American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?


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

15 October 2018

‘A Triple Threat Woman’: The Letters of Sylvia Plath

On Friday 14 December 1962, Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother: 'I can truly say I have never been so happy in my life'. Four days before she had moved to 23 Fitzroy Road in London, a former residence of Yeats, with her two young children Frieda Rebecca and Nicholas. 'I feel Yeats' spirit blessing me', she writes. After her separation from Ted Hughes, Plath had decided to leave their home in rural Devon and start a new life in London. All around she sees good omens: 'The first letter through the door was of my publishers'. Al Alvarez, poetry editor of the Observer, had told her that her next book of poems should win the Pulitzer. She gave him a dedicated fair copy of 'Ariel'.

But this is a letter to her mother, Aurelia Plath, and, like all letters, it is written with the addressee in mind. Reading the second volume of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, recently published by Faber, one is reminded of how collections of letters, more than other biographical genres such as diaries or memoirs, capture the different social selves of a writer. Plath is cheerful and enthusiastic in her letter to her mother, aiming to put Aurelia's mind at rest. Elsewhere in the collection, she is self-assured and witty in her letters to her professional contacts, written in short, sharp sentences. And then there is the correspondence with her psychiatrist Dr Beuscher, where Plath writes openly about her plans for the future, her anger and her fears.

Edited by Plath expert Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, editor of The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950–1962 and Keeper of Plath’s collection at Smith, the volume is meticulously annotated and contains a selection of photographs and Plath's own drawings. Among the letters there are several from the British Library’s collections of Plath’s manuscripts. The editors, together with Plath scholars Heather Clark and Mark Ford, will be discussing Plath's letters on 23 October at the British Library.

Volume 2 cover
Front cover of the Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume II (Faber, 2018)


The letters speak of Plath's efforts to progress her career as a poet while trying to earn enough money and care for her children, particularly in the months after her separation from Hughes. But her anxiety about the future of her career appears much earlier. In a letter written to Marcia B Stern dated 9 April 1957, months after her marriage, she writes: 'If I want to keep on being a triple-threat woman: writer, wife and teacher…I can’t be a drudge’. The correspondence also shows the extent to which Plath's and Hughes's literary careers were intertwined, and their mutual encouragement and support, celebrating each poem that gets published. The 1962 and 1963 letters are interesting to read for references to her works, including the autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, published under a pseudonym in 1963, and the extraordinary poems that appeared posthumously in the collection Ariel.


Sylvia Plath [via Wikimedia Commons] 

The fact that the end of the story is well known doesn't make the last letter in the collection any easier to read. Addressed to her psychiatrist Ruth Beuscher on 4 February 1963, she writes: "What appalls me is the return of my madness, my paralysis, my fear & vision of the worst --cowardly withdrawal, a mental hospital, lobotomies". Blinded by depression, she continues "being 30 & having let myself slide, studied nothing for years, having mastered no body of objective knowledge is on me like a cold, accusing wind". Plath committed suicide days later, leaving behind the typescript of the poems that would become Ariel. Her Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1982.   


Lead Curator, Americas


09 October 2018

Closing thoughts on the “North American Migrant Narratives” PhD Placement Scheme

As my three-month placement at the British Library reaches its end, the time has come to reflect on my experience. I truly encourage fellow PhD students to apply to next year’s placements. I had a marvellous time, and despite the alluring prospect of not having to commute to London anymore, I know I will miss working for the Library.  

So what exactly did I do?

My role was to assess the American collections’ holdings in migrant literature published since the 1980s, by writers of African or Caribbean descent, in Canada and the USA.

Concretely, that meant doing a lot of research online, in literary anthologies and academic publications to find books by migrant writers and check each title against the Library’s main catalogue, Explore.

If a copy wasn’t held, then I would add it to my acquisition list spreadsheet. By the time I had finished, there were over 600 titles on this list.

Laura's acquisition list
Laura's acquisitions list



The usual selection process for the North American Collections is quite simple to understand: they have a very large list of publishers from which selection is made based on reader and subject categories that are relevant to the collections. This is determined by curators who follow the Library’s Content Strategy.

My job was to check the most recurring publishers on my acquisition list against the North American list of publishers to ensure these were received in future. As you can see from my spreadsheet, some patterns emerged very clearly: the BL wasn’t receiving books by publishers like Akashic Books and Arte Publico Press, both notable publishers of migrant literature.

Alongside this, I did some archival research. My readings led me to investigate Canadian cultural magazines that had promoted migrant literature at its early stages. I didn’t have much hope in finding La Parole Meteque as Worldcat  (an international bibliographic database) suggested that only three libraries worldwide held copies of it, and even they didn’t own all its issues. But after emailing several second-hand bookshops, members of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of Canada, I managed to get hold of 16 issues which will be added to the collections.

