The Black Digital Archiving project is made possible with support from
The National Lottery Community Fund
and the many institutions and community archives who contributed to our research.
Special thanks to
for guiding this research and engagement; and
for writing this expression of our work.
This work was conceived against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, at a time when local archives were closed and the lack of available digital archival material was made more apparent.
During this time the conversation around Black history moved to the forefront, as Black communities lost older members. In addition, the teaching of Black history in schools became contentious as the Black Lives Matter movement grew, challenging what many knew about British and Black British history.
The Black Digital Archiving project is an exploration into existing Black history collections in the UK with the aim of helping to identify regional gaps. Some regions may be geographical areas with small collections, limited types of digitised material available, or under-documented themes.
One of the goals of this work is to support the collective conversation about the history and culture of Black people — curating, shaping, and adding the flavour and texture of context that is often lost in translation in “ethnographic” displays by Western societies.
This project was developed with core principles of community technology in mind. It serves as a platform to showcase the potential for digital archives to be utilized for documentary storytelling and preservation, and it aims to provide a springboard for further investigation, infrastructure development, discussion and collaboration necessary to enact future change.
It should be clarified that The Black Digital Archiving Project is not, in itself, an archive, nor is its intention to build one.
Rather, it explores the landscape of Black digital archives, and aims to contribute to creating an open and accessible infrastructure to support local Black community groups in their archiving efforts. The focus of this initiative is therefore to investigate the processes and limitations of digital archiving for materials on Black history.
Its measure of success is to raise the awareness of what exists and what does not, thereby paving the way for a broader scope of investigation and action.
We aim to honour Black lives and contributions, and foster engagement among Black communities to continue advancing the curation of digital archives — taking ownership of our voices.
Some of our objectives include:
To assess current abilities, determining what the existing research is committed to preserving.
To use a collaborative approach, prioritising mutual learning, action, and listening to connect with a wide range of organisations and local collections archives.
To engage the community in the UK to continue building our digital access to Black culture and history.
To bring attention to suppressed voices across the UK diaspora, working within communities to provide wider cultural coverage and representation.
To provide a framework for non-expert archivists to make their work more widely accessible, and clearly organised for optimal user-friendliness.
Our target audience of this initiative includes:
Archiving institutions and community groups
Black archivists, artists, leaders and organisations interested in community participation
Black communities: hear and see stories they are reflected in
Partner organisations and sponsors
Digital archiving for collective Black memory
In line with the contemporary social context, there has been a recent upsurge in digital archiving accounts via social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. These temporal archives depend on the stability of external platforms, algorithms, and other factors. There is a much greater need for investment in the ownership and storage of digital archives beyond ‘Big Tech’ platforms.
For Black communities, digital archives can transform how we document our history, and make it accessible for Black communities to see, hear and experience our history from our perspectives and lived experiences.
Archiving Black British History
The Present Void
It is difficult to find and access material on Black history, and there are concerns around the bias of the storyteller or lens through which these stories are framed. This results in flattening or miscategorisation of narratives. At present, there is a lack of cohesion across communities to archive materials relating to Black history. Limited resources, funding constraints and other challenges have resulted in a haphazard approach in some instances, and there are other instances where materials have been submitted or collected but not catalogued or made accessible to the public.
While the work effort to counteract the existing gaps is tremendous and out of scope for any one singular initiative, it is critical to first gain an understanding of what exists, and where the gaps may be.
The Missing Past
The situation has recently been made even worse as the Covid-19 global pandemic has forced institutions to close their doors during lockdown, which has significantly reduced access to archives that have not adopted digitisation.
Alongside this, it has been evidenced that
minority groups are more likely to test positive for and die from Covid-19, as there is a disproportionate impact on those communities with insufficient access to—and more mistrust of—healthcare. In turn, this has had a tragic impact on Black history due to the loss of elders who hold information in their communities, resulting in limited intergenerational exchange.
