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

26 November 2020

PhD Placement Opportunity – National Library Curator Conference

Applications are now open for an exciting new PhD placement working with curators from the Americas Collections. Under the title Digital Conference National Libraries Now: International Perspectives on Library Curation, current PhD students are invited to spend three months (or preferably the part-time equivalent) engaging with the complex challenges that national library curators face in building and interpreting collections, and making use of that research to shape and support an international conference. As a digital conference, there is the opportunity for this placement to be undertaken remotely. 

The placement is supervised by the Oceania curator in the Americas collections, but the student will also be working closely with a team of curatorial staff at the Library to develop the first international conference for curators at national libraries. This event will bring together collections professionals from institutions worldwide to interrogate current challenges and the practical approaches being undertaken to address them, including what is considered national heritage, digital availability of material, decolonising strategies, engaging new audiences and our growing sense of social responsibility following unprecedented world events.      

Image of a person holding open a large illustrated book
Curatorial staff member viewing a collection item. Image © British Library

While the project can be shaped by the student's interests and strengths, the placement will involve building relationships with curatorial staff at international cultural institutions, researching digital platforms and networking tools, establishing a suitable methodology for an evaluative report on the conference, and supporting conference legacy work including conference proceeding publications, and a network platform for library curators. The student will also have the opportunity to work with other teams at the Library including Digital Scholarship, International Office and Cultural Events and is encouraged to make the most of access to the Library’s programme of staff talks, events and reading groups during their placement.  

This placement project offers an opportunity for a PhD student to put their critical thinking skills into practice at a major cultural institution to help develop an international network of library curators whose work will influence and inform practice in national libraries and cultural institutions more widely in the coming years. PhD students in all areas of the humanities and social sciences are invited to apply, and we would especially like to hear from students with an academic or professional interest in cultural heritage and library and information studies.  

Further information on eligibility, conditions and how to apply is available on the British Library website. The deadline for applications is 5pm 18 December 2020

For informal enquiries, please contact  

18 November 2020

The 2021 Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer's Award shortlistees: researching the Americas

Composite image showing 6 portraits of the Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award 2021 shortlisted authors.

The judges have debated and the shortlist has been announced for the 2021 Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award, a highly prestigious annual literary award of £20,000 for a current writing project exploring the Americas. And what a list. Featuring writers from across the globe, the six-strong list showcases world-class storytelling in both English and Spanish.

These writers will explore our Americas collections to research their writing projects, with the two winners granted a year-long residency and unique access to the expertise of our curatorial staff.

But what are their projects, and why are our Americas collections perfectly placed to inform them?

“Because of its eclecticism and richness, the British Library is a bibliographic treasure trove for this project”:

Andrés Barba is shortlisted for his non-fiction project Ruinas Vivas de América (Living Ruins of America), a literary and philosophical exploration of the concept of ruins – archaeological, historical and natural – across the American continent.

Andrés is the first of two shortlisted writers poised to use our Bauzá Maps Collection, in his case to view the ruins that form the roots of local identity such as Machu Picchu, Chichén Itza and Teotihuacán. He will then dig into our Oral History collections, including the Oral Histories of Wars and Conflicts, and the Television and Radio News Collection, to reveal the impact of natural disasters on already ruined cities like Detroit, Chaco Canyon, Santa Clara or Bodie. Andrés’ use of Oral History will continue as he researches the Oral History of Architecture, the Twentieth Century Society Recordings of Architects, the Ove Arup interviews and the Andrew Saint Architecture Recordings to then discover how these natural disasters inspired America to construct and create.

Aerial photograph of a massive grey stone stepped pyramid with a staircase running up the centre, sitting in a landscape of grassland and trees.
The Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan, México, photograph by Ricardo David Sánchez (2007), courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Doreen Cunningham, our next shortlistee, is selected for her memoir about learning from whales how to be a mother in a world in the grip of climate crisis. Her project explores the effects of climate change on oceans, and climate justice for Indigenous peoples. Having lived with Iñupiat whalers in the Arctic in 2006, Doreen will draw on her enduring relationship with an Iñupiat family as she researches US Government policies towards Native Americans in our collections, and considers the impact that waves of contact with colonising European agricultural culture and climate change have on the Iñupiat, including social devastation caused by cultural loss.