I also got in touch with collectives that organize creative writing workshops for immigrants and refugees, in order to collect the community-published items which emerged from these collectives. In Toronto for example, the Sick Muse Art Projects runs a workshop for women immigrants which produces an annual zine.  A similar workshop was launched in 2017 across Toronto, Ottawa and Windsor to address domestic and sexual violence among immigrant populations. A graphic novel was born from this multicultural collaboration.


What did I get from this placement?

Apart from working on my project, I was given the opportunity to gain insight into the Library’s practices and to gain new professional skills. Here are a few of the things I did:

  • I met with and shadowed several members of staff, including a cataloguer, a bibliographic editor, curators, a web archiving manager, a conservationist and digitisation staff.
  • I attended departmental staff meetings, event organisation meetings, and a new curatorial and librarianship reading group that addressed contemporary issues libraries are faced with.
  • I sat on meetings with book dealers and observed the acquisition process.
  • I learnt about copyright and intellectual property clearance.
  • I developed my writing and presentation skills for non-academic audiences by communicating my research on the American Collections’ blog, attending a training course on blogging, and presenting my research and findings in front of BL staff.

I also gained better insight into the contemporary publishing industry in the US and Canada (which benefits my PhD thesis too) and found, from the data I had collected, that:

  • Literature by migrant writers still tends to be published by independent or small presses rather than by big publishers.
  • Only a minority of migrant writers become part of the mainstream literary scene.
  • Many migrant writers turn to non-traditional modes of publication such as self-publishing and social media.

To a certain extent, the American Collections’ holdings mirrored these publishing trends. Before I arrived, the BL already had most migrant narratives published by major publishers, but what was missing from its collection were the ones published by small presses.

Kings Library
The British Library, creative commons licence



Now more importantly, how did my work contribute to the British Library?

The acquisition of books, archival material and the subscription to literary magazines I recommended will, hopefully, make the British Library’s holdings more representative of the North American multicultural literary scene.

The research I conducted identified areas of concern with the BL’s present holdings and collection practices in terms of migrant literature. One of my major findings was the gap in the Francophone Canadian literary holdings: established writers and publications by major publishers were absent for the catalogue. Another was the issue of web-based literature which we are not legally equipped to collect (I wrote about this here).

Because I have identified these gaps, the American Collections team are now aware of them and can strive to prevent them from widening even more. The report I have written, which presents my findings and offers practical suggestions for more inclusive holdings, will inform future collection practices and strengthen curatorial knowledge in this area.


On a final note, I would like to thank the Eccles Centre and the Americas Collections team for supporting my project and for their warmth, the Research and Development team for setting up these placements in the first place and organizing extra activities for us newcomers, and the European Collections team for welcoming me on their floor. I am especially grateful to my supervisor, Francisca Fuentes, for having given me such a fantastic opportunity and for her invaluable help and guidance throughout this project.

- Laura Gallon

Laura Gallon was a PhD placement student at the British Library where she worked on a project assessing holdings of migrant narratives in the North American collections. She is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Sussex which is looking at contemporary American short fiction by immigrant women writers. Her placement was supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.

05 October 2018

My Ántonia – 100 year on

I recently discovered that this year marks the 100th anniversary of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia.  This novel was the final part of Cather’s ‘prairie trilogy’ – following O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark – and it remains one of her best-loved works.

My Antonia

Willa Cather, My Ántonia. London: William Heinemann, 1919. Shelfmark: NN.5641.

Given that we try to keep these blogs somewhat timely, my hope was that it had been written towards the end of 1918! A quick Google search failed to confirm or disprove this, so I turned instead to Book Review Digest Retrospective, 1903-1982. This fantastic electronic database cites (and sometimes provides excerpts from) reviews of adult and children’s fiction and non-fiction in over 500 English language magazines, newspapers and academic journals.

The earliest contemporary review it lists for My Ántonia appears The New York Times on 6 October 1918. It also cites reviews from The Nation, The New York Call, The Bookman, Booklist, The Dial and The Independent (a weekly magazine published in New York City).  Most of these publications are held at the British Library. Their reviews of My Ántonia are overwhelmingly positive. The Nation calls Cather ‘an artist whose imagination is at home in her own land, among her own people’ and notes the novel is 'among the best of our recent interpretations of American life' . The Bookman declares the story to be ‘true to the Nebraskan soil of [Cather’s] own childhood, and therefore true to America and the world’. And for The Independent, Ántonia's struggle on the frontier is ‘full of human appeal and the fascination of the making of Americans from the foreign born.’

Willa Cather House II

Willa Cather House, Red Cloud, Nebraska. Image: Ammodramus, 2010. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 

Throughout the early twentieth century, Cather continued to be well-regarded by the majority of critics and authors. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her fifth novel, One of Ours (1922). And in 1930 – while accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature – Sinclair Lewis famously declared that Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson were the only contemporary vital forces in American letters. Indeed, Lewis ‘salutes them with joy’ for giving to the United States – a nation ‘which has mountains and endless prairies, enormous cities and lost farm cabins’ – a literature worthy of its enormity. (New York Times, 13 December 1930). 