The Obscure Future
In addition to the lack of digitisation that limits the current accessibility and engagement of younger generations with these histories, there is also a concern for future learning. The 2020 ruling from the UK government prohibits schools from using resources from organisations that have expressed a desire to end capitalism. The Department for Education (DfE) categorised anti-capitalism as an “extreme political stance” and equated it with opposition to freedom of speech and endorsement of illegal activity. It also states that schools should not promote “victim narratives that are harmful to British society”.
In effect, the DfE’s decision prevents teachers from using material from groups including Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, thus limiting anti-racism teaching and potentially impacting the teaching of radical past histories. This has been an area of contention among Black communities, with the Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators (Care) and Black Educators Alliance (BEA)
threatening legal action over these new guidelines. With these restrictions, there is a danger of censorship that will shape the education of future generations.
As a nation, the UK suffers from a willful forgetfulness with regard to the lived experiences of Black communities within its history. UK's Black history is shown primarily through a colonial lens of an image of “our” national identity being “under threat” from the violence and disorder of Black activism.
Among Black communities, the importance of archiving is not fully understood; and even where it is appreciated, there are serious constraints that prevent the archival process from being executed. The present, past and future considerations all demonstrate that we are at the tipping point whereby there is serious danger that important histories have been, are being, or will be, irrevocably lost.
We acknowledge that Black British history tells not only the story of Black Brits in the UK but also British history.
Black history is British history, is something that our nation absolutely needs to continue reckoning with, because it's often taught in a silo or it's taught as an addition to, and that isn't necessarily a school problem, but it's definitely emblematic of what happens in schools and that Black history is treated as something that is very separate.
Evaluating the existing landscape of Black history archives
The research process began by compiling a list of local authority archives across the UK that may hold Black history materials within their collections, and reaching out to them to evaluate the quantity and quality of what they currently possess.
It was decided that the best way to conduct this research was through the development of a questionnaire to be sent to archives across the UK, particularly in areas that were likely to have a larger number of Black communities. We also considered the various types of materials, and narrowed it down to a few common ones to mention in the questionnaire.
Developing the investigative questionnaire
A Google form was chosen, as this is an easy format to create and distribute. This format also allows for automated rendering of captured data into representative graphs and charts.
The questions were discussed by the team and refined for clarity and coverage of the issues we were seeking to address. In particular, the questions were created to focus on:
If the organisation has a black history collection, and what it covers
Who owns the materials (copyright) and how was it obtained
Have the materials been digitised; if not, what are the barriers
From these core investigative concerns, a questionnaire was produced with specific questions that captured the key data we needed, as well as some open-ended questions to allow for suggestions on how the project can assist in contributing to further archiving efforts.
Apart from its primary function of data capturing, the questionnaire also sought to foster mutual connections:
Inviting suggestions of resources:
“Are there any resources you recommend or have found useful?”
“Are there any areas where you really feel you could use more guidance or help?”
We encountered several challenges while conducting our research. These include:
Unavailability of archives
Closure of institutions that hold archives, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, which limited the amount of data we were able to capture. Some email addresses had auto-generated responses indicating closure, or that resources were limited and they would take a longer period to respond; however no response was given as at the end of the research period.
Incomplete data capture
During our research, we made several observations that should be considered in the utilization of the data from the responses recorded:
Some responses were incomplete, as users had not fully responded to all questions.
There were some that responded, but omitted to mention some of the materials that we know (from our experience) that they contain — this may be a result of limited effort towards responding to the format provided.
There are some institutions where resources are held, but they are uncatalogued and not yet accessible, and they may not know exactly what they have.
Labels, terminologies, and categories of content vary between institutions, and this may have negatively impacted the accuracy of responses received.
Reflections from the research
The challenges of digitisation
Digital delivery of archived cultural knowledge and resources increased exponentially worldwide during the Covid-19 global pandemic. Heritage organisations, galleries, museums, community organisations and other forms of archives were forced to
respond to the challenges of lockdown
by increasing their digital access, developing online engagement in the absence of physical access.