Illustrated cover showing seals on rocks and in the water, with a sailing ship in the background, and men in European clothes pulling sleds packed with shovels, picks and other items, walking into a snowy landscape.
Illustration from 'Alaska’ by Miner W. Bruce [shelfmark: 10460.dd.17]

She will use texts such as John Bockstoce’s Whales, Ice and Men and “I am sorry now we were so very severe”, an exploration of a 1930s ‘Eskimo Residential School’ by Val Marie Johnson, to research the social impact of this cultural change, including the introduction of alcohol, residential schools and oil exploration in the Arctic.1 And she’ll use the unexpected; our collection includes comprehensive documents on gray whale census data and marine monitoring, Charles Scammon’s whaling logs, and even whalesong recordings - some of which Doreen has already consulted to start things off.

Our next shortlisted project, Pie de Guerra (War Footing), will be written by Chilean writer and scholar Lina Meruane, and will expose the mutilation suffered by the Chilean veterans of the Pacific War. The novel will consider the double mutilation suffered by these veterans; the dismemberment of their bodies and the suppression of their voices. Having been inspired to write this story after discovering photographs of 33 soldier-miners in Colección de Fotografía Patrimonial in Chile’s National Historic Museum, Lina will consult our collections to bring their stories to life.

She will use the stories, letters and testimonials written by these soldiers, their families and other chroniclers, that can be found in our collection. The history of medical photography and medical history will allow Lina to trace the kinds of wounds produced by the armaments available and the medical procedures used to treat casualties. Collection material on weaponry, arsenals, uniforms, flags, and other war artefacts will paint a picture, while the study of the language employed both during and after this confrontation will help write the words.

Pola Oloixarac is next, selected for Atlas Literario del Amazonas (Literary Atlas of the Amazon), a work of creative non-fiction revealing the secret history of the Amazon as a region of the world and the people, ideas and stories within it that have remained unexplored.

Pola’s project aims to link imagination with bibliographic and historical research, and she will work with our Latin American collections to focus on documents relating to the European Conquest, indigenous languages and the stories of travellers who crossed the Amazon in different eras.

A 17th century map of Brazil with scenes of Brazilian life with dense typed text below.
Map of Brazil from the Klencke Atlas, c. 1660 (Shelfmark: Maps KAR)

Pola will be the second shortlisted writer this year to use the Bauzá map collections, and she will also study the accounts of British travellers to the Amazon, from Spruce and von Martius to Darwin, from Agassiz to Florence.

JS Tennant is selected for Mrs Gargantua and the Idea of Cuba, a playful history of Cuba’s relationship with the United States and other superpowers, contextualising the island within a web of power relations to show how it has long been miscast as an imagined or fantastical space as much as a real one.

To write this project JS will first explore the güije (a troll-like being) in the ethnological writings of Nancy Morejón and Fernando Ortíz. He’ll call on the guidance of our curators to research the mappaemundi Columbus had access to ahead of his venture into Terra Incognita, the so-called portolan charts (we hold one from 1350) which showed the presence in the Atlantic of imagined islands such as Legname, Corvi Marini, San Zorzi, St Brendan’s Isles, Brazil and Antilla.

Two pages of a book, one with printed text in Spanish, the other with coloured images of two species of fish.
Parra, Antonio, of Havana, Descripcion de diferentes piezas de historia natural, las mas del ramo maritimo, representadas en setenta y cinco laminas. (Havana, 1787), p.19 (Shelfmark: General Reference Collection DRT Digital Store 955.h.20.)

He also plans to base a section of Mrs Gargantua around the first book printed in Cuba, Antonio Parra y Callado’s Descripción de diferentes piezas de Historia Natural (1787).2 We hold a rare copy of this book, colloquially known as the ‘Book of the Fishes’ for its exquisite hand-coloured paintings.