In spite of Lewis’s enthusiasm, however, Cather’s focus upon these very same endless prairies and lost farm cabins doubtless contributed to her later being periodically marginalised as a regional writer and omitted from discussions about 20th century literature in the decades that followed.

Willa Cather with necklace fom Sarah Orne Jewett

 Willa Cather, ca. 1912. Wearing a necklace given to her by Sarah Orne Jewett. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Yet, Cather’s own take on the importance of place in My Ántonia is interesting. In an interview in 1924 she acknowledges that the title character is tied to the soil. But she also asserts that she could just as well have written a story of a Czech baker living in Chicago ‘and it would have been the same.’ The story in Chicago would, Cather concedes, have been ‘smearier, joltier, noiser, less sugar and more sand’. But still it would have been a story that expressed the mood and spirit of the people that she knew; the immigrant families from Scandinavia, Russia and Bohemia who were forging a new life in a new land.  (New York Times, 21 Dec. 1924).

11 September 2018

‘Beautiful’, ‘impeccable’, ‘fantastic’, ‘wonderful’, ‘complex’, ‘superb’, ‘energetic’; a bookbinding by Sol Rébora

  Sol Rebora 1


Sol Rébora, image taken from her web site http://estudioRé


The terms quoted in the title are just some of the words used to describe the bindings of Sol Rébora. The British Library Latin American Collections and Printed Heritage Collections jointly purchased an example of the work of this outstanding Argentinian multi prize-winning bookbinder on a copy of The Noble Knight Paris & the Fair Vienne (California: The Allen Press, 1956). The binding was a prize winner at the Designer Bookbinders Third International Competition 2017.[1] The opportunity to briefly review the progress of the craft in that country with reference to Sol’s career is too good to miss!

  Sol Rebora 2

Upper and lower cover and spine of C.188.b.124, The Noble Knight Paris. The image is courtesy of Sol Rébora.


Sol began to work with bindings at the age of 17 and learned basic techniques at secondary school in Buenos Aries.   After graduation, Sol was fortunate to find Juan Gulin, at 83, was one of the few teachers of bindings in Argentina. Despite there being an association of binders, EARA, (founded in 1989) and the Bibliophiles Society of Argentina, who encouraged collectors, there was no active interest in design bindings.   For Sol, the solution was to reach out to practitioners abroad to expand her knowledge.   She drew from a rich source of know-how and encouragement provided by some of the finest contemporary binders in Canada, the USA, Switzerland and France, including Monique Lallier, Deborah Evetts, Sun Everard, Louise Genest and Betsy Eldridge.


Practical work at the bench is not enough to create a successful bookbinder. Sol’s belief is that whatever the support given by generous colleagues ‘you have to build your own university… it is not only knowing diverse bookbinding techniques… Learn from different teachers and then take the things you like and find your own way to work with books.’[2]  


In 2001, Sol had to do just that due to an economic crisis in Argentina. For several years, she could no longer afford to enrol on courses abroad so she established her own business in Buenos Aires and used what she had learned.   Thankfully Sol was later able to resume her travels and visited South American as well as American and European binders. Her studio is now on a firm footing but Sol continues to learn and to teach both traditional and non-conventional binding techniques.


There are now several workshops which are flourishing in Argentina. Some binders have been taught by Sol herself, including Florencia Goldztein, Valentina Villela, Sofia Mendizabal and Magdalena Gasquet. Not only do Sol (and her fellow binders) teach students from all over Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico, they also invite established binders (notably Pascale Thérond, Kathy Abbot and Helene Jolis) to pass on their knowledge. Furthermore, there is an official channel by which the craft is taught, the Diploma Programme in Bookbinding at the National Library in Buenos Aires. It is certainly over-subscribed. Last year there were 800 applications for 30 places!


It is not only the challenge of creation that inspires Sol. Her interest in the history of her craft is shown by the recent publication of a short article ‘Bookbinding in Argentina’ in the Designer Bookbinders newsletter.[3] Another concern is restoration. This has resulted in her development of new methods to preserve book structures. Such innovation is demonstrated in the British Library’s recently-acquired binding on   The Noble Knight Paris.


 Note the series of ‘reversed stubs’ projecting from the head band and head cap in the image below. Sol devised this method to ensure the easy opening of the book enabling the pages to lie flat.

  Sol Rebora 3

It is not possible to do justice to a binding through a description or an image. A binding is three dimensional and you must be able to hold it in your hands. This is particularly true of Sol’s work. The contrasting feel of the grain of the grey goatskin and of the cut away strips (comprising Japanese paper painted with acrylic) become obvious as you handle the book. Shape is also important. The inspiration for the decoration derives from the clothes in the illustrations, and the typography of the lettering.

Sol Rebora 4


Enlargement of goatskin cover incorporating pink and green painted strips.

The pink and green, the spine lettering (achieved via the partial application of pink foil) and the headbands reflect the tones used in the hand coloured woodcuts of the text. This repetition leads to a calm and harmonious progression from cover to text to cover. The grey reflects the stone used in French chateaux (a reference to the text).  


