Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

Introduction

Find out about social sciences at the British Library including collections, events and research. This blog includes contributions from curators and guest posts by academics, students and practitioners. Read more

Social Sciences at the British Library

Over the past few years this blog has brought together various events, activities and archives at the British Library that have relevance to social scientists.

We have covered activities like our Propaganda exhibition in 2013 and our collaborative work on women’s liberation in the UK, incoming archives such as those deposited by Joan Bakewell and John Pilger, and recently our partnerships with PhD students on topics such as housing activism, British comics and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Our yearly events calendar always includes an open day for social science PhD students, as well as the Equality Lecture on which we partner with the British Sociological Association.

But as well as the activities that receive publicity through this blog, there is a great deal of work under the surface at the British Library which has connections to social science research and presents opportunities for work with social scientists at all stages of their career.

On a day to day basis at the British Library, curators are managing and developing the content that they care for. They assess current research needs and consult with researchers to plan for the future, making connections across content types to facilitate the research process. They bring in new content via deposits and acquisitions, seeking to ensure the Library's collections represent British culture and society. Our international language and area specialists curate our overseas content, with rich collections to enable comparative, socio-historical and economic research.

It is not just printed content such as books, newspapers (national and international) and official publications that our curators manage. The collections here include diverse formats such as digital maps, websites, fanzines, oral history interviews, broadcast news (radio and television), spoken word recordings, world music recordings, personal and public archives, and political ephemera.

We have found through speaking to social scientists that they are often surprised at the range of content at the British Library that could support their research, or take it in new directions. There are so many opportunities here to contextualise research, to analyse different formats, to work with international material and indeed, to find unused or rarely-seen items which bring originality to research.

This short video should give you a taste for social sciences at the British Library. Please feel free to share and contact research.development@bl.uk if you would like information about collaborating with the British Library on social science research.

You can also view this video on YouTube here.

08 March 2021

"Just Leave Me Alone": responses to Unfinished Business

A guest post on International Women's Day by Rebecca Riddleston and Georgia Olive

In December 2020 Rebecca Riddleston and Georgia Olive, Customer Service Apprentices in the British Library’s Learning team, visited the exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s RightsGrounded in their own personal experiences as young women, here they reflect on their responses to the exhibition and some of the objects that particularly resonated with them.

During their apprenticeship, Rebecca and Georgia learnt more about the audiences we work with in the Learning team, gained new experiences, knowledge, and skills such as web editing, and provided invaluable support for a range of events and projects for school learners, teachers, families and young people, such as our National Library of Miniature Books.

 

Please note that this post contains some discussion of abortion and sexual violence.

Rebecca writes…

I felt a particular affinity with Gloria Steinem’s statement ‘The truth will set you free but first it will piss you off’ whilst walking through the Unfinished Business exhibition. A sentiment that I not only felt in the exhibition space, but one that I have felt many times whilst navigating through life as a young woman.

This exhibition evokes pride, solidarity and anger, but the main emotion that hit me was exhaustion. As we got further and further in, the main phrase that came to mind was ‘just leave me alone’. It may not be a particularly profound sentiment, but many of the exhibition objects reminded me of just how many times I've been driven to exhaustion just by simply having to exist as a girl and woman. Why does that person care what I’m wearing? Why won’t that man leave me be? Why is it that seemingly every choice I make, is one that’s inherently based in my gender?

A few items particularly stood out to me as being exemplary of my feminine fatigue, namely the No More Page 3 t-shirt and the Consent Zine.

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No More Page Three campaign t-shirt, worn by Dr Caroline Lucas MP at a debate on media sexism in 2013. © Parliamentary Recording Unit

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Caro Berry of Pretty in Punk, ‘Towards a Pro-Consent Revolution’. London, 2013. © Caro Berry

I remember my first time seeing a Page 3 spread was when I was barely pubescent and I found some copies of The Sun in my friend’s bathroom. It was one of those things that I knew existed but had been so normalised that I hadn’t really processed how it affected me and the way I perceived myself. As puberty started I knew that I was already being seen as a sexual object, but at that point I had absolutely no idea what the male gaze was.