Our final shortlisted project is Empire Without End: A New History of Britain and the Caribbean, to be written by Imaobong Umoren. An expansive new history of the 400 year relationship between Britain and the Caribbean, Imaobong’s book will argue that the Caribbean was the birth-place of a racial caste system that shaped both nations and continues to be influential today.

Poem handwritten in blue ink on headed paper, printed with Bemjamin Zephaniah’s name and two images of pens and microphones intertwined.
‘What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us’ by Benjamin Zephaniah (shelfmark: Dep 10936)

Imaobong will draw on a wealth of material here at the Library for this project, including collections such as the Wasafiri Magazine Archive, Benjamin Zephaniah’s manuscript poem 'What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us' and the letters of Ignatius Sancho.  The project will also call on our Caribbean newspapers collection, including the Daily Gleaner and Dominica Chronicle and will explore the Endangered Archives Programme for Anguilla, Antigua, Barbados, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Turks and Caicos.

Only two writers will win the £20,000 prize, but we’re pleased to also grant all the shortlisted writers £2000 towards work on their proposed project here at the Library. And we’ve already begun. Following the shortlist announcement in October we’ve been sharing our expertise and helping the writers get started. With researchers currently facing unprecedented challenges we’ll be working with this year’s shortlist to help them research effectively using digital resources, research assistants and curatorial support, wherever they are.

The two winners of the 2021 Writer’s Award will be announced on 25 November.

Works cited:

1.  Bockstoce, John, Whales, Ice and Men (Seattle: University of Washington Press in association with the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Massachusetts, c1986) (Shelfmark: General Reference Collection LB.31.b.2973); Johnson, Val Marie, “I'm sorry now we were so very severe”: 1930s Colonizing Care Relations between White Anglican Women Staff and Inuvialuit, Inuinnait, and Iñupiat People in an “Eskimo Residential School”, Feminist studies: FS, Volume 45: Number 2/3 (2019); pp 335-371 (Shelfmark: 3905.197800)
2.  Parra, Antonio, of Havana, Descripcion de diferentes piezas de historia natural, las mas del ramo maritimo, representadas en setenta y cinco laminas. (Havana, 1787) (Shelfmark: General Reference Collection DRT Digital Store 955.h.20.)

Helen Young


01 October 2020

New additions to our electronic resources

The Americas and Oceania collections are pleased to offer three new electronic resources on women's rights, Native American studies, and early settlers in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand.  The resources can be accessed by Readers in the British Library Reading Rooms which are currently open but in a restricted capacity. Our hard-working Reference Enquiry Team are also able to access these new resources in order to support your virtual enquiries. You can contact them on their Quick Chat service for short research enquiries from Monday to Friday: 09.30–17.00, or get in touch with individual Reading Room teams via the 'Ask the Reference Team' function.


Photograph of unidentified woman putting up billboard with bucket and broom. Billboard reads: "'Women of Colorado, you have the vote. Get it for women of the nation by voting against Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic Candidate for Congress. Their party opposes national woman suffrage. The National Woman's Party."
A National Woman's Party campaign billboard in Colorado, 1916. Source:

History Vault: Struggle for Women’s Rights: Organizational Records, 1880–1990

This digital collection is comprised of records of three important women's rights organizations in the US: the National Woman's Party, the League of Women Voters, and the Women's Action Alliance. Material included shows the organisations’ concerns with issues such as employment and employment discrimination, childcare, health care, and education and U.S. politics from 1920 to 1974. Types of content include party papers, correspondence, minutes, legal papers, financial records, printed material and photos. It’s an absolutely fascinating range of documents; lots of correspondence letters, offering a very different kind of approach to historical research on the topic of women’s rights

The collection provides a good primary resource for the study of first and second wave feminism. It includes the records of three important women's rights organizations in the US for the period 1913-1996, with additional material dating back to the 1850s. This resource complements existing areas of the British Library’s collections, particularly in regard to printed material around women’s suffrage movements in America. Later this month, the Library will be highlighting its collection around women’s rights with its major exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, taking place, and this resource will provide researchers with further ways to investigate the stories and issues touched upon in the exhibition.

