhoden,
    Laura. Writing women in Central America:
    gender and the fictionalization of history
  • Bastian,
    Jeanette. Decolonizing the Caribbean
    record: an archive reader
  • Bhambra,
    Gurminder. Decolonising the university
  • Bidnall,
    Amanda. The West Indian generation:
    remaking British culture in London, 1945-1965
  • Bourne,
    Stephen. Black poppies: Britain’s black
    community and the Great War
  • Bryan,
    Beverley. Heart of the race: Black
    women’s lives in Britain
  • Carmichael,
    Stokely. Stokely speaks: from Black Power
    to Pan-Africanism
  • Cassoli,
    Marileide Lázara. A construção da
    Liberdade: vivências da escravidão e do pós-abolição
  • Constantine,
    Laerie Nicholas. Colour bar
  • Dagbovie,
    Pero Gaglo. Reclaiming the black past:
    the use and misuse of African American history in the 21st century
  • De
    Lorenzi, James. Guardians of tradition:
    historians and historical writing in Ethiopia and Eritrea
  • Diallo,
    Rokhaya. Afro!
  • Emery,
    Jacqueline. Recovering Native American
    writings in the boarding school press
  • Field,
    Paul…et al. Here to stay, here to fight:
    a Race Today anthology
  • Fleisch,
    Axel. Doing conceptual history in Africa
  • Foner,
    Philip S. The Black Panthers speak
  • Fryer,
    Peter. Staying power: the history of
    black people in Britain
  • Gabriel,
    Deborah. Inside the ivory tower:
    narratives of women of colour surviving and thriving in British academia
  • Gakaara
    wa Wanjau. Mau Mau author in detention
  • Geaves,
    Ron. Islam and Britain: Muslim missions
    in an age of empire
  • Grant,
    Colin. Homecoming: voices of the Windrush
  • Hall,
    Stuart. Selected political works
  • Hirsch,
    Afua. Brit(ish): on race, identity and
  • Hohai,
    Te Miringa. Parihaka: the art of passive
  • Holmes,
    Catherine & Standen, Naomi. The
    global Middle Ages
  • Hondius,
    Dienke. Blackness in Western Europe:
    racial patterns of paternalism and exclusion
  • Keita,
    Boubacar Namory. Contribuição endógena
    para a escrita da história da África negra: ensaio sobre de Cheikh Anta Diop
  • Kennedy,
    Dane Keith. The imperial history wars:
    debating the British Empire
  • Lentz,
    Carola. Remembering independence
  • Madra,
    Amandeep Singh. Eyewitness at Amritsar: a
    visual history of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre
  • Matera,
    Marc. Black London: the imperial
    metropolis and decolonization in the twentieth century
  • Matthews,
    David. Voices of the Windrush generation:
    the real story of the people themselves
  • Mbembé,
    J. A. On the postcolony
  • McKirdy,
    Carol. Practicing oral history with
    immigrant narrators
  • Monchamp,
    Anne Marie. Autobiographical memory in an
    Aboriginal Australian community: culture, place and narrative
  • Myers,
    Norma. Reconstructing the Black past:
    Blacks in Britain, c. 1780-1830
  • Nubia,
    Onyeka. England’s other countrymen: Black
    Tudor society
  • O’Fahey,
    R. S. Dafur and the British: a sourcebook
  • Pitts,
    Johny. Afropean: notes from Black Europe
  • Price,
    Barclay. The Chinese in Britain: a
    history of visitors and settlers
  • Rhodes must fall: the struggle to
    decolonise the racist heart of empire
  • Shukla,
    Nikesh. The good immigrant
  • Shyllon,
    F. O. Black people in Britain 1555-1833
  • Smith,
    Linda. Decolonizing mythologies: research
    and indigenous people
  • Stanziani,
    Alessandro. Eurocentrism and the politics
    of global history
  • Stephebson,
    Paul. Memoirs of a black Englishman
  • Weiner,
    Melissa & Carmona, Antonio. Smash the
    pillars: decoloniality and the imaginary of color in the Dutch Kingdom


