Archive Research: Recovering Minoritised Identities

Dr Sarah Whitfield: archival research, recovering minoritised histories - this text is on a pink background, on the left hand side there is a greeny bluey tinted imaged of library bookshelves behind some kind of wire fence.
Session given on 25th November 2020

This is a session about finding stories in the archive which are inclusive and open up the presence of people who have been thought to be not part of the official story. It is for the Doctoral College here at the University of Wolverhampton, and partly for them and anyone else interested in this topic I’ve put together some notes and starting points. There’s also a huge overview of digitised archives you might consult and look at.

The key thing to remember before we get too far into this is to note that the language we use to discuss these topics matters. If we talk about diversity rather than minoritised histories, we are drawing on a specifically white word:

Diversity is a white word, or as Ghassan Hage describes, a ‘white concept’. It seeks to make sense, through the white lens, of difference by creating, curating and demanding palatable definitions of ‘diversity’ but only in relation to what this means in terms of whiteness.

Tania Cañas –  Diversity is a White Word

Throughout we will be talking about minoritised histories.

Notes from the session

During this session we will consider how we can use “the archive” to do the work of finding wider histories than the official ones: perhaps to challenge the official story or even to establish some kind of record in the first place. Obviously, there isn’t a single archive, and there are many different kinds of archival holdings and collections.

Quick Question:

  • What do you know about the relevant archives in your field?
  • Are any of them digitally accessible?
  • What would you like to find in those archives? What do you think is realistically there, compared to what your dream objects in the archive would be?

An example of the situation you might find yourselves in.

Imagine we are searching for a program for a musical play called Words and Music (1934). This is already an issue as ‘words and music by’ will bring up hundreds of duff results, that aren’t what you actually need. All these scenarios below are real examples of different (unnamed for anonymity) archives:

  1. One archive has an externally searchable catalogue which leads to specific records, so we put the request into a search box, and every holding related to that comes up. We know before we go to the library that we will be able to see the archive item. (This mostly turns out ok).
  2. One archive has a finding aid to communicate what’s in it (e.g. ‘theatre programs from 1930-1934’ – no further break down, but we call that box up to view, and hope it’s got the right program in it) (This is slightly more risky)
  3. One archive has no catalogue or finding aid: you have to ask the archivist to look for you. You have to go to the archive, put a paper slip request in for ‘Words and Music’, 1934, and hope something is found in the archive holdings. (About as successful as you’d think).
  4. You give up trying to find the program and buy it on Ebay (an option: but not consistently!)

But, in option 1 – If you wanted to search what say, the British Library has related to this actually quite well known Noël Coward play: a catalogue search would only tell you a certain amount. The skill comes in from the extra keywords you’re using to narrow down that research. And those keywords are going to narrow and focus your results: this is crucial when it comes to finding ‘missing’ or less known histories.

Not all the material is catalogued – and this requires talking to staff and to your colleagues about where to look. But it also requires the question: why are you looking? What kinds of information would you like to find?

You might have to start by finding out what information actually does exist in the first place.

Why are you working with archives?

What do you hope to achieve from your archival work:

  • Find entirely new information
  • Support or deepen your understanding of existing ideas
  • Reveal a fuller picture of an event that is well known
  • Challenge existing pre-conceptions

Why do I work in the archives?

The answer might be because I’m a hopeless romantic with somewhat obsessive tendencies? Or that I’m too intrigued by the potential of finding something missing? If I actually got to pick my job title and I could be less serious than Sarah Whitfield, Senior Lecturer, I’d be, Sarah Whitfield, consulting archival detective.

I’ve been dealing with archives for about 13 years – initially I was fascinated by the gaps and what was missing. About this time – theatre and performance studies was undergoing a key shift and consideration of what the difference between the archive and the repertoire were – and how we could think about the paper trails of performance.

My earliest work with the archives was in delving into the scripts of Kurt Weill’s American musicals. This was partly because I could not make sense of the musical scores – I can’t sight read music. I realised fairly quickly I was going to need to develop new skills so became relatively proficient at reading enough German to know if I needed to translate something!

This experience was also at the earlier part of discussions about digitisation of paper records, about whether pdfs would last, about who and how was allowed to access archives. At the risk of sounding 140 years old, my PhD research on Weill’s musicals ran the period before the British Library bought digitised access to the New York Times (or before that was online) so the only way in was poorly indexed – if at all – microfilm.

All the fun of microfilm – but with a computer to view it and sometimes to email you relevant pages – the technology!

