American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more about this blog

20 December 2021

Bibliographic E-resources: or, how to give up footnote-chasing forever...

This third - and deliberately brief - instalment of our e-resources blog series focuses on the Library's ‘bibliographic’ e-resources!

By and large, searching this kind of e-resource will not bring up the full-text of books and articles. Instead, you will be given a list of citations which you then need to track down elsewhere. For example, if your search brings up a journal article that looks interesting, you will need to see if the British Library or another institution subscribes to that journal in order to be able to read the article itself.

While this might at first glance seem disappointing, the unique and utterly brilliant selling point of these databases is their capacity to stop you from ever again needing to note down and follow-up footnotes as you attempt to uncover all the previous research on your topic.  Instead, in a matter of moments, you will be provided with accurate, up-to-date information about everything that has already been published in your field.

So, how do they work?

In brief, they are compiled by teams of highly-skilled indexers whose role it is to assign multiple index-terms to every article in a particular journal, thereby providing you with the greatest possible chance of retrieving citations that are relevant to your research.

All mainstream subjects – history, literature, politics, sociology, economics, art, music etc – have at least one dedicated bibliographic e-resource and these can be found by using the Subject search facility on the Library’s portal. These subject-specific e-resources include, for example:

  • America History and Life, which currently indexes articles in 1,648 journals covering United States and Canadian history and culture
  • MLA International Bibliography, which currently indexes 6000+ journals in literature, language and linguistics, literary theory and criticism, and folklore, and which adds over 66,000 citations every year
  • HAPI Online (Hispanic American Periodicals Index Online), which currently indexes 400+ journals and includes 335,000+ citations in total

Other bibliographic e-resources cover multiple subjects, for example: Humanities Index; Arts and Humanities Citation Index; and Social Sciences Full Text (selective full-text coverage since 1994).

And some bibliographic e-resources focus on a particular type of content, for example:

  • Proquest Dissertations and Theses and EThOS index, in different ways, doctoral dissertations and Master's theses 
  • Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature, 1802-1906 offers digitized access to William Frederick Poole’s ground-breaking attempt to make accessible the vast amount of magazine and journal content published in the 19th century. 

Below are some of the bibliographic e-resources with Americas content that are currently offered by the British Library, but please take a look at the full range of these resources on the Library’s website as there will be at least one database that will make your literature search both quick and comprehensive; some of  these resources will include books as well as journal articles, and an increasing number of them are, happily, offering full-text access:

ABELL (Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature)
America: History and Life
Anthropological Index Online
Applied Social Sciences Index and Abstracts
Art Index
Arts and Humanities Citation Index
Book Review Digest Plus (1983- ) & Book Review Digest Retrospective, 1903-1982
Chicano Database
EconLit
EThOS
HAPI Online
Humanities and Social Sciences Index Retrospective, 1907-1984
Humanities Index, 1962 – present
International Political Science Abstracts
MLA International Bibliography
Music Index
PAIS International
Policy File Index
Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature, 1802-1906 (Part of Eight Centuries)
Proquest Dissertations and Theses
RLIM Abstracts of Music Literature
SciELO Citation Index
Social Sciences Citation Index
Social Sciences Full Text

Wishing you a wonderful festive season and all the very best until 2022 when the next blog in this series will highlight everything you need to know about Americas-focused Women's Studies e-resources!

 

14 December 2021

Dystopian Fiction & Long Feminist Histories

This autumn the Eccles Centre has been hosting a series of events and activities for researchers interested in gender and US politics. The programme will conclude with two days of activities this week, including a public, online event exploring the process of communicating women’s history through exhibitions, Staging Women’s History, on Thursday 16 December at 17.00 GMT, which is free to attend and open to all.

In previous events, the group has explored different aspects of the British Library’s collections, including sheet music, poetry, and fiction, which network member, Dr Eir-Anne Edgar, explores in more detail in this post.

In October 2021, thousands came out to protest a restrictive new anti-abortion law in Texas, which allows individuals to sue anyone suspected in assisting in or receiving an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. Images of the protests capture the scene – some women in bright pink pussy hats, many protestors armed with homemade signs and banners, and some wearing long red cloaks and large white wimples or bonnets that conceal much of the wearer’s face – the costume made famous by the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale and worn by the Handmaids of the novel’s title.

Mannequin wearing a black dress with red cape and white bonnet.
Homemade ‘handmaid’ Women’s March costume, featured in the British Library’s ‘Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights’ exhibition, 2020-21

Culturally, the costumes have come to be synonymous with the oppression of women by a Christian, patriarchal society that restricts women’s political and individual freedoms and punishes rule-breakers with physical and emotional violence. Even more significantly, the costumes represent the bravery and cunning exercised by women who have had enough and push back against oppression, as protagonist June/Offred does, rescuing children and women tormented in Gilead’s society.

Atwood’s follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale, the highly anticipated 2019 novel, The Testaments, captures the zeitgeist of the Trump presidency. Without revealing too many spoilers, readers see Offred’s legacy via the brave actions of a few young women – some in Gilead, some across the border in Canada – as well as a surprising twist from characters familiar to readers from The Handmaid’s Tale. Told in alternating perspectives from three different women, it seems that Atwood is underscoring the way in which women must work together to implement societal change. In particular, The Testaments illustrates the power that narrative has. A secret library, tucked deep in the recesses of Gilead, contains forbidden books that portray “problematic women” who deviate from their social norms. “Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Paradise Lost, Lives of Girls and Women – what a moral panic each one of them would cause if set loose among the Supplicants!” (Atwood, 35).

