American Collections blog

« February 2010 | Main | April 2010»

9 posts from March 2010

26 March 2010

Posted history: Canadian postcards

A Friendly Call (by the Bishop-Barker Co)

A Friendly Call, The Bishop Barker Co., 1919.

As well as curating the Canadian and Caribbean collections here at the British Library, the other thing occupying my time at the moment is finishing my PhD. One of my thesis chapters is about the substantial holdings of Canadian postcards from the early twentieth century that are held at the Library, so I thought I’d share some insights into this collection.

Now, in many ways postcards are not show stopping items in libraries or museums (although they did have a section in the Points of View exhibition), especially because we generally see them as something cheap and ephemeral. However, it is precisely because of this characteristic that the postcard deserves our attention. In the early twentieth century the postcard was a means of communication between friends, relatives, associates and even enemies near and far, and the scale on which they were consumed dwarfs how many postcards are bought today, even with the huge growth of the tourist industry. As a result of this the images placed on postcards became an important way for individuals, especially those who could not travel, to see and experience different worlds.

In the Canadian context the rise in popularity of the postcard coincided with a period of major political, social and technological change. Therefore many Canadian postcards produced in the ‘golden age’ of the form’s popularity (1895-1920) are important windows onto Canadian history. Our collection of postcards contains an extensive set of aerial photographs (some of the first taken from a plane in Canada), postcards of the Tercentenary of Quebec and commemorative cards for the death of Queen Victoria, to name just a few subjects. There are also a number of postcards of stereoscopic photographs, which were the subject of one of my previous blogs.

When our Canadian postcards are combined with the Library’s wonderful Philatelic holdings, their research significance is only enhanced.

[P. J. H.]

23 March 2010

Beats and friends: part deux

Having been thinking about the Beats over the last week, I was pleased to come across a nice piece on Barry Miles in The Guardian's weekend review. He, of course, features prominently in the bibliography of our holdings by and about the Beats that I put up last week. And he also features in the checklist of our audio-visual material which I promised would follow. Well, here it is. Not quite as massive this time, but still pretty substantial, and an aspect of our collections that you might not have thought about. It has been compiled by Steve, our Curator for Drama and Literature in the Sound Archive, and this part of the bibliography is bang up to date. So you will find, for example, some Brion Gysin tapes that were acquired very recently. The material is predominantly sound recordings but there are some films too (such as Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy), mainly on videotape but also on DVD. We hope that you find the checklist useful.

Download BL beats bibliography audio-visual


22 March 2010

Healthcare Reform

The United States healthcare debate is, of course, not just about access to doctors and treatments, but about how the U.S. sees itself: as a land of freedom, but also personal responsibility, or the Great Society.  This profound ideological schism, as well as usual mid-term politics, in parts account for the incredibly close victory for President Obama's healthcare package on Sunday [update, 2014-01-17 that link was archived, curent site here], which seeks to extend insurance to an additional 32 million people over the next few years. Incidentally, Wikipedia's understated entry on the debate on healthcare reform  ("Public opinion on health care reform in the United States is mixed") says more about that site's attempt to be impartial than it does about the debate.

It's also a debate that goes back a long way; at least to 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt ran on a progressive agenda, promising national health insurance for workers (and borrowing much from German social welfare programmes).  Many of the pamphlets and texts from this election can be seen in the Library, along with contemporary newspapers, some of which, like the New York Times, can be searched electronically.  That paper has also produced an excellent timeline on the health reform debate, reproducing many pages recording the mixed opinions about how to pay for healthcare over the years.


18 March 2010

The Beats and friends

I’m a bit sceptical about the usefulness of bibliographies in these days of online searching. What’s the point of just creating a subset of your catalogue which anyone can do for themselves? You either have to go for a very short list of key titles, or add some value by having some useful commentary and/or bring to light material that can’t easily be found.

More years ago than I care to remember, Jim (a now long retired ex member of the team) started to compile a bibliography of our holdings of items by and about the Beat generation of writers. He did provide those useful analytical entries, and in the process of compilation, he also came across material we didn’t have – and acquired it, substantially enriching the collections in the process. I should also emphasise the ‘and friends’ of the title, since this bibliography extends well beyond the usual suspects. It should have been published about 5 years ago, but for reasons I won’t bore you with, it wasn’t. It was a real labour of love for Jim and I hate to see good work go to waste, so I’ve decided to put up a pdf of the original bibliography, warts and all.

You won’t find any material published in the last few years, which is a shame since there have been so many ‘anniversaries,’ leading to a big rise in the critical literature on Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg et al. But you might be surprised by the amount of original material that we have. Of course, the bibliography wasn’t originally intended as an online resource, so the order, index and numerous other things now leave a lot to be desired. But the amount of work needed to revamp it is beyond me or anyone else in the team at the moment (although it remains on our ‘to do’ list). Be warned though – it’s a big document of over 4MB and 745 pages. And this is only the first part (printed material) - we also have a listing of all our relevant sound recordings which hopefully will be an even bigger revelation in terms of just how much we have in the collections. The Sound Recordings pdf should appear next week. In the meantime, do let us have your comments on the bibliography – either direct to the blog or you can email us at

Download BL beats bibliography printed collections


17 March 2010

American Studies Blogs [Updated]

One of the things that we hope this blog does is act as a sign post to interesting things, whether they are in the British Library or elsewhere.  So, without further ado, here's the start of a list of American Studies blogs that you may find interesting (in no particular order at the moment).  We'll also create an RSS bundle as well (watch this space).

