We Are Our History

A monatge of three photographs showing different groups of people inspecting the collections at the Bodleian Libraries

Project summary

We Are Our History (WAOH) is a Bodleian Libraries project that helps the Libraries take a close look at its collections, its work with audiences and its staffing through the lens of race and the legacies of the British Empire. It supports the Bodleian's commitment to actively foster inclusion and diversity in everything it does.

We Are Our History is a Mellon Foundation-funded project that runs until June 2024.

The project's title takes inspiration from a quote by the American writer James Baldwin: "History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history."

The project won the Vice-Chancellor's Commitment to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Award in 2024

Project dates

2022–2024

Project aims

The project's aim is to make recommendations for improvement across eight work areas in three themes through conducting research in each area and piloting activities. 

Collections

  • Bodleian and Empire: Digs into how the Bodleian Libraries got its global collections, much of which came during the Empire days, bringing hidden stories to light.
  • Collection Description: Reviews language used in the cataloguing and classification of archives/collections and updates historically insensitive terms, making how things are described more inclusive.
  • Collection Development: Identifies gaps in the collections and works to make our collections more diverse.
  • Digitisation: Reviews our digital content and puts more content from underrepresented groups online.

Audiences

  • Public Engagement: Gets input from diverse communities on content for exhibitions and events, amplifying unheard voices.
  • Communications: Improves messaging – and encourages conversation – about the Bodleian's work in this area.

Staffing

  • Organisational culture: Supports staff on issues around equality, diversity and racial equity through training and toolkits.
  • Staffing: Reviews recruitment and retention data to identify and address any inequities, taking positive steps to help build a more diverse staff.

Expected outcomes

Each area will investigate, try new approaches, and make suggestions to advance racial equality across the Bodleian Libraries.

While wide-ranging, this project focuses on building a sustainable base for lasting change by integrating recommendations into future policies, rather than expecting immediate transformation.

Project lead and governance

The principal investigator of the project is Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, Bodleian Libraries and Head of Gardens, Libraries, & Museums at the University of Oxford.

The project is governed by an advisory board made up of academics and experts in equality, diversity and inclusion from across Oxford and beyond.

The project is delivered by a team of colleagues from across the Bodleian Libraries.

Richard Ovenden said about this project:

In We Are Our History and its related work areas, we have an extraordinary opportunity to put inclusion and diversity at the heart of the Bodleian Libraries and to foster these principles into all aspects of our work.

We are motivated by the chance to create meaningful, sustainable changes that will over time build inclusive research streams and make our institutions more reflective of the diversity of human experience.

Amplifying historically lesser-heard voices, breaking down barriers and integrating recommendations into ongoing policies, will allow us to build meaningful, sustainable change into the fabric of our services.

By re-examining our past and present with nuance, we can build a more inclusive future that better represents all of our stories and histories within our collections, staff and audiences.

Past display

A Black man wearing a colourful costume made from strips of material dances in front of the entrance of the Bodleian Old Library

Mischief in the Archives

Saturday 27 January – Sunday 12 May 2024
Curated by Peter Brathwaite FRSA, opera singer, writer, broadcaster, and visual artist

This display explored Peter Brathwaite's personal journey to uncover family history, challenge preconceived narratives, and restore dignity to those the archives have long muted.

Musician and artist Peter Brathwaite traced his roots back to the British-owned Codrington plantations in Barbados. During this research, he discovered the stories of three ancestors whose lives intersected amid the grim reality of slavery in 18th-century Barbados.

Using historical archives and personal objects, this display explored the process of this research. And reads the acts recorded as "mischievous" in historic records against the grain to reveal the diverse ways in which enslaved individuals resisted slavery to assert their humanity and personhood. Through this contemporary creative act, Peter Brathwaite proposes a so-called "counter-archive”.

Contact

For questions about the project or to get involved please email: helen.worrell@bodleian.ox.ac.uk

Acknowledgements

The We Are Our History project is made possible by the Mellon Foundation

A black logo for Mellon Foundation
We Are Our History: Towards Racial Equity