Inside back cover showing envelop and extra content
Special edition of The Testaments (2019) from Pelee Island Bird Observatory. Inside back cover showing envelop for bonus material.

 

Handwritten list on lined notepaper
Special edition of The Testaments (2019) from Pelee Island Bird Observatory, featuring bonus content, including ‘Aunt Lydia’s Reading List’

These books, like 'The Testaments' itself, have the power to impact culture and society. As Atwood herself has noted, the Trump administration’s attempts to limit the rights of immigrants, women, LGBTQI people, and other members of marginalized groups have inspired her work.

In my research, I examine how dystopian fiction such as Atwood’s novels addresses contemporary feminist political issues and movements, including the #metoo movement and the fourth wave feminist movement’s drive for reproductive justice. Although my project focuses on recent iterations of women’s writing and their corresponding political issues, it is important to note that there is a much longer history of feminist dystopian novels that imaginatively reframe contemporaneous social and political issues. We can also see this in the work of authors such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose utopian trilogy (written in 1909, 1915, and 1916 – yet not published until the 1970’s) portrays a world without men, one in which women are breadwinners and are able to procreate without men, and emphasizes the necessity of community, education, and the malleability of gender roles. 

Three paperback books on a table
Selected editions of Gilman’s work, left to right: Herland (London: Woman's Press, 1979) General Reference Collection X.909/44756; Herland, The Yellow Wall-paper, and Selected Writings (New York : Penguin Books, 1999) Document Supply m03/42037; The Yellow Wallpaper (London: Virago Press, 2009) General Reference Collection H.2013/.5096

Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” arguably her most well-known story, was re-printed in 1973 by Feminist Press. Originally written in 1892 and, like her utopian trilogy, first published in her periodical The Forerunner, Gilman’s work was “rediscovered” by second wave feminists and struck a chord with a new generation of readers. The Yellow Wallpaper illustrates many 19th century women’s issues, such as the limitations of the domestic sphere, medical treatment for women’s mental and physical health issues, the pressures of motherhood and marriage, and more. For second wave feminist readers, the worlds that Gilman portrays in her work, imagined and real, resonate from the 19th century and into the 70’s, much in the same way that the Reagan-era issues captured in The Handmaid’s Tale reverberate in 2021.

The “Gender and US Politics” group discussed Gilman’s short story and Atwood’s latest novel during a meeting that focused on fiction. Given my current research project, I was very excited to discuss these materials with others. I am one of just a few literature scholars in the group, which is also composed of historians, political scientists, and members of diverse disciplines. Listening to those outside of my expertise was one of the most interesting (and inspiring) aspects of the meeting. For instance, several scholars research suffragism in the US and abroad, and their contributions shed light on new ways of thinking about the literature, particularly in considering Gilman’s work. The opportunity to be part of a transdisciplinary group of scholars with intersecting research interests has helped me “see” the literature I work with in new ways, such as making connections between Atwood’s novels and television adaptation with Gilman’s writing, first published almost one hundred years before. It has also helped me to see how literature resonates over time with readers and how political issues can morph or remain the same, despite the political progress women have made.

****

Dr Eir-Anne Edgar is Associate Professor of Literature in ILU at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway. She is currently at work on her research project, Women in the Wastelands: The World-Making of Feminist Critical Dystopian Fiction, which explores the recent explosion of transnational, feminist dystopian novels and the ways in which they “re-make” or “re-see” real-world issues. Though the Wasteland may seem like a strange place to locate hope, this project finds that women authors have long located frustrations with the limitations placed against gender and sexuality within the pages of dystopian and utopian novels.

The Gender and US Politics project, coordinated by Cara Rodway (Eccles Centre) and Robert Mason (University of Edinburgh) is supported by the British Association for American Studies and the US Embassy London.

[Posted by Cara Rodway, Eccles Centre]

 

12 December 2021

Celebrating Viola Desmond, Carrie Best and a new philatelic acquisition

Today’s blog does three things!

It commemorates the 75th anniversary of Viola Desmond’s refusal to leave a whites-only section of a Nova Scotian movie theatre - an action that galvanised the modern civil rights movement in Canada. It celebrates the British Library's acquisition of a stamp commemorating the Canadian journalist and social activist Carrie Best. And it illuminates how these two wonderful women are connected.

A postage stamp showing an image of a Carrie Best in her later years; an image of her in her youth while reading a copy of The Clarion, the news paper she had founded; her signature; and her Order of Canada medal.
Fig 1: 59c stamp by Canada Post commemorating Canadian journalist and social activist Carrie Best. The British Library's Philatelic Collections: General Collection.

In the mid-1940s, Viola Desmond was a successful businesswoman and entrepreneur. As a young Black woman, she had been unable to train as a beautician in Halifax, Nova Scotia. After honing her craft elsewhere – including at Madame C.J. Walker’s beauty school in New York City – she had returned to Halifax and established a beauty salon, her own line of beauty products, and the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, which she hoped would prevent other Black women from facing similar obstacles to their training.