Sol does not neglect the intellectual underpinning which precedes the creation of a design binding. She has laid out her vision; “I think the openness and the preservation are the most important points in the construction process of a contemporary design binding, together with “good techniques and aesthetic criteria”…The design and the aesthetics or the artistic expression of the binding should be integrated to create one piece with intellectual and sensory reading from the outside. Finally, I would say the construction techniques of the structure, along with the design of the cover and applied materials, play together to achieve this.”[4]


The thinking process is of obvious significance to Sol, however it is important not to overlook the emotional response. With the bindings of Sol Rébora, this is usually a smile!


  1. J. M. Marks

Printed Heritage Collections






























[2] Pamela Train Leutz, The Thread That Binds, (New Castle, 2010), p. 136.

[3] No. 181.  Spring, 2018.  Notice. 4.


04 September 2018

Instapoetry & Twiction: social media, short form migrant writing & collection practices

Have you heard of Instapoetry? In recent years, a new literary phenomenon has emerged – writing via social media. The poetry shared on Instagram has helped boost poetry sales significantly. Rupi Kaur’s book of collected instapoems, Milk and Honey (2014), remained on the New York Times Bestseller List for over 77 weeks, was translated into more than 25 languages and has sold upwards of 2.5 million copies worldwide. Kaur, hailed as the “Queen of ‘Instapoets’” by Rolling Stone Magazine, is a Punjabi-Sikh who moved to Canada at age 4, and started her career writing short texts on Tumblr and Instagram in 2013.

 Rupi Kaur

Rupi Kaur on tour. Wikimedia Commons 2017.

After years of submitting her poems and receiving rejections, Kaur considered self-publishing.  As her number of Instagram followers grew – she now has over 2.9 million – she was picked up by an American publisher (Andrews McMeel Publishing).  Her style is distinctive: most of her texts are accompanied by a simple illustration, and she writes exclusively in lowercase in a nod to Gurmukhi script (one of the scriptures used by Punjabi Sikhs) and her cultural heritage.


Instagram post by @rupikaur, 26/05/2018



Kaur is both the highest-selling and most controversial of Instapoets, but she is by no means one of a kind. Other influential instapoets include:

What I find striking in this list is that among these successful instapoets, the majority are, if not women, then openly feminist, and come from ethnic minorities or immigrant backgrounds. Regardless of the literary quality of these texts, what this suggests is that these authors, who may struggle to find mainstream publishers for their work, are finding a creative outlet and an audience using social media.

Supportive communities develop on online international platforms, where people of minorities can share their everyday experiences of gender and racial discrimination with each other, but also talk about universally relatable human experiences. For most of these writers, Instagram is a stepping stone into the publishing industry, but even once their texts are published in book form, they continue sharing new texts and interacting with their readers. Their Instagram pages thus form a kind of a digital anthology.

One of the purposes of my placement is to make sure the North American collections are keeping up to date with migrant writing and collecting important material.  Instapoetry and other online writing challenge our practices, as the Library cannot acquire and collect a website in the same way as it can a book.

The British Library hosts the UK Web Archive, however it is strictly confined to UK-based or relevant websites (either hosted on a uk domain or authored by UK residents) which it can collect through non-print legal deposit. Social media are more complicated to archive – for example Facebook is based in the US and blocks attempts to 'harvest' content.  The UK web archive can pull information from web pages that don’t have a UK based domain if, and only if, there is a clear link with the UK. And even then permission is needed from the creators of the content and copyrights need to be cleared.


The main problem with this situation is that the online space does not function like the print publishing world. Social media destabilise the clear-cut national boundaries that dictate our web archiving collection practices (as underwritten in UK law).  These are just some of the challenges that currently prevent the Library from collecting online literary phenomenons like instapoetry by non-British writers, and that significantly affects  our holdings.

The impact of social media on literature has been huge. The micro-poems, haikus and short texts shared and read on Instagram, and the flash fiction shared on Twitter within the 140-character limit (a genre sometimes called “twiction”), reflect the importance of technology in our everyday lives.  The shortness of these forms means that they are very suitable for reading during a quick break on a mobile phone screen. Arguably, this makes poetry more mainstream and less elitist – it is more accessible as it is easier to read: it is shorter, uses simple words and is sometimes accompanied by visuals.  But also, when shared on social media, it has the potential to reach a wider socio-economic audience than the poetry-buying public.  Instapoetry readers are able to interact directly with the writer and with each other, in a more democratic process.  It is no wonder then that a renewed popular interest for poetry has risen out of such social media writing.

The rawness of Instapoetry – some Instapoets claim they only post unedited texts – says something about our fascination with the instantaneous in a time when we are constantly connected with events taking place all over the world. Publishing on Twitter especially can be likened to speaking out: once something has been said, it is already gone and replaced by more recent tweets. Of course, you can scroll down these platforms and maybe you will eventually find what you are looking for. But the book form undeniably has a sense of long-term duration and inalterability to it.