These efforts opened the door to further engagement with wider geographical audiences, particularly among younger generations. However, much of this activity emerged out of necessity as a short-term fix to an immediate problem. For these and other initiatives to continue, it is necessary to have dedicated resources working on building and sustaining these digital platforms of access.
From our research we noted community archives have made less progress in this space, making less extensive use of digital technologies, with relatively few examples of digital collections available for viewing on their websites.
Funding and resource
One of the most significant hurdles is the lack of funding and resources to focus on digitisation in general, as well as in relation to Black history collections. With local authorities being under-resourced and often reliant on minimal funding, resources, and volunteers; a sound business case backed by financial support will be needed to drive this initiative forward.
This is even more critical for organisations that place particular emphasis on Black histories, as historically there have been even greater limitations of resources and funding to minority communities.
Survey response“Some of our materials may relate to Black history but I don't know as we don't have the capacity to research them thoroughly”
The most pressing work for local authority archives regarding Black histories may not be the same as it is for the Black communities they aim to serve. We maintain that the needs of Black communities must be the priority when deciding what and how to preserve materials on Black history digitally or otherwise.
In addition, materials themselves are prioritised for digitisation but it is not clear what the impact of these priorities are on Black history materials.
Survey response"Digitisation priority has been given to visual rather than document collections"
Access and accessibility
In some cases, Black histories collections exist in physical locations, but are not accessible to a wide audience because of their content not being digitised, and the absence of cataloguing and metadata guidelines.
Our research found that some individual items are digitised but not as part of a collection, which might make finding these materials difficult, especially in cases where the materials have not been catalogued as Black history materials. This also presents an access issue. Other issues include copyright and usage restrictions, which are determined by things like a donor’s request or whether access is for private or public research.
The digitisation challenges detailed here are not unique to Black history materials but have a disproportionate impact on communities who are habitually underserved by archiving institutions.
Over 90% of survey respondents indicated that the collection materials on Black history were donated. An example case study is Bristol Black Archives Partnership, who ran a donation project with members of the Bristol’s Black community.
Survey response"The majority of contemporary papers came from various members of the community in Bristol, as part of a project to collect material around 10-15 years ago. They include collections of personal papers, collections relating to organisations and businesses, and photographs of events. The pre-1900 material comprises various papers relating to the transatlantic slave trade as Bristol was a major port at the time”
However there is a history of bias in the structure and design of the field of archiving, with “misremembering” and “misconstruing” of the past being a known cause of current political strife as it pertains to racism. Within this context, where the sector has been disadvantageous to Black communities in the past, there may be a sense of distrust, and reluctance to trust large institutions to preserve and accurately represent donated collections. There may be an opportunity for Black communities to serve as more trustworthy stewards to secure these types of collections.
Black Histories & Language
The reassessment of British colonial histories, which came out of the Black Lives Matter protests across the UK in 2020, has had an impact on institutional archives and libraries. This became clear to the research team during the initial phase of our work, as we were in dialogue with archivists in local authority archives in the UK.
So the archive sector, like all institutions responsible for memory in the west, so museums, libraries, are reflective of our society. They're colonial. They're reflective of the systemic racism in society.
It is clear that significant resources at the institutional level need to be allocated to undertake an assessment of the ways that Black histories are included in local authority archives.
Another challenge we noted throughout our research was the lack of a cohesive system of language for cataloguing and key words for Black history collections. There is some uncertainty about the language used to adequately capture Black history, and the responses received from the participants in the sector expressed that having clear guidelines would be useful.
Survey response“We also have photograph collections (initially kept by local libraries then transferred to us) containing images of black people, and when cataloguing these we enter phrases like 'Black people' or 'Black children' into the keyword field (I do this but can't speak for previous archivists here and I dare say there are images of black folk with no indication of this on the catalogue).”