On 8 November 1946, Desmond was travelling on business when her car broke down in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Forced to stay overnight, she decided to see a movie. At that time, racial segregation in Canada varied according to place and context. After taking a seat in the Roseland Theatre’s 'Main' section, Desmond was informed that she could not remain there. Returning to the kiosk, she was told she could not purchase a ticket for this whites-only section. Rather than heading to the Blacks-only Balcony, however, Desmond chose to return to the Main section. She was then forcibly removed by a policeman and sent to jail overnight. The following morning, without being offered legal representation, she was tried and fined $20 for defrauding the government of one penny; the difference in Entertainment tax between the Main and Balcony sections. With the support of prominent members of Halifax’s Black community, Desmond fought this decision. Yet several months later, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court upheld the original verdict.

The front page of The Clarion newspaper, with three columns of text and an image of Viola Desmond smiling and with an upswept 1940s hair-do.
Fig. 2: Vol. 1 Issue 1 of The Clarion, 1946; image courtesy of the Nova Scotia Archives.

One of those who supported Desmond was Carrie Best. Three years earlier, Best – a life-long Black resident of New Glasgow – had bought tickets for the Roseland’s Main section for herself and her son. Like Desmond, they were arrested for attempting to watch a movie. They fought the charge in order to challenge the legal justification for the theatre's segregation, but their lawsuit was also unsuccessful. Best responded by establishing The Clarion, the first Black owned and published newspaper in Nova Scotia, which has now has been digitised by the Nova Scotia Archives. With its by-line 'Published in the Interest of Colored Nova Scotians', it was the very first issue of The Clarion that broke Viola Desmond’s story (Fig. 2).

Interest in Desmond’s case soon spread not only across Canada but also the United States; the article below, for example, was published in the Baltimore Afro-American on 1 February 1947:

A short report on Viola Desmond's case along with a head-shot of her smiling and with an upswept 1940s hair-do.
Fig. 3: Article about Viola Desmond's case in The Baltimore Afro-American, 1 February 1947; this newspaper is available digitally to British Library Readers.

Interestingly, A. Ritchie Low, a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American, had interviewed Carrie Best in the summer of 1946 while investigating the lives of Black Canadians in the Maritime Provinces (Fig. 4, below):

An extract from a newspaper showing headlines in various fonts, four columns of text and a map showing the relationship between the Canadian maritime provinces and the United States.
Fig. 4: Extract of an article from The Baltimore Afro-American, 14 September 1946; this newspaper is available digitally to British Library Readers.

Best had made it clear to Low that things were far from perfect for the Black community and had shared with him her experience at the Roseland as well as her plans for her newspaper. Low was clearly impressed with her, writing (in language somewhat of its time): 

Mrs Carrie Best is a dynamic personality. It didn't take me long to discern that. She is a young, small, wiry, up-and-coming little body who doesn't allow the grass to grow under her feet. By no means. Nor does she, like most of us, wait for something to turn up. Instead, Mrs Best goes ahead and turns up something! For example, one of the local theaters forbade colored people to enter its downstairs section; they must go upstairs, insisted the manager. They didn't like it, but did nothing to express their disapproval, that is to say, all except Carrie Best.  She went in, sat downstairs and made a test case. She didn't win out, because of some technicality of the law, but she still has hopes of doing something. "I must show you a little paper I'm editing," she told me, excusing herself to go and fetch it. (Baltimore Afro-American, 14 September 1946)

Subsequently, Best started a radio show in 1952 which ran for twelve years, and between 1968-75 she was a columnist for The Pictou Advocate. Sadly, Desmond did not fulfil her dreams of opening a chain of beauty salons and would move away from Halifax. Yet her courageous actions are now credited with kickstarting the modern movement for civil rights and racial equality in Canada.  

In recent decades, both women have been recognised and honoured. In an historic first, Viola Desmond was posthumously pardoned in 2010. The Crown-in-Right of Nova Scotia also apologised for prosecuting her for tax evasion and acknowledged that she was rightfully resisting racial discrimination. In 2018 she became the first Canadian woman to appear alone on a bank note. 

Carrie Best was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1979 and posthumously awarded the Order of Nova Scotia in 2002. The 59c stamp commemorating Best (Fig. 1) was issued to mark Canada’s Black History Month in February 2011.1  We are hugely grateful to our Philatelic colleagues for acquiring this significant stamp on behalf of the British Library.

References

1. The stamp was designed by Laura Minja and manufactured by Lowe-Martin using a lithographic printing process.

 

24 November 2021

E-resources: US historic and contemporary newspapers

In this second instalment of our Americas e-resources blog series we will focus on US newspapers, both historic and contemporary. All of the databases referred to here are full-text and many of them can be consulted remotely once you have a British Library Reader’s Pass.

Published by Readex, Early American Newspapers (Series 1, 1690-1876 & Series 2 1758-1900) is one of our absolute favourites. With facsimile coverage beginning in the late 17th century, when newspapers were often published by small-town printers reflecting the interests and values of the communities they served, its hundreds of titles chronicle the evolution of American society and culture through eyewitness reporting, editorials, obituaries, letters to the editor, advertisements, and much, much more. Search options include material type, date, keywords, name of publication, place of publication and language. The content is printable, downloadable and accessible remotely. Included among its riches is the first multipage colonial newspaper, Publick Occurences Both Forreign and Domestick; published in Boston on 25 September 1690, it was immediately suppressed.