If only I’d been to an exhibition like this at that age, I would’ve spotted the Laura Mulvey quote nestled in the corner that reads, ‘in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female’. Maybe then I would’ve been able to look at the women on Page 3 (who couldn’t look back at me) and not project my own internalised male gaze through them and back onto myself, but instead thought: why the hell am I looking at softporn whilst on the loo?

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Laura Mulvey quotation as it appears in the book that accompanies the exhibition, edited by Polly Russell and Margaretta Jolly.

 

Georgia writes…

Initially I found myself frustrated and very much overwhelmed, looking up and around at all of the injustices on display in the Unfinished Business exhibition. Questions spun around in my head, many reoccurring ones such as ‘why?’ and ‘wait, what?’. In the section on ‘Autonomy’, I spotted a question that I thought at first glance seemed easily answered. ‘Do you have control over your body?’ was written on a panel at the beginning of the exhibition.

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Panel introducing the sub-section on 'Autonomy' in the 'Body' section of the exhibition.

I stood and thought about this for a moment, as if someone was interrogating me directly. Yes, I have control over my body. I decide when I am hungry, so I eat. I can wave my hand, and I can close my eyes. It is such a simple question, yet it runs deep enough to send me spiralling. The answer became abundantly clear to me as I explored the exhibition in more detail.

Being in this environment brought up a lot of personal experiences for me. It made me feel an overwhelming resentment toward the men who feel it is ok to comment on a woman’s body, or even touch it, unprompted. Instances like this made me very aware of the lack of control I have over my own body, from the way it is perceived to the way it is treated. The one sure answer I had to this question was that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way.

In the exhibition I was inspired to read about the work a wonderful charity called BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) has done to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland. The abortion debate is a topic that never fails to get me worked up. It is an opinion that I’ve never been able to comprehend properly, that a woman should not get a say in whether or not she should grow a human inside her stomach, and give birth to it.

This constriction of women’s rights to their own anatomy of course extends further into their private lives. I was utterly perplexed to find out that in the UK marital rape was not even an established crime until 1991, just 30 years ago. It is unfathomable to me, that many of the people I work with, and a lot of my family, grew up in a society where a man could rape his own wife and face no consequences. To me, that sounds medieval.

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Banner on loan from Southall Black Sisters: ‘Women march against male violence’, designed by Shakila Taranum Maan, 1986 

While this information made me feel shocked and completely disgusted, it oddly gave me a sense of optimism for the strides that could be made in my own lifetime. Surrounded by the work of activists, I could see how change happens. No, I do not have complete control over my own body. But I am working on it, and I will get there.

_____________

Find out more about apprenticeships at the British Library

 

Our public spaces are closed for the moment. In the meantime, you can visit our website Women’s Rights which highlights the powerful and vital stories of feminist activism and agitation in the UK. The website invites visitors to explore the complex history of women’s rights through the voices of our contributors, and through the lens of the rich collections – from photographs, printed material, audio recordings and videos – held at the British Library.  You can also find themed podcasts, recordings of events related to the exhibition, and recordings of events held by partner libraries in the Living Knowledge Network.  

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A selection of placards displayed in the Unfinished Business exhibition.

 

 

01 March 2021

History in the Making: 40 years on from the Black People’s Day of Action

This post highlights a small selection of items in the Library’s collections of interest to anyone wanting to know more about the educators and activists behind the Black People’s Day of Action on 2nd March 1981.

On that day, around 20,000 people from across the UK marched from New Cross to Hyde Park, crossing Blackfriars bridge and bringing parts of central London to a standstill on a weekday.  The demonstration took place six weeks after the devasting New Cross fire (also referred to as the Deptford Fire) that claimed the lives of 13 young black people at a house party celebrating Yvonne Ruddock’s 16th birthday and the 18th birthday of her friend Angela Jackson.  In the face of official indifference, the march channelled the anger and grief of a community into a political action that marked a turning point for black people in Britain.