In fact, much of the conversation/hype around Twiction and Instapoetry took place between 2013 and 2015, and many tweets and Instagram posts have probably been deleted since. Unfortunately, thus far, we hold no records of this in the UK web archive, and there are no entries for “instapoetry” and “twiction”, however you may be able to find and even nominate accounts of authors for inclusion.  The American internet archive (known as the Wayback Machine has a very limited number of entries for these terms, however you can find captures of social media accounts using this.

As a result, the BL collections are also missing the Twitter fictional initiatives taken by acclaimed Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole  between 2011 and 2014.

Teju Cole
Teju Cole, wikimedia commons

In January 2014, he orchestrated a short story entitled “Hafiz” about a man who has a heart attack in a big city (you can read the whole story here). Cole texted other Twitter users 36 ready-made sentences to tweet, which he then retweeted in the right narrative order.  

Earlier, he had already experimented on the same platform with his “Small Fates” project in which he imitated crime reports found in Nigerian newspapers, giving them an ironic twist. One goes “Ude, of Ikata, recently lost his wife. Tired of arguing with her, he used a machete”. Cole’s twitter page has been inactive since 2014, and shows nothing predating June 14th, 2014 (yes, I scrolled down to see how far I could go). This points to the ephemerality of such literary movements and how quickly they spring up and disappear. How then can our collections keep up if they are not equipped to collect these moments?

The fact that Teju Cole was already a well-recognized and published writer when he conducted these literary experiments shows that for many authors, social media is an interesting alternative to print. Rather than choosing social media only for its marketing value or its artistic value (as the space constraints encourage a different kind of creativity), for these authors part of the attraction is political. The online space is more flexible and democratic than the publishing industry. As minority writers, moving outside of mainstream distribution channels and privileging social media is potentially more radical and powerful than seeking publication.

This, however, also makes it harder for libraries to keep a record. Some writers such as the ones I have mentioned have received their fair share of attention in the media, so although web archives encounter practical challenges to collecting these primary resources, they are certainly picking up on secondary material discussing it. In this sense it is worth reflecting on strategies to ensure the Library’s web-archiving collecting practices remain diverse in form and content, and don't involuntarily under-represent a crucial literary moment to future generations.  One such tool is user input: the UK web archive allows users and authors to nominate sites to be added to its collections. It is a simple process, and can make a vital difference to ensuring these forms of writing aren't lost to future generations.

- Laura Gallon


UK Web Archive:

The Wayback Machine (the Internet Archive):

Leetaru, Kalev. “Why Are Libraries Failing At Web Archiving And Are We Losing Our Digital History?”. Forbes, 27/05/2017. 

Qureshi, Huma. « How do I love thee? Let me Instagram it.” The Guardian, 23/11/2015.

Roberts, Soraya. “No Filter.” The Baffler, 24/01/2018.

Rupi Kaur Official Website

Walker, Rob. “The young ‘Instapoet’ Rupi Kaur: from social media star to bestselling writer.” The Guardian, 28/05/2017.

Zakaria, Rafia. “Warsan Shire: the Somali-British poet quoted by Beyoncé in Lemonade.” The Guardian, 27/04/2016. 


Laura Gallon is a PhD placement student at the British Library where she is working on a project assessing holdings of migrant narratives in the North American collections. She is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Sussex which is looking at contemporary American short fiction by immigrant women writers. Her placement is supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.


30 August 2018

Eric Fisher Wood: An American in Paris

Before Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron immortalised Gershwin’s production, there was another young American in Paris. When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914, Eric Fisher Wood, a young American student, was ‘quietly studying architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts’ (foreword, v). The journal he kept at the outbreak of war describes the capital’s rapid descent into near chaos and his quick assumption of responsibilities as attaché at the American Embassy then headed by Myron T. Herrick . His account is fascinating for its candid and sympathetic description of the sudden and complete upheaval for Parisians, his fellow Americans and for the German citizens who, mostly by chance, had the magnificent misfortune of being on French soil when war was declared.

Image 1. Cover
IMG 1. Caption: Eric Fisher Wood, The Note-Book of an Attaché, seven months in the war zone, 1915. 9082.ff.28.

As part of a PhD research placement, I have been working on a collection of French posters from the First World War and reading Fisher Wood’s account in tandem. The correspondence between his description of the period and the story told through the primary material in the poster collection is striking. On 2 August 1914, a poster was issued by the Police department prohibiting people from gathering (attroupement) in the streets.

Image 2. Attroupement
IMG 2. Caption: Poster prohibiting gathering and seditious proclamations and songs in public under the state of siege. Tab.11748.a.F1(5)

In his entry for Tuesday 4 August, Fisher Wood writes ‘One sees everywhere on the sidewalk little knots of people talking in low, troubled voices, and each time just as their conversation is well started they are interrupted by a policeman who reminds them that it is not permitted to s’attrouper in the streets and that they must move on.’ (13) Similarly, in relation to restrictions on opening hours for bars, cafés and the métro, he writes, ‘The Champs-Elysées is probably at present the darkest avenue on earth. (…) The sun seldom rises without revealing the ruins of one of these lamps and of an automobile, the two having mutually destroyed each other in the darkness.’ (37-38). Illustrating this, poster no 15 in the collection gives us the material evidence of these new regulations being implemented, plunging the City of Light into darkness.