A black and white printed newspaper page, with two columns and a heading going across the top.
Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, 25 September 1690. This was the first multipage newspaper published in the American colonies; it can be found on the full-text, remotely-accessible e-resource ‘Early American Newspapers.’

Also published by Readex and remotely accessible is African American Newspapers (Series 1, 1827-1998 & Series 2, 1835-1956). This extraordinary resource offers facsimile copies of more than 350 newspapers published by or for African Americans in more than 35 states. Coverage spans life in the Antebellum South; abolitionism; the growth of the Black church; the Jim Crow Era; the Great Migration to northern cities, the West and Midwest; the rise of the NAACP; the Harlem Renaissance; the civil rights movement; political and economic empowerment; and more. Many of the titles are rare and historically significant, including Freedom’s Journal, the first Black owned and operated newspaper in the United States, which was founded on 16 March 1827 in New York City by John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish.

A densely printed newspaper page with four columns of print and the title of the paper going across the top.
Freedom’s Journal, 16 March 1827. This was the first Black owned and operated newspaper published in the US; it can be found on the full-text, remotely accessible e-resource ‘African American Newspapers.’

American Indian Newspapers was made possible by the permission and contribution of the newspaper publishers and Tribal Councils concerned and is published by Adam Matthew. It includes over 170,000 pages from 9,000 editions of Indigenous US and Canadian national periodicals, local community newspapers, and student papers and magazines. Coverage runs from 1828 to 2016, although the bulk of its 45 titles were founded during the 1970s and document the proliferation of Indigenous journalism that grew out of the occupation of Wounded Knee. There are numerous bi-lingual and Indigenous-language editions, and many titles – including Ak-Chin O’Odham Runner, the Cherokee Phoenix and the Navajo Times – are digitised in runs of more than 500 issues. Unlike Early American Newspapers and African American Newspapers, it has to be consulted at the Library.

The front page of the Navajo Times newspaper, which features two columns of text, a photo of man wearing a suit and hat, and several black and white line drawings.
Navajo Times, November 1959; this can be found in the e-resource 'Native American Newspapers.'

Service Newspapers of World War Two contains over 300 publications for soldiers serving in all of the major theatres of that conflict. More than 60 of these were published for US military forces, including the Stars and Stripes, which was printed in dozens of editions in numerous locations. In addition to maintaining the troops’ morale and helping to create an atmosphere of solidarity, these newspapers played a vital role in keeping servicemen informed about events in their unit and immediate locality, as well as delivering news from home and about the war at large. A large number were written by the servicemen themselves, although some were sanctioned by senior staff and had a more official agenda. Most contained a mix of articles, news reports, op-ed pieces, letters, military facts, trivia, cartoons and photographs. Like American Indian Newspapers, it is published by Adam Matthew and needs to be consulted at the Library.

The front page of the Stars and Stripes newspaper, which includes the photo of US General Eisenhower decorating soldiers on parade, as well as five columns of dense text.
The Stars and Stripes, London edition, 5 July 1944; this can be found on the full-text e-resource 'Service Newspapers of World War Two.'

Currently, the British Library subscribes to three of Proquest’s Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2017), The Baltimore Afro-American (1893-1988) and the Communist Historical Newspaper Collection. All offer full-text facsimile copies, but they are not accessible remotely. The New York Times probably needs no further discussion. The Baltimore Afro-American was founded in 1892. Five years later, its printing presses were purchased at auction by John H. Murphy, Sr.  Murphy had been born into slavery in Baltimore in 1840 and in 1868 married Martha Howard, the daughter of a well-to-do free black farmer. Although the Library's digital coverage of the Afro-American ends in 1988, this weekly publication is still in print and is the longest running African American family-owned newspaper in the United States. At its peak, regional editions were being printed in 13 major US cities; it has campaigned with the NAACP on a huge range of civil rights cases; and noteworthy contributors include writer Langston Hughes and artist Romare Bearden.

A five verse poem by Langston Hughes titled 'For A'Lelia.'
Poem by Langston Hughes in honour of A'Lelia Walker, daughter of Madam C.J. Walker and president of the C.J. Walker Company; from the Baltimore Afro-American, 19 August 1931, digitised by Proquest.

The Communist Historical Newspaper Collection offers the full-text editions of nine Communist newspapers published in the US, including The Daily Worker (1924-1958), Daily World (1968-1986), and the Ohio Socialist (1917-1919).

The front page of the Daily Worker newspaper which has eight columns of text, a cartoon and a map.
Daily Worker, 3 July 1940. It is available in the full-text e-resource 'Communist Historical Newspaper Collection, 1919-2013.'

Last but by no means least, we want to flag up the remotely accessible Newsbank Access World News. Despite its rather understated interface, it is an absolute goldmine if you are doing contemporary US research. It currently offers up-to-the minute full-text (non-facsimile) access to over 1300 US dailies, including Boston Herald (1991 – ); the New York Daily News (NY) (1995 – ); Los Angeles Times (1985 – ); Miami Herald (1982 – ); New York Post (1999 – ) and San Francisco Chronicle (1985 – ). It also offers access to more than 20 news magazines, including The New Yorker, The Nation and The Atlantic; the transcripts of more than 200 major TV news and radio programmes, including 60 Minutes (CBS; 2004 – ) ; CBS Evening News (2005 – ); CNN (2004 – ); Face the Nation (CBS; 2010 – ); Fox News’s various channels (2003 – ); Meet the Press (NBC; 2012 – ); MSNBC (2003 – ); NPR (1990 – ); and PBS NewsHour (2006 – ). On top of this it includes more than 300 web-only news sources and more than 80 newswires, including Associated Press (1997 – ); AP State Wires (from all states, 2010/2011 – ); CNN Wire (2009 – ); and UPI NewsTrack, (2005 – ). It is a truly unique and remarkable resource and we cannot recommend it enough.

