THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Social Science blog

3 posts categorized "Black & Asian Britain"

01 July 2019

A social scientist’s experience of navigating the British Library’s collections

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Emma Abotsi, British Sociological Association Fellow at the British Library, writes 

During the first month of my fellowship, I learnt at the Doctoral Open Days that the British Library has approximately 170 million items, which include books, academic journals, government records, personal correspondence, oral histories, newspapers, stamps, and currencies from all over the world, and archived websites.

I felt excited about the possibilities for research, thinking, surely, that with this number of documents, I should be able to find ample material for my project on race and ethnicity.

However, it can be quite daunting to know where to start. I embarked on my search by having a 1-2-1 session with a Reference Specialist at the Social Sciences Reading Rooms to get training on how to use Explore (the British Library’s main catalogue).

This platform was quite familiar to me because it is very similar to catalogues I have used at other academic and public libraries.

The Archives and Manuscript catalogue (for documents like personal papers, unpublished documents, and photographs) proved trickier, as information relating to items varies in detail. In some cases, it is better to start your search with the printed indexes like the list of the official publications of the India Office Records, which can be found in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room. These lists will help you get an idea of the documents in the collections.

Whether I was doing a search with Explore or a specialist catalogue like Archives and Manuscripts or SAMI (Sound and Moving Image Catalogue), I found it useful to speak to the relevant curator, who often had tips for navigating the catalogue and helpful suggestions for materials that I had not considered. For instance, my discussion with Debbie Cox, Lead Curator for Contemporary British Publishing, alerted me to recent independent publications that feature the experiences of Black and Asian youths such as Thiiird.

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Thiiird Magazine s/s 2017. © Thiiird Magazine.

While searching through 170 million items can seem like an impossible task at times, the British Library’s Reference Team are available to help with finding your way.

10 May 2019

Meet the new British Sociological Association Fellow at the British Library

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Emma Abotsi, British Sociological Association Fellow

I am the new British Sociological Association‚Äôs (BSA) Postdoctoral Fellow at the British Library.  The Fellowship provides an opportunity for a postdoctoral researcher to conduct archival research using the British Library‚Äôs collections (you can find out more about last year‚Äôs inaugural Fellowship on our Research Case Studies pages)

This year’s theme for the Fellowship is race and ethnicity in the UK and the aim of the project is to explore how archival methods can be used to examine contemporary concerns around this topic.

Before starting this Fellowship, I conducted research on the transnational parenting and educational practices of British-Ghanaian families. I have also worked as an Assistant Archivist at the Black Cultural Archives, where I catalogued the collections of Stella Dadzie, who co-founded the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD) and Dr Jan McKenley, who was also a key member of OWAAD and other black women’s groups.

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Southall Black Sisters Annual Report 1992/93. Southall Black Sisters. © Southall Black Sisters

With a background, and a keen interest in education and community activism in Britain’s African Caribbean and Asian communities, I have spent my first few months of the Fellowship exploring relevant materials from the Library’s collections. This includes Pulse, a publication by the National Association of Afro Caribbean Societies from 1986, which features a piece on the lack of diversity in the British (English) curriculum and the Annual Report of the Southall Black Sisters, an activist group of Asian and Black (African and Caribbean) women providing support for, and campaigning against, gender-based violence, and racism.

I have now narrowed the focus of this project to exploring Black and Asian activism and community projects around education in the UK since the 1960s. The items I discover as part of my research will be used in academic publications as well as learning resources aimed at A Level Sociology students.

I am excited about the opportunity this Fellowship provides to explore the British Library’s collections relating to Britain’s minority communities and to develop a range of outputs that will contribute to the study of race and ethnicity in the UK. I will also share findings from my work on this blog throughout the Fellowship.

22 June 2018

‚ÄėThe people we are writing for are the people we are fighting for‚Äô: Sivanandan as radical pamphleteer.

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For more than forty years A. Sivanandan was at the forefront of debates on anti-racism and politics in Britain. Born in Jaffna in 1923 and educated in Colombo, he came to Britain in 1958, leaving the anti-Tamil riots in colonial Ceylon (renamed Sri Lanka in 1972) and walking into the anti-black riots in Notting Hill. He was to become one of the most important and influential black anti-racist thinker-activists in the UK.  His aphorisms, from ‚Äėwe are here because you were there‚Äô to ‚Äėpoverty is the new Black‚Äô - are known more widely than his name.  Sivanandan was librarian and then director of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) from 1973-2013, one of the founding editors of Race & Class, an activist and author of prize-winning fiction and non-fiction. He died in January this year, aged 94, and this coming weekend a memorial event in London will celebrate his life and work. 