Many of the donated materials in collections were donated via some method of community engagement and outreach. However these efforts are dependent on funding, resources and active trust-building within Black communities. The majority (over 90%) of survey respondents stated that community engagement and outreach is an area that they need more support in. However current models for community participation rely on volunteers and are not maintained long-term.
As we closed off this initiative investigating the archiving of Black history, we considered what the next stage of the project could look like. What are the valuable directions we can go, in order to best serve the Black communities whose history we are striving to preserve? It is evident that there is a gap between what the sector may want, and what the community may need.
As a result of our research, we connected with many archives that identified a need for assistance in several areas. One primary area highlighted was the design of a catalogue interface to display collections, as well as the terminology and language to support this.
We considered the various types of technologies and design principles that would enable community access to archives. There is an opportunity for us to support the development of design principles and guidelines as a framework for archives to adopt.
Alongside the podcast, which is intended for a more general audience, we would like to hold discussions aimed at people working within the archive sector such as archivists, researchers, historians and artists. In this conversation we would like to share their experiences, and create a space to address the needs of Black people working within archives, such as issues to do with cataloguing and access to funding. We have been in conversation with the Black Cultural Archives in order to approach this collaboration.
In addition to this future event already in planning stages, we considered next steps for the short term, which include:
Local community engagement:
Engagement of local communities in the UK Web Archive special collections. We would like to create a project similar to the Women's Archive in Wales that focuses on Black archives.
Persistence with existing list:
Reach out to other archives that haven’t yet responded. As there were limitations to the timeline for our research, as well as many archives that were impacted by the Covid-19 restrictions and unable to examine their archives to provide a response, it may be worthwhile to continue messaging this list.
Some areas emerged as possible avenues to pursue in terms of providing consultancy expertise in order to create a framework for larger, localised projects.
We posed some questions and concerns that were not able to be encompassed within our scope, but we see the value as sharing these as a starting point for future research and consultancy opportunities:
How can we overcome the biggest challenges to digitising content?
How are digital collections shared between institutions?
How do we democratise archiving?
How can the gap be bridged between public understanding of what is possible within digitising the archive, and the reality from working within the archive?
How do we make a financially sustainable model for a Black digital archive?
Our research focused on using a collaborative approach, prioritising mutual learning, action, investigation and listening to connect with a wide range of organisations and collections groups across the UK.
As a result, coming out of our investigative efforts, we were able to begin conversations with many organisations that expressed interest in taking this initiative further in some way.
The recommendations that the research team have discussed has been for the next phase of the project to consider how to support Black community groups with their archives.
We are proud of what we were able to accomplish via this initiative, as we made significant headway to understanding the crux of the issue. Knowing what is lacking is a crucial point of origin for any further action. Through the project we made valuable connections to Black icons, Black archives, and much more. We now have a much clearer idea of the value and potential of this work. We realise that there is still a large body of work to do, and we have only just scratched the surface.
Our work was largely exploratory and we were not sure exactly what our end result would be. There are several possible directions that the Black Digital Archiving Project could now develop further. One possibility is to focus on the needs of grassroot groups within Black communities. Within this, the intention could be to support groups to think about how they are archiving their own work, with regard to digital preservation, physical preservation and collecting of materials.
An important part of the research has been to understand that there are lots of Black history materials across the UK in places that we might not have expected them to be. While the focus of our methodology for the scope of this project was on organisations, a lot of important material exists within communities and families, not just institutions. Therefore the information we were able to gather would be limited at this initial phase, as a broad outreach would be needed to gather information from individuals.
As the archival sector is generally under-resourced, there is a wide range of ways that systems and access could be improved. There was a clear desire for us to partner in projects specific to certain geographical areas in order to offer a Black perspective in cataloguing. Many institutions expressed an interest in guidelines that could offer a lexicon for cataloguing Black histories, as it was apparent that many archivists did not feel confident in their ability to do this effectively.
However, the research team believes there is an opportunity here to connect these organisations with local Black communities who may be better suited and have the capacity and drive to provide this type of assistance required.