Next month we will be having a look at some of our broad-brush ‘bibliographic e-resources’. This type of database offers you lists of sources (books, journal articles etc) that you will then need to track down elsewhere. These e-resources are particularly useful at the beginning of a project when you are trying to get a sense of the research landscape, but are equally valuable at the end, when you need to make sure you have caught everything that has been published in the previous few months.

 

 

 

23 November 2021

Shoot Me with Flowers

The British Library’s Caribbean Collections recently acquired a beautifully compact volume of poetry by the writer John Agard.

Shoot Me with Flowers was the writer’s first collection of poetry which he self-published in his birth home Guyana.

Jon Purday, a retired British Library staff member who volunteers with Oxfam in Boroughbridge, Harrogate spotted Shoot Me with Flowers in October and contacted the Library. Once catalogued, the book will be available for enjoyment and research.

While surprisingly inexpensive, the little book is a big treasure for the British Library. It is also a personal highlight for a couple of reasons: my appointment as Curator of the Caribbean Collections began in September and John Agard is someone I have known for some years! We saw each other some days after the Oxfam find and I told him that the BL would be acquiring Shoot Me with Flowers to which his proud response was “Self-published you know!”

Earlier this month within a day of the Harrogate Advertiser running an article on the discovery and subsequent acquisition of Shoot Me with Flowers, John Agard became the first poet to win the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award. An apt turn up for the books!

Nicole-Rachelle Moore is the British Library's Curator for its Caribbean Collections

 

Photo of John Agard taken in October 2021 at House of St. Barnabas, London

 

Front cover of Shoot Me with Flowers

Introduction to Shoot Me with Flowers

Images by Nicole-Rachelle Moore 2021

17 November 2021

The Eccles Centre at 30

The Eccles Centre for American Studies was formally opened in November 1991. In this blog its newest member of staff – Polly Russell, Head – and its most long-standing – Jean Petrovic, Bibliographical Editor – reflect on the Centre’s development over the past three decades.

Polly Russell, Head

Last month, in a meeting at the British Library, Catherine Eccles gave me a few papers she had discovered relating to the early years of the Eccles Centre. These included this copy of the speech given by David Eccles at the Centre’s official opening in November 1991:

Typewritten speech, with handwritten additional notes.
Notes for the speech by Viscount Eccles at the formal opening of the Eccles Centre on 4 November 1991; page 1.
Typewritten speech, with handwritten additional notes.
Notes for the speech by Viscount Eccles at the formal opening of the Eccles Centre on 4 November 1991; page 2.

The speech is a heartening reminder of the principles and ambitions which have underscored the three decades of the Centre’s existence. Although the Centre’s team and activities have expanded significantly, David and Mary Eccles’ commitment to partnership, exchange, scholarship and research remain at the heart of the work we do. Since Lord Eccles officially opened the Centre, surrounded by the scaffolding and building materials of the yet unfinished British Library, the scope of the Eccles Centre has expanded beyond the USA, but fostering better understanding of the Americas through the British Library’s unique collections remains at the heart of what we do. Indeed, it is arguably more urgent than ever. From the environmental crisis and the challenge to liberal democracy, to new historical understandings of race, colonialism, migration and global trade, the Americas play a key role. As the newest member of the Eccles Team – I started this time last year – I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Eccles family, colleagues past and present and our many friends, partners and stakeholders for building on the generous vision set out by David and Mary Eccles and for helping to keep the conversation about the Americas very much alive, vibrant and relevant at the British Library.

Jean Petrovic, Bibliographical Editor

I love how David’s short but powerful speech so brilliantly captures the energy and vitality of David and Mary themselves. Both were well-advanced in years when I first met them in 1992, but their youthfulness of spirit – and their determination to make the most of every day – was inspirational. I quickly learned that David had proposed to Mary on his 80th birthday. And Mary’s ‘diary’ – which was in fact more like a wall-calendar – was enough to show anyone that life is for living. I initially caught a glimpse of it while we were planning what became the Bryant Lecture. Every day was divided into morning, afternoon and evening and each of these time-slots was packed with functions, meetings and activities. I was 27 at the time and such scheduling put my own life to shame!

I’m also struck by David’s comments about friendship and the need to work with others if we are to achieve anything of lasting value. From its inception, the Centre has reached out to other organisations and other people. Initially this outreach was limited to a couple of scholarly societies, the US Embassy and Canadian High Commission, the American Studies Library Group and our immediate curatorial colleagues. Slowly but surely, however, this network has grown deeper, broader and richer. It is not an exaggeration to say that almost all of the Centre’s work today is, in one way or another, the result of dialogues and exchanges, both with our generous and insightful internal colleagues – from Maps to Manuscripts, and Learning to Events and Research Engagement – and with our inspirational external partners, our Writers and Fellows, and a huge array of scholarly associations, research groups and interested individuals.