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Several of Sivanandan‚Äôs writings are available on the website of the Institute of Race Relations, as is a full bibliography of his work, and five articles from Race & Class are free to download as the Sivanandan collection.  Collections of his articles are available in print, most notably Catching history on the wing: race, culture, globalisation (Pluto Press, 2008).  You can read about his life in more detail in an account on Sage‚Äôs Social Science Space by  Michael Todd  or in Gary Younge‚Äôs obituary in The Guardian  .

Sivanandan‚Äôs response to his arrival at the time of the anti-black riots of 1958 was to abandon his original aim of seeking well-paid employment and a comfortable life.  In an interview he said,

‚ÄúI knew then I was black. I could no longer stand on the sidelines: race was a problem that affected me directly. I had no excuse to go into banking or anything else that I was fitted up to do ‚Ķ I had to find a way of making some sort of contribution to the improvement of society.  I wanted time to read and reflect and to become active. ‚Ķ So I started off as a tea-boy in a public library in Middlesex.  And I went on to do my library exams by attending evening classes.  From tea-boy I became branch manager of that particular library and then finally I went to be librarian at the Institute of Race Relations in 1964.‚ÄĚ  (The heart is where the battle is: an interview with A Sivanandan, Race & Class, 59 issue: 4, pages: 3-14.)

In his early work Sivanandan put together bibliographies of materials in the Institute of Race Relations library about African, Asian and Caribbean migration to Britain, to help build an area of study and draw out materials for activism. This remains an important area of work for contemporary librarians and archivists. Most of Sivanandan’s political writing was first published as articles in Race & Class, the journal of the Institute of Race Relations, which continues today as an academic journal published by Sage:

 

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Importantly too, his articles were reproduced as pamphlets, so that they could be achieve wider distribution among the community activists Sivanandan and others at the IRR worked with, including Newham Monitoring Project and the Southall Monitoring Group.  The British Library holds some of these pamphlets, allowing researchers to see not only the words on the page, but also to see how Siva‚Äôs arguments were taken out beyond an academic context.  The pamphlets pictured below show their prices, ranging from 30p to ¬£1.00.   Materials from the IRR Library are now housed at Warwick University as part of their Ethnicity and Migration Collections.    The range of publications can also be viewed in a video on YouTube recounting the First Fifty Years of the IRR's history

 

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Some of the pamphlet versions of Sivanandan's articles held by the British Library.

Sivanandan published articles in a range of activist magazines, for example CARF (Campaign against racism and fascism.) The article below shows the evolution of Sivanandan‚Äôs concerns from racism and imperialism to globalisation and its impact on refugees and migrants.  In his foreword to Catching history on the wing  Colin Prescod writes that, through his coinage of the term xeno-racism, Sivanandan aimed to show that, ‚ÄúEurope‚Äôs formidable hostility to the impoverished migrant workers on which so much of its basic prosperity depends is not just some nice people‚Äôs social phobia about foreigners, but a system of belief and practice aimed at locking down, and locking in, the needy and the desperate.‚ÄĚ (p. x)    

 

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Beyond his political writing Sivanandan also reached an audience through his fictional writing.  In 1997 he published When Memory Dies. The novel traces three generations of a family torn by Sri Lanka‚Äôs history of colonialism and ethnic strife. It was awarded the Sagittarius Prize (given by the Society of Authors for a first novel by an author over the age of sixty) and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers‚Äô Prize in the category of Best First Book for Europe and South Asia.  Where the Dance Is, a collection of short stories, was published in 2000.

Perhaps the most innovative means of taking his ideas out to a new audience was his collaboration with Asian Dub Foundation on the track Colour Line which features on their album Community Music  (2000). 

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The British Library holds an oral history interview conducted by Louise Brodie for National Life Stories in 2010 with A Sivanandan.  Available on the Library‚Äôs Sound Cloud the interview is in ten parts and sheds a fascinating light on the life experiences, relationships and events that shaped Sivanandan‚Äôs writing.   This long and detailed interview provides a resource for anyone researching the complex evolution of anti-racist or activist politics in Britain. Many others played important roles in challenging racism and building activism, but Colin Prescod writes, ‚ÄúFor those who recall the first half of the 1980s as a watershed in Black British politics, Sivanandan was father, elder to them all.‚ÄĚ (Catching history on the wing, p. viii)

Selected works by A Sivanandan:

Race and Resistance: the IRR story, London: Race Today Publications, March 1975

A Different Hunger: writings on black resistance, London: Pluto Press, 1982

Communities of Resistance: writings on black struggles for socialism, London: Verso, 1990

When Memory Dies(a novel), London: Arcadia, 1997

Where the Dance Is(short stories), London: Arcadia, 2000

Catching history on the wing: Race, Culture and Globalisation, 2008 (Pluto Press).