Related e-resources which can be accessed in the Reading Rooms and by our Reference Enquiry Team to support virtual enquiries during this time include:

Everyday Life & Women in America c.1800-1920

North American Women’s Letters and Diaries

Women's Studies Archive: Voice and Vision


Promotional material for the digital resource 'North American Indian Thought and Culture'

North American Indian Thought and Culture

For researchers looking at Indigenous Studies, American Studies and Canadian Studies, North American Indian Thought and Culture brings together more than 100,000 pages, many of which are previously unpublished, rare, or hard to find. The project integrates autobiographies, biographies, First Nations publications, oral histories, personal writings, photographs, drawings, and audio files for the first time. The result is a comprehensive representation of historical events as told by the individuals who lived through them. The database is an important resource for all those interested in research into the history of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Canadian First Peoples. It includes an archive of key texts about and by Indigenous peoples, including biographies, oral histories (audio and transcript), and photographs.

This resource complements existing collection strengths on North American Indigenous peoples at the British Library. Covering several centuries, its value particularly lies in the numerous accounts by Indigenous people (written and oral) which add a much needed dimension to the collections.  Many of the materials it provides access to are otherwise unavailable in the UK. Autobiographies by Black Hawk and Okah Tubbee can be accessed, and rare books included represent Sequoyah and Standing Bear. Twenty prominent Native Americans have been selected for special emphasis, with multiple biographies presented, including Tecumseh, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, and Plenty Coups.

Virtually all North American groups are represented—nearly 500 in all. Some nations are covered in great depth, including the Eskimos and Inuit of the Arctic; the sub-Arctic Cree; the Pacific Coastal Salish; the Ojibwa, Cheyenne, and Sioux of the Plains. Biographies have been collected from more than 100 Native American publications, such as The Arrow, the Cherokee Phoenix, and the Chickasaw Intelligencer. The collection includes 2,000 oral histories presented in audio and transcript form and at least 20,000 photographs including from the archives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and other rare collections.

Related e-resources which can be accessed in the Reading Rooms and by our Reference Enquiry Team to support virtual enquiries during this time include:

 American Indian Histories and Cultures

American Indian Newspapers


Promotional material for the digital resource 'Early Experiences in Australasia: Primary Sources and Personal Narratives 1788-1901'

Early Experiences in Australasia: Primary Sources and Personal Narratives 1788-1901

For researchers in settler colonial studies, history, area studies, migration studies, Indigenous studies, and more, this collection of first-person accounts provide a unique and personal view of events in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand from the arrival of the first settlers through to Australian Federation at the close of the nineteenth century. Through letters and diaries, narratives, and other primary source materials, we are able to hear the voices of the time and explore the experiences of women and men, settlers and Indigenous peoples, convicts, explorers, soldiers, and officials . Thousands of unique documents have been drawn from the archives of the State Library of Victoria; State Library of New South Wales; State Library of Queensland; Flinders University; University of Melbourne; and University of Waikato.

A key feature of this resource is the extensive indexing of material which allows the sources to be browsed and cross-searched in a variety of ways, including by date, person, and subject. Content can be explored by writer, region, audience, personal and historical event, environmental features including fauna and flora, and more. Supporting material such as images, maps, and photographs supplement the first-person narratives and provide additional context. The resource builds on the legacy of the James Cook: The Voyages exhibition in providing first-hand accounts of those who settled in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific following Cook’s exploration in the region.

Related e-resources which can be accessed in the Reading Rooms and by our Reference Enquiry Team to support virtual enquiries during this time include:

Age of Exploration

Colonial and Missionary Records *

* Reader Pass holders can access this resource remotely via our Remote Resources service


Lucy Rowland, Curator of Oceania Published Collections