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Poster held by the George Padmore Institute featured on the Library’s Windrush Stories website. The poster was not used once the death toll of 13 became clear. Another young person who experienced the trauma of the fire died two years later.

 

There are numerous accounts of the New Cross Fire and of the Black People’s Day of Action online, including Nadine White’s extended article, which is accompanied by a short film.  The film gives voice to a survivor of the fire and three women who joined in organising the Day of Action. Commemoration leaves further traces online such as this event marking 30 years on the Black History Studies website.  This year, UCL is marking the 40th anniversary with an event, podcast, and online exhibition of photographs. 

Online events have given a wider reach to conversations and memorialisation, particularly where they have been recorded and made available for later listening.  At a recent event made available through Westminster University’s ‘Black History Year’ site, Leila Hassan Howe, who was a member of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, recalled the context to the Day of Action and spoke about her personal journey to activism.

What can resources in the Library add to the accounts available by searching online? 

For anyone wanting to go further into this history, it’s no surprise that the Library holds books written by people involved in organising the Black People's Day of Action. The Library also holds some of the newsletters and journals produced at the time. A small number of oral history recordings held by the Library and some recordings of events are available online and can be accessed while the Library is still closed.

To pick out just two accounts in books, in Black British History: new perspectives, edited by Hakim Adi and published by Zed Press, Carol Pierre describes how the fire, along with the movement of solidarity afterwards left “an indelible imprint on a community”. 

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 Black British History: New Perspectives from Roman times to the present day. ELD.DS.396110

A detailed account is also given in Robin Bunce and Paul Field’s Renegade: the life and times of Darcus Howe.  Bunce and Field describe the way Darcus Howe spoke at meetings across the north of England, accompanied by Gus John who was based in Manchester at that time.  Gus John has held professorial positions including Associate Professor of Education at the UCL Institute of Education in London.  In December 2016, Professor Gus John delivered the British Library Lecture ‘Changing Britannia through the Arts and Activism’ to mark 50 Years since the founding of New Beacon Books. This post describes the background to the event.

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Renegade: the life and times of Darcus Howe.  ELD.DS.110104 and YC.2018.a.2504

Nadine White’s article mentioned above shows how the organisation of the march marked a first step into political action for some of those involved.  But many of the core group within the New Cross Massacre Action Committee had worked together as part of the Alliance linking the Race Today collective with the Black Parents Movement, Black Youth Movement and Bradford Black Collective. 

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An issue of Race Today featuring the Black Parents Movement. P.523/84

The Action Committee emerged from a meeting on 25 January 1981 in Lewisham.  Led by John La Rose and Darcus Howe, it also included Leila Hassan and other members of the Race Today collective.  Linton Kwesi Johnson and Farrukh Dhondy were part of the collective. Each of them feature extensively in the Library’s collections.  As a group their actions were informed by an exchange of ideas and experience.  They were engaged in teaching (mainly through supplementary schools), discussion groups, research, reading and publishing. The work of Trinidadian intellectual CLR James was an important influence.

The British Library holds much of this publishing output and also fosters research on these collections, particularly those that are harder to find elsewhere.  In 2019 Emma Abotsi worked in the Library as British Sociological Association Fellow exploring independent community publications relating to education. This blog post describes one aspect of the work she did.  

Currently, UCL doctoral student Naomi Oppenheim is working with the Library on a collaborative doctoral partnership focused on Caribbean diaspora publishing and activism. Naomi is leading on a project supported by the Eccles Centre to collect oral histories through conversations about Caribbean food shedding light on wider aspects of life, history and politics. She has recently written about the ‘Caribbean Foodways at the British Library’ project.