Image 3. Curfew
Government poster ordering all establishments selling alcoholic drinks to close by 8pm. Metro stations are to close at the same time. Tab.11748.a.F1(15)

Reading Fisher Wood’s chronicle, we get a sense of just how much daily life and business was completely overturned. He says that all buses vanished from the city to be turned into ambulances and meat wagons, causing scenes of despair and panic for the hordes trying to flee the capital. All kinds of private property, including horses, carriages, mules and even carrier pigeons, were requisitioned by the army to support the war effort, and we have the artefacts of the announcements in the collection.

Image 4. Requisitions
Government poster calling for all heavy vehicles and cars that haven't already been requisitioned to be presented to the Commission of Requisition on 4 and 5 August 1914. Tab.11748.a.F1(10)

Alongside, Fisher Wood’s journal provides an additional layer describing how these requisitions manifested themselves in daily life: ‘All the fast private automobiles are requisitioned for the army, and one sees them tearing along vying in speed with the flying taxis, each one driven by a sapper with another sapper in the footman’s place, while one or two officers sit calmly behind, trying to smoke cigarettes in spite of the wind.’ (14)

During the War, posters constituted one of the principal channels through which information was disseminated to the public, which is perhaps difficult to imagine in our era of instant news feeds and instantaneous information sharing. Fisher Wood notes the ambient confusion and uncertainty that pervaded the population: ‘There are persistent rumours throughout Paris of battles “near Metz” or “on the borders of Luxembourg,” of “two hundred and thirty thousand French troops already in Alsace”, “ten thousand French killed at Belfort,” or “forty thousand German prisoners taken.” (14) In this atmosphere of insecurity, one can imagine just how important these posters were in keeping a fraught population informed of the war’s developments and of the steady stream of government pronouncements.

Image 5. Roger Viollet
Parisians huddled around a mobilisation poster. August 1914. Préfecture de Police, Service de l’identité judiciaire/BHVP/RogerViollet.

Fisher Wood remarks too that when Général Gallieni, military governor of Paris, was handed power, he took advantage of the new authority to usher through changes that had been hindered by ‘politics’ for years. The scourge of absinthe was suddenly outlawed as were slot machines, designed to ‘catch the hard-earned-sous of the workmen’. (39)

Image 6. Absinthe
Poster issued by the Préfecture de police announcing the decree of 7 January 1915 prohibiting the sale of absinthe and similar spirits. Signed by Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré. Tab.11748.a.F1(36)
Image 7.
Government poster detailing two articles of the law prohibiting slot and gaming machines issuing cash winnings or drinking tokens. Tab.11748.a.F1(22)

Eric Fisher Wood went on to serve in the British then American Armies, parts of which he recounts in the latter part of his ‘Note-book’. Following the war he returned to the United States and played an instrumental role in setting up what became the American Legion and later established himself as an architect. However the vivid, first-hand account of the experiences of this particular American, in Paris and beyond, especially when read alongside the primary resources of the posters, remains a powerful account of the civilian – and foreign – experience of the turbulent first months of war from the French capital.

- Phoebe Weston-Evans



[A collection of British and French War Posters.] 1914-1919. Tab.11748.a.

Eric Fisher Wood, The Note-Book of an Attaché: Seven Months in the War Zone (New York, 1915). 9082.ff.28.

Charles Lansiaux, Paris 14-18: la guerre au quotidien. Photographies de Charles Lanciaux (Paris, 2013). LF.31.a.5681.

Christine Vial Kayser and Géraldine Chopin (eds) Allons enfants! Publicité et propagande 1914­–1918 (Louveciennes, 2014). YF.2017.a.11967.

Phoebe Weston-Evans is a PhD placement student at the British Library where she is working on a project cataloguing a collection of French War Posters.  She is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Melbourne which looks at the author Patrick Modiano.  Phoebe is also a published translator.

28 August 2018

CFP: Revisiting the Black Parisian Moment, 1918 - 1919

As part of a series of events titled '1918: A New World?', the British Library will be hosting a symposium on the 26 October, titled 'Revisiting the Black Parisian Moment, transnational black military, musical and intellectual histories, 1918 - 1919'.  The Call for Papers is open to submissions until Sunday 2 September.  Please see below for the full Call for Papers.

We are pleased to announce that we will be joined by jazz composer and pianist, Jason Moran who will be discussing his latest work on the 369th infantry band also known as the 'Harlem Hellfighters'.  Registration cost will be £20, with discounts available.  Please see the British Library 'What's On' page for updates on tickets.