  • Aleksievich,
    Svetlana. The unwomanly face of war: an
    oral history of women in World War II
  • Clear,
    Catriona. Women’s voices in Ireland:
    women’s magazines in the 1950s and 60s
  • Crawford,
    Elizabeth. Art and Suffrage: a
    biographical dictionary of suffrage artists
  • Crozier-De
    Rosa, Sharon. Remembering women’s
  • Diallo,
    Rokhaya. Ne reste pas à ta place!:
    comment s’accomplir en ne faisant rien de ce qui était prévu
  • Edge,
    Sarah. The extraordinary archive of
    Arthur J. Munby: photographing class and gender in the nineteenth century
  • Erhart,
    Julia. Gendering history on screen: women
    filmmakers and historical films
  • Espinoza,
    Dionne…et al. Chicana movidas: new
    narratives of activism and feminism in the movement era
  • Galera
    Mendoza, Esther. Mujeres en la Alhambra:
    colección de documentos de los siglos XVI y XVII
  • Gardiner,
    Juliet. Joining the dots: a woman in her
  • Gauld,
    Nicola. Words and deeds: Birmingham
    suffragists and suffragettes 1832-1918
  • Grunwald-Spier,
    Agnes. Women’s experience in the
    Holocaust: in their own words
  • Halldórsdóttir,
    Erla Hulda…et al. Biography, gender and
    history: Nordic perspectives
  • Hamilton,
    Paula & Spongberg, Mary. Feminist
    histories and digital media
  • Hartigan-O’Connor,
    Ellen & Materson, Lisa G. The Oxford
    handbook of American women’s and gender history
  • Jardin,
    Jean-Pierre. Histoires, femmes, pouvoirs:
    Péninsule ibérique (IXe-XVe siècle)
  • Kane,
    Bronach Christina. Popular memory and
    gender in medieval England: men, women and testimony in the church courts, c.
  • Lindner,
    Ulrike…et al. New perspectives on the
    history of gender and empire: comparative and global approaches
  • Lorde,
    Audre. Sister outsider
  • Major,
    Susan. Female railway workers in World
    War II
  • McDowell,
    Linda. Migrant women’s voices: talking
    about life and work in the UK since 1945
  • Meitner,
    Lise. Bande der Freudschaft: Lise Meitner
    – Elisabeth Schiemann: kommentierter Briefwechsel 1911-1947
  • Meyer,
    Johannes. Women’s history in the age of
  • Molony,
    Barbara. Gendering modern Japanese
  • Monacelli,
    Martine. Male voices on women’s rights:
    an anthology of nineteenth-century British texts
  • Mukherjee,
    Sumita. Indian suffragettes: female
    identities and transnational networks
  • Pankhurst,
    Sylvia. Suffragette in America:
    reflections on prisoners, pickets and political change
  • Penthick-Lawrence,
    Frederick William. Is the law unjust to
  • Ryan,
    Louise. Winning the vote for women: the
    Irish citizen newspaper and the suffrage movement in Ireland
  • Sadawi,
    Nawal. A daughter of Isis: the early life
    of Nawal El Sa’dawi
  • ———.
    Walking through fire: the later years of
    Nawal El Sa’dawi
  • Santosuosso,
    Stefano. Genealogias: re-writing the
    Canon: women writing in XVI-XVII century Italy
  • Scott,
    Joan Wallach. Gender and the politics of
  • Spongberg,
    Mary. Women writers and the nation’s past
  • Srigley,
    Katrina…et al. Beyond women’s words:
    feminism and the practices of oral history in the twenty-first century
  • Teaguem
    Frances…et al. (ed.) Bathsua Makin and
    Mary More, with a reply to More by Robert Whitehall: educating English
    daughters: late seventeenth century debates
  • Weiner,
    Samantha & Jones, Emma. Why I march:
    images from the Women’s March around the world

LGBTQ+ Histories

  • Baley,
    Anne. Steel closets: voices of gay,
    lesbian and transgender steelworkers
  • Baumann,
    Jason. The Stonewall reader
  • Bérubé,
    Allan. My desire for history: essays in
    gay, community and labor history
  • Boswell,
    John. Christianity, social tolerance and
    homosexuality: gay people in western Europe from the beginning of the Christian
    era to the fourteenth century
  • Dockray,
    Keith & Sutton, Alan. Politics,
    society and homosexuality in post-war Britain: the Sexual Offences Act of 1967
    and its significance
  • Elliott,
    Sue. Not guilty: queer stories from a
    century of discrimination
  • Haggerty,
    George E. Gay histories and cultures: an
  • Hirschfeld,
    Magnus. Berlin’s third sex
  • Jacques,
    Juliet. Trans: a memoir
  • Kinsey,
    Alfred. Sexual behaviour in the human
  • ̶———.
    Sexual behaviour in the human male
  • Lewis,
    Brian. Wolfenden’s witnesses:
    homosexuality in postwar Britain
  • Meek,
    Jeffrey. Queer voices in post-war
    Scotland: male homosexuality, religion and society
  • Milk,
    Harvey. An archive of hope: Harvey Milk’s
    speeches and writings
  • Portmann,
    John. Women and gay men in the postwar
  • Richmond,
    Len & Noguera, Gary. The gay
    liberation book
  • Rufli,
    Constance. Seit dieser Nacht war ich wie
    verzaubert: frauenliebende Frauen über siebzig erzählen
  • Rustin,
    Bayard. Time on two crosses: the
    collected writings of Bayard Rustin
  • Stryker,
    Susan. Transgender history
  • Walter,
    Aubrey. Come together: the years of gay
    liberation (1970-73)
  • Zimmerman,
    Bonnie. Encyclopedia of lesbian histories
    and cultures

Disability Histories

  • Alabama Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and Blind. Thirteenth annual report of the Board of Commissioners and Offices of the Alabama Institution for the deaf and dumb and the blind, for the year ending Sept. 30, 1873
  • Blunkett, David. The Blunkett tapes: my life in the bear pit
  • Emerson, Jason. Mary Lincoln’s insanity case: a documentary history
  • Godfrey, Raymond. List of ‘pauper lunatics’ in the Faversham area 1825-1871
  • Hutchinson, Iain. Feeling our history: the experience of blindness and sight loss in Edwardian Edinburgh, the Lothians and the Scottish Borders
  • Keller, Helen. Helen Keller: the story of my life and selected letters
  • ———. My key of life, optimism
  • ———. The world I live in and Optimism: a collection of essays
  • Mason, Kate. The archive of the Wilberforce memorial: at the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research
  • Rembis, Michael…et al. The Oxford handbook of disability history
  • Wallis, John. Teaching language to a boy born deaf: the Popham notebook and associated texts


Royal Historical Society, Race, Ethnicity and Equality Report: a report and resource for change (2018)

SCONUL, ‘BAME Staff Experiences of academic and research libraries (2019)

Orian Brook, Dave O’Brien, & Mark Taylor, ‘Inequality Talk: how discourses by senior men reinforce exclusions from creative occupations’, European Journal of Cultural Studies (December 2019). doi:.

Dr Matt Shaw is the Librarian at the Institute of Historical Research, and 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. Follow him @_MattShaw

Michael Townsend is Collections and Metadata Librarian at the Institute of Historical Research. Follow him @MichaelRTownsend

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