A man stands at a lectern giving a speech; on his left sit an elderly man and woman; on his right sit two men.
The formal opening of the Eccles Centre on 4 November 1991: from left, David Eccles, Mary Eccles, Bob Burchell (the Centre's first Head), Michael Saunders-Watson (Chair, British Library), Raymond Seitz (US Ambassador)

All of these collaborations would have delighted David and Mary, as would the Centre’s dedication both to its “main business” of scholarship and research as well as to sharing insights about “all things American” with the general public, including with school teachers and pupils. While Bob Burchell, the first Head, solidly committed the Centre to the former, it was Phil Davies, his successor, who ensured that non-academics – “men and women, with every kind of interest in America” – could benefit from Eccles activities. During Phil’s tenure, the Centre hosted hundreds of events on every aspect of American history, life and culture. And the Centre’s Congress to Campus programme – which Phil created and which is now in its 19th year – has brought around 20,000 A Level politics students into conversation with nearly 40 former Members of Congress.

Regarding the Library’s truly extraordinary Americas collections, David was absolutely correct to note in 1991 that these had been underutilised. Thankfully, this is no longer the case: partly due to the exceptional work of our Americas curatorial colleagues and the Centre’s bibliographic guides and research training sessions, but also to the ever-evolving programme of Eccles Fellowships and Awards. Under Phil Hatfield, the Centre’s third Head, not only did the Visiting Fellowships expand to include creative practitioners as well as scholars, but the Eccles Writer’s Award gained an amazing partner in Hay, thereby expanding its remit to include Latin America. Each of these steps has widened the network of those who know about – and can therefore benefit from – the Library’s holdings.

Guests talking and drinking at the formal opening of the Eccles Centre.
The formal opening of the Eccles Centre on 4 November 1991; the Library did not move into this building at St Pancras for another six years, so enormous heaters were hired in order to keep guests warm in the unfinished building!

As a slight aside to the work of the Centre – but still connected to David’s message – it is interesting, if somewhat depressing, to note that conversations about gender and sexual harassment – which in 1991 were prompted by the case of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas – are still on-going, on both sides of the Atlantic. Likewise, Britain’s relationship with the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world is ever-changing and worthy of attention.

Finally, and on behalf of everyone connected with the Centre – past and present – I would like to pay tribute once again to the incredible energy and open-heartedness of David and Mary Eccles. We are truly grateful for their passion and generosity and for their determination to create something “special” that would bear fruit after their “disappearance.” We hope – and trust – we are making them proud.

Witnessing climate change: COP26 and Oceania book artists

With COP26 now over in Glasgow, I have looked to the Library’s Oceania collections for examples of book artists tackling some of the themes under discussion by world leaders during this crucial conference. The items selected use creative responses to recollect, witness, and foretell the impact of climate change in the Oceania region and beyond.  

Carbon Empire by Allan McDonald 

A primary goal of COP26 was to secure global net zero emissions by the middle of this century and keep the target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. Getting anywhere near to achieving this aim will require radical change and commitments from countries around the world to limit deforestation, phase out coal for renewable energy, and switch from petrol and diesel to electric cars. Allan McDonald’s 2017 photobook, Carbon Empire (YD.2020.b.233), documents petrol stations across New Zealand in different stages of transition. The photographs capture the effect of a change in petroleum laws which forced many independent stations out of business - weeds flourish where petrol pumps once stood, for sale signs replace advertising logos, and a full car park is more reminiscent of a graveyard than a sign of prosperity. And so, the images also offer a vision of a world where petrol stations have fallen out of use and lie abandoned to become rusting monuments of the past. 

Black and white photograph of a full car park  Two photographs of the exterior of a disused red petrol station  Two photographs of the exterior of an abandoned blue red petrol station

 

Witness by Clyde McGill

Our reliance on fossil fuels and its impact on Indigenous cultural heritage is explored in Clyde McGill’s monumental book, Witness (HS.74/2407). The Australian artist travelled to Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula), northern Western Australia to see the petroglyphs, or rock art, first created by the Aboriginal people of Murujuga over forty thousand years ago and added to continuously until the nineteenth century when this community of artists was eradicated through European colonisation. There are between 1-2 million petroglyphs depicting thylacines, megafauna, ceremonies, human faces, and geometrics on this site which is considered the largest continuous rock art gallery of its kind. Yet this part of northwest Australia is also home to massive iron ore, oil, coal, mineral and gas reserves, and when McGill visited prior to creating the book in 2016, this highly significant cultural heritage site was at risk of destruction from large-scale mining operations. Witness doesn’t attempt to document the petroglyphs, but rather records the artist’s experience of his visit to the sacred site through a collection of visceral and confronting paintings, handwritten notes, and performance. 

Book open to show art work   Page showing handwritten text


Stolen Waters by Marian Crawford and Peter Lyssiotis

The damage wreaked by the extraction of fossil fuels is similarly interrogated in Stolen Waters (RF.2018.a.87), a collaboration between Australian book artists Marian Crawford and Peter Lyssiotis. This compact 2013 artists’ book examines the environmental damage to our waterways from mining. The names of major disasters are emblazoned on the pages including the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and the OK Tedi Mine disaster during the 1990s in Papua New Guinea. This accusatory typography is in stark contrast to the black and white images of a jellyfish suspended in a dark sea (or is it an oil slick?). 