Pan-African_Congress _Paris _February_19-22 _1919
A session of the Pan African Congress, Paris, February 1919

This symposium will explore the connections between black intellectual thought, military presence, and jazz cultures at the critical juncture of Paris in the immediate post-war period.  Additionally, it will consider the present-day uses of these black histories, particularly in cultural activism.  As Tyler Stovall has argued, “comparable dynamics drove both black politics and black culture in postwar Paris.  Both Parisian jazz and the Pan-African Congress of 1919 combined complicity and resistance…”[1].  This symposium will seek to draw out these complicities and resistances.

In 1919 the ‘1st’ Pan-African Congress took place in Paris.  The Congress is widely discussed in the literature on the subject as a false-start to later more radical anti-colonial movements.   More recently, it has been repositioned within a broader spectrum of early 20th Century black anti-colonial thought that is important in its own right.  The Congress took place in a Paris already awakening to black cultures.  Just a year previously, the military band of the African American 369th Infantry Regiment led by James Reese Europe, aka the Harlem Hellfighters, toured French music halls and fought alongside French and African troops.  The 369th were welcomed back to the US with a parade from Fifth Avenue to Harlem watched by 250,000 people.  It was an instance of the renewed determination of African Americans in the fight for equality spurred by the war – as W.E.B. DuBois proclaimed in an editorial that ran in the May 1919 issue of Crisis: “We return from fighting.  We return fighting.  Make way for Democracy!”  The symposium will take an interdisciplinary approach to reconsider the overlaps taking place in wartime Europe, through the crystalising lens of Paris in the immediate post-war period.

369th Infantry band playing in France

Additionally, we will engage with the question of what these histories have meant for future generations of black activists and cultural producers.  It will speak directly to new work on the Harlem Hellfighters by acclaimed jazz composer and performer Jason Moran, which will be performed at the Barbican in November.  “James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin moves through past, present and future as it reflects on the African American presence in Europe during the war – and the marks it left here during the subsequent century.”  The work emerged from conversations between Moran and filmmaker John Akomfrah who have said they were inspired by Caribbean American sociologist Orlando Patterson’s suggestion that the creative chaos of jazz provides a language for countering what he termed ‘an absence of ruin’ in black histories and intellectual thought: “how do African Americans deal with histories vanishing constantly, and how does the music become the structure?”

Jason Moran

While the emphasis of the symposium will be on the US connection, this is understood within the dynamics of a transmigrational black Atlantic and we welcome papers that explore an approach to anti-colonialist thought, ‘le soldat noir’, and/or jazz from a colonial perspective, including a Caribbean context.  We also welcome papers from any discipline, in French, Spanish, Portuguese, or bilingual papers.

Possible subjects for papers include but are not limited to:

  • The historiography of the Pan-African Congress, and ‘le soldat noir’.
  • The imaginary topography of Paris, France as a site of pan-African exchange.
  • The experiences of African American and Caribbean military personnel in France, and upon their return to the US.
  • The 369th Infantry: its musical and military accomplishments.
  • James Reese Europe’s musical legacy and contributions to Harlem, including the Clef Club.
  • Other jazz bands in Paris/Europe in this period, eg. Louis Mitchell and the Jazz Kings
  • The historical work of jazz.
  • Cultural primitivism in the immediate postwar years.
  • Afro-modernism and black responses to négrophilie in the immediate postwar period.
  • Black Paris / the returning WWI black soldier, as expressed in the American and/or Caribbean imagination.
  • Tracing the influence of early pan-Africanist thought on Négritude, African American internationalism, or the later Black Power movement.
  • Connections to the escalating events in the US that culminated in the ‘First Red Scare’ and the ‘Red Summer’ of 1919.
  • Conference organisers, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida Gibbs Hunt, Blaise Diagne, and/or Gratien Candace.
  • The reappropriation of fraternité from military and colonial ends, for black rights.
  • The repurposing of Wilson’s rhetoric of ‘national self-determination’ for African, and/or African American contexts.
  • The uses of primitivism at the conference, and its relationship to the advancement of African independence movements/African American rights.
  • The African Blood Brotherhood, Cyril Biggs, Richard Moore, and Wilfrid Adolphus Domingo.
  • Pan-Africanism and anti-colonial thought in the Black press, eg. Crisis, The Liberator, The Crusader, and Negro World.
  • Critiques of European colonial rule at the Congress, and calls for international oversight (eg. League of Nations mandates).
  • Theorising ‘The Absence of Ruin’.
  • The uses of these histories as contemporary cultural politics


Please submit abstracts of max. 400 words with a brief one-paragraph bio in the same document to by midnight, Sunday 2 September.


This event is supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies, Serious, Jazzfest Berlin, 14-18 Now, and the Kennedy Centre.

- Francisca Fuentes Rettig


[1] Tyler Stovall, ‘Black Modernism and the Making of the Twentieth Century: Paris, 1919’, Afromodernisms: Paris, Harlem and the Avant-Garde, eds. Fionnghuala Sweeney and Kate Marsh.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013. P.20.