Selected publications and recordings by John La Rose, Darcus Howe, Leila Hassan Howe and Linton Kwesi Johnson

 John La Rose

John La Rose (1927-2006), who founded New Beacon books (pictured in this Wasafiri article ) with Sarah White in 1966, was an educator, mentor and friend to the members of the organising committee.  As a poet, writer, activist and publisher, John La Rose was at the heart of key movements advancing the cause of black people in Britain, in education, the arts and culture, for four decades.  His works in the Library range from poetry, to interviews and newsletters.

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The New Cross Massacre Story: interviews with John La Rose YK.2013.a.19831.  This book is still available from the George Padmore Institute, along with The Black Peoples Day of Action 02.03.1981 (Café Press, 2020)  by Vron Ware which contains contains black and white photographs taken by Vron Ware on the day.

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New Beacon Reviews, first collection 1968-,  P.901/409.

The Library holds a recording (C1172/14 and C1172/15) of John La Rose interviewed by Ron Ramdin (author of The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, 1987, reissued by Verso in 2017).  He can also be heard giving the welcome address, introductions and thanks on recordings from the International Book Fairs of Black Radical and Third World Books.  These were ground-breaking events that John La Rose organised jointly with Jessica Huntley of Bogle L’Ouverture Publications between 1982 and 1995.  (The Library also holds an oral history interview with Jessica Huntley and Eric Huntley, who jointly founded Bogle L’Ouverture publishing.)

On 2 March 2021, the George Padmore Institute launched its new website with a film about the Institute’s New Cross Massacre Action Committee archive collection

The film Dream to Change the World: A Tribute to John La Rose, directed by Horace Ové can be viewed online.

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Dream to change the world: the life and legacy of John La Rose.  YK.2019.b.783 

Darcus Howe

Born in Trinidad, Darcus Howe was a broadcaster, writer and racial justice campaigner. He edited Race Today and was chairman of the Notting Hill Carnival.  Steve McQueen’s film Mangrove, part of the Small Axe series available on BBC iPlayer, dramatises Howe’s experiences as one of the 'Mangrove Nine', charged with “inciting a riot” following a demonstration in defence of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill which had been targeted by police raids.

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Darcus Howe: a political biography. Held by the Library at ELD.DS.79837 and YC.2014.a.8855. Bloomsbury have made this book available free online.

Many of Darcus Howe’s publications are held by the Library along with sound recordings from conferences and events. Although the Library tries to collect UK and Irish publications as fully as possible under Legal Deposit, some books are missed, as are many small-circulation magazines and newsletters.  In writing this post, I have come across a small number of titles from the prolific output of people around Race Today, the Institute for Race Relations and the George Padmore Institute that the Library still needs to add to its collections.

 

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From Bobby to Babylon was originally published in 1988, but is not held by the Library. It has recently been reissued and will be added to the collections when we return from lockdown.

Outside the Library, on British Library Sounds, you can listen to Darcus Howe discussing the work of CLR James with Farrukh Dhondy, recorded in 1992.

 

Leila Hassan Howe

Leila Hassan Howe can be found in the British Library catalogue under the name Leila Hassan. Her writing for Race Today is featured in the magazine and in an anthology published in 2019 by Pluto Press, and a booklet authored by Farrukh Dhondy to which she and British Black Panther member Barbara Beese contributed.  The Library also holds poetry recordings introduced by Leila Hassan on behalf of Creation for Liberation Society and the Poetry Society. Recorded in London in 1985, they feature the poetry of Amryl Johnson, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. Sadly, these fascinating recordings are only available in the Library.

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Here to stay, here to fight: a Race Today anthology. ELD.DS.456429 and X.529/70862

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The Black explosion in British schools, by Farrukh Dhondy with Leila Hassan and Barbara Beese. X.529/70862  63 pages.

 

Linton Kwesi Johnson

Linton Kwesi Johnson was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize in 2020 in recognition of his work.  In making the award, the judges said:

 ‘Linton Kwesi Johnson is a poet, reggae icon, academic and campaigner, whose impact on the cultural landscape over the last half century has been colossal and multi-generational. His political ferocity and his tireless scrutiny of history are truly Pinteresque, as is the humour with which he pursues them.’