Book open to show interior typography and photograph of a jellyfish      Book open to show interior typography and text


Picturing the Island by Marian Crawford

A further goal of COP26 was to protect the communities and ecosystems most affected by climate change, including the Pacific Island region; an early and increasingly visible victim of the climate crisis with much at stake in the outcome of COP26. Rising sea levels here are already contaminating fresh water supplies and agriculture, and threatening to engulf many of these small island nations, including Kiribati; a set of low-lying islands in the central Pacific Ocean. Artist Marion Crawford spent her childhood on the island of Banaba (previously Ocean Island), part of the nation of Kiribati where her parents worked for the British Phosphate Commission (BPC). The BPC managed the mining of the island’s phosphate resources until these were exhausted in 1979. The environmental impact of extensive mining has left the Banaba Islanders without fresh water sources and reliant on a desalination plant for clean water. Crawford’s 2016 photobook, Picturing the Island (RF.2017.b.99), uses colonial archival material, including text in Gilbertese and English and photopolymer prints, in juxtaposition with her own memories to reflect on the changes, including environmental damage, undergone by her childhood home. 

Book open to show double-page archival photograph of a group of Ocean Island women   Photograph of people standing by a canoe and a banner with the words 'We are not drowning, we are fighting!'

 

Miami Underwater by Bronwyn Rees

The topic of global warming and rising sea levels is similarly interrogated in Bronwyn Rees’ Miami Underwater. Rees is an Australian printmaker whose richly textured work explores landscape and wilderness, often depicting nature as an unforgiving force. Although her work is primarily focused on Australian landscapes, in 2014 she turned a city in the USA at the mercy of the encroaching sea to create Miami Underwater. This small handmade book has a strong environmental message and incorporates text extracts from Tony Davis’ Underwater Cities (2011). The varying sizes and texture of the pages require careful handling of this item by the reader, lending a feeling of vulnerability. The overall effect is of a portent; the book feels as if you have just retrieved it from floodwater.  

Book open to show interior art pieces     Book open to show interior typography and text

Lucy Rowland, Oceania Curator

 

References

Crawford, Marian and Lyssiotis, Peter (2013) Stolen Waters. Victoria, Australia: Carbon, Masterthief. Shelfmark RF.2018.a.87

Davis, Tony (2011) 'Underwater Cities: Climate change begins to reshape the urban landscape' [Online] October 27, 2011. In Grist.org  Available at: https://grist.org/cities/2011-10-26-underwater-cities-climate-change-begins-reshape-urban-landscape/ 

Crawford, Marian (2016) Picturing the Island. Melbourne, Australia: Marian Crawford. Shelfmark RF.2017.b.99

McDonald, Allan (2017) Carbon Empire. Auckland, New Zealand: Rim Books. Shelfmark YD.2020.b.233

McGill, Clyde (2016) Witness. Fremantle, Australia: Clyde McGill. Shelfmark HS.74/2407

Rees, Bronwyn (2014) Miami Underwater. Melbourne, Australia: Bronwyn Rees. Shelfmark (awaiting shelfmark)

10 November 2021

Music and migration, environments and spiritualties – introducing the new Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship programme

This week the Eccles Centre is relaunching its Fellowship programme, which has been running in various versions and iterations since 2007. The programme has expanded considerably since its inception. First, the Centre’s geographical remit has expanded over the thirty years since it started, spreading from the USA to include Canada, then the Caribbean and now Central and South America. Second, we have attempted to embrace a more capacious notion of who a researcher is, what they do and what they make with their research. These changes reflect, we hope, both the rapidly changing landscape of higher education (including increasing precarity in the sector) and to acknowledge that meaningful reading, listening and thinking about the Americas can take place within and beyond academic institutions. Because the geographical scope and eligibility criteria have expanded, for this next round of Fellowships we wanted to offer some shape and coherence to the programme by introducing four research themes that applicants are invited to apply to. This new structure aims to bring researchers working across scholarly and creative disciplines into fruitful conversation with one another, building a cohort of Eccles-supported research coalescing around some of the most pressing questions in Americas studies.

A colourful nineteenth-century map of Latin America
Frank Vincent, Around and about South America ... With maps ... Second edition (New York, 1890). Digital Store 10481.ee.29

But what are these four themes and how did we come up with them? For the past few months we've been asking far and wide, canvassing opinion from colleagues throughout the Library and having a series of conversations with Eccles Centre networks across academia and the creative industries. As a result of this process we have landed on four topics which we hope will encourage use of often underused but rich British Library collections, and which are exciting areas of current social and cultural enquiry.

Although none of the themes specifically invite explorations of ethnicity and race, gender, sex and sexuality, or dis/abilities in Americas studies, we consider such perspectives to be foundational approaches to the study of the Americas and anticipate that they will be a central focus of many Fellowship projects. We look forward to receiving applications that explore the experiences and identities of the Americas in all their diversity and complexity.

Below are the four themes for the Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowships, 2022-24.

Sound and Music of the Americas
This theme centres on sound and music as both subjects and sources in studying the Americas. In particular, we encourage use of the sound archive and the collections of printed and manuscript music. The Library’s music collections are among the finest in the world, and have many resources for the study of the Americas. Recent or ongoing Eccles-supported projects include musical performance in eighteenth-century Jamaica, the folk songs of Henry Clay Work, and the politics of nineteenth century US sheet music.