1. Fordham American Studies Blog

This includes some interesting posts by undergraduates, as well as staff and grad students.  Of note is the posting on 'Preserving American Journalism' by Amanda Fiscina (8 Feb 2010).  And, as is perhaps appropriate for a Jesuit college, the entries with the most comments seem to relate to religious matters.  [And we're pleased to note that our listing has been noticed! 14/4/10].

2. African American Studies at Beinecke Library

A rich resource, going back seven years.

3. [added 18/2/10]

The National Security Archive, based at George Washington University, collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. This is their lively blog, which Jerry discussed here in February 2010.

4. Americas Al Jazeera Blog [added 13/4/10]

A picture, some editorial and, usually, several comments on events from across the Americas.

5. Unframed (LACMA) [added 20/5/10]

Not so much American Studies, but one of the best museum blogs around.  Have a look at their new 'all-collections' landing page post.


15 March 2010

A bitter sweet history

The Boiling House. William Clark, Ten Views of Antigua, 1823


The opening of the re-furbished square in the centre of Brixton recently brought with it both festivities and, controversy. While many residents have been excited about the re-investment in Brixton’s public spaces, others have been more wary of the historical elisions such changes inevitably entail. In a letter to the editor of Lambeth Life one Brixton resident highlighted what they called the “irony” of juxtaposing the bust of the sugar giant Tate with a square named for the “economic refugees” of that “ugly and evil business.” In their response the Lambeth Life editor drew on the history of slavery and sugar in order to contextualize the issues. They stated, among other things, that Tate was involved in purchasing sugar from the Caribbean, but “not involved in running sugar plantations.” (Lambeth Life, p.6, 1 March, 2010)

The exchange was a perfect example of the way Caribbean history is part and parcel of the events and meanings that make up our present lives here in the UK. It also seemed an opportune way for me to highlight our Caribbean collections and, more specifically, the sources we have on Caribbean sugar production and slavery.

For those interested in investigating the history and legacy of plantation slavery and sugar production, the British Library is a treasure trove. For the last half of the 19th century we hold sources such as biographies of Henry Tate, reports on the sugar imported and refined by Tate, as well as parliamentary debates on the return of Jamaica in 1865 to a Crown Colony.

The Liverpool Papers contain reports on the production and profits of British Caribbean plantations as well as debates among colonial authorities on the spread of slave rebellions after the Haitian Revolution. The Sloane manuscripts and Edward Long papers contain records on the ships that travelled the “triangle trade” route in the 18th century.

In addition to manuscripts we have rare printed works, such as An Essay Upon Plantership by Samuel Martin, which discusses the technical innovations in sugar production throughout various islands in the English Caribbean, including Antigua, Jamaica and Barbados.

Last but not least, you will also find here the finest examples of secondary sources on the subject, from Eric Williams’ work Capitalism and Slavery to Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Indeed, as Mintz’s title suggests, the Caribbean collections at the Library shed light on the history of modern Britain. 


10 March 2010


It struck me this morning that I didn't manage to fit in a second visit to our Points of View exhibition, which closed last Sunday. I really enjoyed my only visit but now will have to make do with visiting its website or pouring over the exhibition catalogue.

However, should you be in a photographic frame of mind at the moment, I would suggest you go along to the Portal of Texas History. One of the more recent additions to this impressive online archive of Texan history is a collection of over 400 photographs of places, events and evidence relating to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 22nd November 1963, which are to be found in the Dallas Police Department archive. Included are a number of crime scene photos showing various views from and inside the Texas School Book Depository – such as the view from the window which overlooked Kennedy’s motorcade route, and a lonely bottle of Dr Pepper.

The Dallas PD JFK archive also includes a selection of Lee Harvey Oswald’s personal possessions which were collected as evidence from his home, e.g. letters, pages from his photograph albums, the famous photos of Oswald posing with a rifle, and his copy of George Orwell’s 1984 (the 1962 New American Library Signet Classics edition). You will also find mug shots and the distinctive finger print card of Jack Ruby (he lacked the top half of his left index finger), who, of course, shot Oswald.

This photographic archive allows us to explore and travel through the investigation in the weeks following the Kennedy assassination, examining all the evidence compiled by the DPD. The Portal of Texas history is a good example of how State material can be made available to the wider research community – great for historians and conspiracy theorists alike.


09 March 2010

Hidden Herstories: or, finding Amy Ashwood Garvey

Hidden Herstories Questions 

The group behind Hidden Herstories take questions after the film screening.

Regular readers of the blog may remember that back in January we were asked if we could locate an image of Amy Ashwood Garvey for a film that was being made for the Octavia Foundation. Coincidently, I was in the middle of reading C. L. R. James’s Beyond a Boundary at the time, and a few days later came across a reference to her in it – James describing her as one of only three people he had ever met with both a keen, insightful mind and the oratory ability to fully utilise it (the other two were his aunt and the Barbadian cricketer Frank Worrell).

Although the Americas team were only of limited help, Carole and I were very pleased to be invited to the premiere of the film Hidden Herstories, which was screened on Saturday at the LSE. It’s an inspiring documentary made by 20 young film-makers (aged between 14 and 24) as part of a community initiative organised by the Octavia Foundation and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The film focuses on four women who have been marginalised by history – Octavia Hill, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Claudia Jones (founder of both the West Indian Gazette and the Notting Hill Carnival), and Jayaben Desai (leader of the 1976 Grunwick strike). The documentary is an articulate and engrossing demonstration of the importance of ‘re-discovering’ these too often marginalised figures and their roles in the development of British culture during the twentieth century. And all the more inspiring for being made by such a young and diverse team. For more information on the project, see the Hidden Herstories website, where you will also find details of the free screenings that are taking place throughout March and April. Do catch one if you can.

 [P. J. H.]

American Collections blog recent posts



Other British Library blogs