The presentation event, including an introduction by Paul Gilroy, was hosted by the British Library and can be viewed on the British Library player

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Voices of the Living and the Dead  YD.2009.a.903

In 1974 Race Today / Towards Racial Justice published Linton Kwesi Johnson’s first poetry collection, Voices of the Living and the Dead.  Between then and now his poetry has been published in print and recorded, performed over dub-reggae.  These recordings (also held by the Library) were mostly in collaboration with producer and artist Dennis Bovell.

This exceptionally rich blog post by Sarah O'Reilly includes selections from her oral history interview with Linton Kwesi Johnson, held by the Library. 

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Dread poetry & freedom. ELD.DS.333758

 

I have flagged up just a few of the many publications held by the Library that shed light on the events of 1981, but for now the Library is closed and many of these books cannot be accessed. A number of independent bookshops feature an impressive range of titles available to buy or to access through public libraries.

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Screengrab showing small selection of the non-fiction books available from New Beacon books.

The Londonist published a list of black owned bookshops in London, some of which sell online, and across the country members of the Alliance of Radical Booksellers may also stock these items.  Presses such as Pluto and Verso sell online. 

 

Open access books : Knowledge Unlatched

I noted above the biography of Darcus Howe made freely available by Bloomsbury. The Library is committed to open access publishing and is one of 630 libraries working with Knowledge Unlatched to make books freely available online to read and download. The books that are 'unlatched' cover a very wide range of disciplines and languages.  The Knowledge Unlatched collection features some titles that are relevant to anyone interested in Britain’s black history, for example:

Heidi Safia Mirza: Young, Female and Black. (Routledge, 1992)

Colin Chambers: Black and Asian Theatre In Britain. (Routledge, 2020)

Gerald Horne: Paul Robeson: the artist as revolutionary. (Pluto, 2016). 

Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg: Toussaint L’Ouverture: A Black Jacobin in the age of revolutions (Pluto Press, 2017)

Britain, France and the decolonization of Empire – future imperfect? (UCL, 2017)

The Black People's Day of Action marked a turning point in the challenge to racism in Britain. For those of us who remember these events, the sources of information above reveal far more than was reported by a hostile press. For those born later who approach these events as history, these sources may be a starting point to find out more and draw parallels with more recent experiences.

16 December 2020

Digitised Spare Rib resource

As many of you know, back in 2015 the British Library, working closely with partners at Jisc’s Journal Archives platform and with copyright holders, digitised and made freely available the entire run of Spare Rib magazines. We are delighted that this resource, documenting a vibrant and important period of women’s activism in the UK, has been so well used by researchers and those interested in the Women’s Liberation Movement.

It is therefore with considerable regret that we are confirming that the resource, as a result of the UK leaving the European Union, will no longer be available following the end of the transition period. The decision to close down the Spare Rib resource once the UK leaves the EU was made on the basis of the copyright status of the digitised magazine, which relies heavily on the EU orphan works directive. For a more detailed account of the reasons behind the suspension please see the British Library’s blog from February 2019.

For researchers working on Spare Rib, the full run of the hardcopy magazine remains available via the British Library’s Reading Rooms in London and at Boston Spa. Furthermore, the curated Spare Rib website, with contextual essays and digital images of selected magazine content, will remain available. This has recently been updated to include an interactive research map which plots feminist activity in the UK between 1972 – 1993 based on analysis of Spare Rib letters and listings. Please see this recent blog post for more information about the map and the Business of Women’s Words research project which created it with the British Library.

While we recognise that the suspension of the digitised Spare Rib resource is a loss, we hope these other resources go some way to compensate. We will continue to liaise with the relevant Government departments to seek ways that the regulations could be updated to enable scholarship and research through an Orphan Works exception, so that this resource and others like it, can be made available in the future.