The cover of 'Votes for Women', sheet music for a 1915 suffrage song. The image is two yellow flags in front of the Liberty Bell, behind which waves the American flag.
Edw. M. Zimmerman and Marie Zimmerman, Votes for Women (Philadelphia, 1915). Music Collections H.3992.r.(18.)

The sound archive is also an untapped trove for studying the Americas. Home to over 6.5 million recordings including speech, music, and wildlife and the environment recordings, there is still much to be discovered about the Americas through this material. Current or ongoing Eccles-supported projects include the creole music recordings of Jamaican ethnomusicologist M G Smith, and recordings of James Baldwin from British broadcasters and cultural organisations. As mentioned above, this theme encourages investigations into the sonic and musical aspects of the cultures of the Americas, and methodological innovations that use sound and music.

Americans Beyond the Americas
This theme seeks to flip the script on prevailing narratives which define the Americas by inbound migration – of invading armies, of free settlers, of bonded and enslaved workers. Not only can such narratives end up erasing the vitality of Indigenous presences before, during and after such waves of migration, but they can also encourage insular perspectives on the Americas which ignore the significance of Americans’ movement and action in the world (we use the word ‘Americans’ very much in the hemispheric sense here!). This theme invites researchers to consider how various American experiences and identities have been forged through military and colonial enterprise, travel and tourism, emigration and exile, to lands beyond the Americas.

A selection of archival material; typescript of ‘Jamaica’ poem by Andrew Salkey, manuscript of ‘Joey Tyson’ by Andrew Salkey and correspondence from the Andrew Salkey Archive, Deposit 10310. Reproduced with the kind permission of Jason Salkey.
A selection of archival material; typescript of ‘Jamaica’ poem by Andrew Salkey, manuscript of ‘Joey Tyson’ by Andrew Salkey and correspondence from the Andrew Salkey Archive, Deposit 10310. Reproduced with the kind permission of Jason Salkey.

The Eccles Centre has supported a number of projects in this vein over the past few years including the experience of Native American and First Nations travellers to England during the eighteenth century; Black American loyalists and the settlement of Sierra Leone; African American abolitionist activism in the British Isles during the nineteenth century; the making of Caribbean community and identity in Britain during the twentieth century; and Latin American political exiles in London. These are just a few of the ways this theme could be approached and supported by the British Library’s collections, and we would be very excited to hear from researchers working on similar projects.

American Environments
This theme seeks to support researchers exploring the role of the environment and the natural world in the making of the Americas, and their futures. Environmental humanities has been one of the most dynamic intellectual fields to emerge over the past generation, and we are excited to support researchers asking new questions of the British Library’s collections from an eco-perspective . The Centre has recently supported researchers investigating ecological change in eighteenth-century Barbuda; the colonial origins of climate change in Canada through King George III’s topographical drawings; and an artist exploring the relationships between pigments and dyes and Jamaican identity. We also very much welcome projects that will apply eco-critical methodologies and insights to the Library’s literary print and manuscript collections, and which use collections such as the Library’s newspaper and government document collections to trace the development of environmental thought and policies in the Americas.

A page from a 1979 edition of Moby Dick, featuring depictions of 5 different kinds of whale.
1979 Arion Press edition of Moby-Dick with illustrations of Melville’s 'folio' of whales in which he arranges them by folio, quarto, octavo, and so on, a playful homage to the 19th century works of natural science that influenced the writing of the book. Illustrations and copyright Barry Moser. Shelfmark C.105.k.4.

As well as artists, creatives and academics working with environmental humanities and associated perspectives, the Eccles Centre is keen to support social scientists, policy makers and natural scientists who feel they could productively develop their work on the Americas through a month at the British Library. As well as the historic collections for which the British Library is famous, the Library’s social science and science collections offer world-class resources to complement researchers’ field work or lab work, and we’d be excited to support that library work by anyone working on the environment in the Americas.

Religion and Spirituality in the Americas
The British Library has an outstanding collection of sacred texts and objects which bear witness to religious encounters and experiences in the Americas. Many of these items - the Library’s collections of Bibles and Psalters in Indigenous American languages, for instance - are not only of historic importance but are also highly contested items. This theme invites researchers to interrogate the British Library’s collections and ask often difficult questions about the role of religion and spirituality in the making of the Americas. The Centre has supported a number of projects in American religious studies, including studies of enslaved Africans’ spirituality in North America; Muslim identity and the Nation of Islam in twentieth-century Jamaica; and Indigenous spirituality at the Guyana-Venezuela borderlands.

The frontispiece of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book published in North America
The Whole Book of Psalmes, faithfully translated into English metre: whereunto is prefixed a discourse, etc. (Boston, 1647). C.36.a.17.

Religion in the Americas is of course not only a question of historic significance, but remains an issue of ongoing social, cultural and political concern. We are therefore also keen to hear from researchers interrogating recent and future religious trends in the development of the Americas, including (but of course not limited to) such issues as the rise of white evangelicalism in the USA and Latin America; religion and Indigenous activism; or the character of American secularisms and atheisms.

Finally, for those whose projects fall outside the scope of these four themes, don’t worry – you can still apply to fifth strand of the programme, an ‘open call’ for any project that demands the unique research materials or context of the British Library. But we particularly encourage potential Fellows to apply to one of the four themes, as Fellows will be appointed in equal number to each of the five strands.