24 August 2018

Americas Digital Newspaper Resources

The British Library subscribes to numerous digital databases that have both historic and more contemporary holdings from across the Americas.  Crucially, a number of these are available remotely, so registered readers can access them from home.  You can access all of the databases discussed below through the 'databases' link on the Newsroom's webpage.  The below are just a selection of what you can access through our digital subscriptions, do dig around for more, and of course there is more to be found from the rest of the world. 



These are perhaps the most popular of our newspaper resources, available to registered readers at just a few clicks from the comfort of your own home.  They include the following databases, each of which contains hundreds of historic titles:

African American Newspapers, Series 1 and Series 2, 1827 - 1998

Providing online access to more than 350 U.S. newspapers chronicling a century and a half of the African American experience. This collection features papers from more than 35 states—including many rare and historically significant 19th century titles.

AfAm Newspapers interface


Caribbean Newspapers, 1718 - 1876

The largest online collection of 18th- and 19th-century newspapers published in the Caribbean. Essential for researching colonial history, the Atlantic slave trade, international commerce, New World slavery and U.S. relations with the region as far back as the early 18th century.

Caribbean Newspapers interface


Latin American Newspapers, Series 1 and Series 2, 1805 - 1922

This database includes over forty titles and tens of thousands of digitised issues of Latin American newspapers from across the region – Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, Brazil and the Southern Cone.

LatAm Newspapers interface


Early American Newspapers, Series 1, 1690 - 1876

Includes reproductions of hundreds of historic newspapers, providing more than one million pages as fully text-searchable facsimile images.

AmHist Newspapers interface

Foreign Broadcast Information Service, which collects the records of the US government operation that translated the text of daily broadcasts, government statements, and select news stories from international non-English sources.  This is particularly interesting for researchers working on US foreign relations, but also a good record of international resources otherwise not available.

FBIS interface



Access World News/NewsBank

Another extraordinary database, though not available remotely, is Access World News/Newsbank.  This currently provides access to more than 1800 American news sources and is accessible in all British Library Reading Rooms.

On the United States ‘homepage’ the sources are listed by state but can also be searched by region. Clicking the ‘Source Types’ tab reveals the following categories, as well as the number of sources for each of them: audio, blogs, journals, magazines, newspapers, newswires, transcripts, videos and web-only sources. A summary of each source provides the date range covered, the media type, publishing frequency, circulation, ownership and – where applicable – the URL or ISSN. In addition, the news magazines can also be accessed under ‘Short-Cuts/America’s News Magazines’ on the left-hand side of the home-page. Finally, clicking the ‘Source List’ tab reveals an alphabetical list of all news sources, along with their date range, location and source type.

The database’s many notable highlights include:

Full-text coverage of more than 1300 newspapers, including: Boston Herald (1991 – );  Daily News (NY) (1995 – ); The Dallas Morning News (1984 – ); The Denver Post (1989 – ); The Detroit News (1999 – ); Los Angeles Times (1985 – ); The Miami Herald (1982 – ); New York Post (1999 – ); Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (1990 – ); Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (1990 – ); and the San Francisco Chronicle (1985 – ).

Transcripts of features on nearly seventy news programmes, including: 60 Minutes (CBS; 2004 – ) ; CBS Evening News (2005 – ); The Charlie Rose Television Show (PBS; 2004 – ); CNN (2004 – ); Face the Nation (CBS; 2010 – ); Fox News Channel (2003 – ); Meet the Press (NBC; 2012 – ); MSNBC (2003 – ); NBC Nightly News (2014 – ); NPR (1990 – ); and PBS NewsHour (2006 – ).

Full-text coverage of more than twenty news magazines, including: The Atlantic (1994 – ); Foreign Affairs (1994 – ); The New Republic (1993 – ); The New Yorker (2012 – ); Newsweek (1991 – ); and The Saturday Evening Post (1994 – ). NB: These are all listed under ‘Short Cuts/America’s News Magazines.

Output from more than 270 web-only sources, including Accuracy in Media (1998 – ); The Centre for Investigative Reporting (the oldest non-profit investigative reporting organisation in the US) (2003 – ); The Center for Public Integrity (2007 – ); The Daily Beast (2008 – ); (2002 – ); and Slate (1996 – ).


Access to 64 newswires, including: Associated Press News Service (1997 – );  AP State Wires (from all states, 2010/2011 – ); CNN Wire (2009 – ); and UPI NewsTrack, (2005 – ).

Audio of The Diane Rehm Show (2000 – ), a daily news, arts and discussion show airing on NPR since the 1970s; a transcript is available from 2010.

The newspapers and news magazines in this database are text-only – they do not include the original page-layout, photographs or advertisements.


We hope that this provides some insight into just how much material is available through our digital subscriptions.  We continually add to these, and will post any updates on this blog so please do subscribe if you want to keep informed on the latest available resources.


- Jean Petrovic and Francisca Fuentes