In some of the archives I used, I definitely wasn’t allowed to use photographs, and in some cases, I wasn’t allowed to take my laptop in! You could choose to spend all the money you had on printing three pages, or writing as fast as you could. So I still have books filled with diligently copied paper notes of scripts, taken with pencil. Then a couple of years later, I was allowed to take my laptop in, so I took 10,000 words of notes in a few days in New York, and now, long long after my PhD was delivered, you’re allowed to take photos. I bear only the slightest grudge.

Now – we have moved beyond this particular trauma: instead, we face a kind of information overload – that now we have digitised and online, material which is ‘born digital’ (that is to say has never existed in a physical manifestation), material which has been digitised and the original has decayed… where do we start with what we want to find? How do we look for what we don’t know what to look for?

Since then I have worked on proposing inclusive methodologies: for understanding the art world as a collaborative practice (via Janet Wolff and Howard Becker) that understands art not only as the product of genius but as the complicated relationships between different practitioners.

Gaps in the archive

Understand the difference between the archive and the catalogue: not everything you want will necessary be catalogued (or digitally catalogued). That doesn’t mean it’s not there – but it means that your access to it is going to be more challenging.

The archive is necessarily constructed – someone has decided what to keep or get rid of. So it’s an artificial constructed object which may be being used to tell a story or might just be accidentally constructed through what survived, and what didn’t.

Gatekeepers to the archive

 You Part of the problem is in knowing what you’re looking for, as it’s extremely unlikely that you will be able to look at the boxes yourself and just see what’s there. How can you develop domain knowledge in understanding what might be there, or what kinds of archival material might exist.

Archivists Be polite and show respect and gratitude to the work and knowledge of the archivist. They are the expert in what they have, in how to use what they have, and the systems that may or may not be there to help you find the things they have.

Finding the archive in the first place

Material may not be catalogued or come up in searches – you may have to talk to people about the kinds of things you want to find, and where to look next.

What do you when you can’t Google it?

So for all the reasons we’ve talked about – googling is not going to bring you the results you might want. Partly because you don’t always know what you’re searching for, partly Google is only going to index publicly available catalogues.

 Consider accessing a specialist community who are likely to have good domain knowledge (e.g. fan community, Facebook group, collectors, twitter thread).

Develop a careful level of belligerence…. In time you will learn what’s probably there in your field, what kind of things might exist or might just be impossible to find. In researching Black practitioners and in women musicians from the 1900s I’m pretty good at looking a name and predicting how easy it will be to find it – one Black woman performer who was active in the 1920s had the same name as a popular form of cigarettes, and there is currently no way of separating out the overwhelming content that returns. If someone has a name like Jane Smith, it’s going to be very difficult to find them, compared to someone like Ethel Waters.

You might need to approach your target from multiple angles, and think outside of the ‘box’ of your discipline. For example one of the most successful ways of finding people in Inconvenient Black History has been searching them in genealogy records. But this is obviously limited by stage names.

 Accept you will not find everything that should exist (but doesn’t)

In that spirit – I’ve put together a starting point of online archives and resources that you can work with. It covers a variety of fields and information, it is not a complete list – and I’ll edit it with any suggestions that come to me!

Key Links:

Archives Hub

British Newspaper Archive

Newspaper material held at your university library.

UK Archives

British Library Digitised Collections

National Archive’s Digitised Collections

National Library of Scotland’s Digitised Collections

National Library of Wales Digital Archives

Irish Studies: digital collections and archives

Digitised Archives

Explore literary treasures from the Romantic and Victorian periods

Digitised Film and Television Scripts from UCLA

Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music ‘a leading resource for the study of medieval manuscripts’

Digital Comic Museum – ‘golden age’ comics, out of copyright, free to download.

Ephemera Online

Digitised Newspapers – overview of resources (some free, some paid)

Institute of Historical Research: collated list of online resources, many freely available

Digitised Museum Holdings

Museum of London Collections

Wellcome Collection Digital Catalogue (history of medicine and technology, a great deal of social history)

Blended archives – this archive has digitised historical information in order to include ‘born digital’ current legal frameworks alongside older ones.

Democratised knowledge

Project Gutenberg

Open Culture (free online education, images, films and books)

Massive list of freely accessible (or, at a pinch, cheaply available) films collated by Mat Dalgleish.

Missing information and restoring lost histories

Part of the work digitised knowledge can do is allow us to bring ‘lost knowledge’ to the fore. Sometimes this has been collated into specialist archives which frame information and shape the encounter.

LGBTQ+ archives

LGBTQ National History Centre (US based)

Digital Transgender Archive Trans History: Linked

Overview of grassroots periodicals which features many LGBTQ collections by Margaret Galvan

How to look for sexual identity history by the National Archives

Bishopsgate LGBTQ archives

British Library’s LGBTQ histories

Brown University’s overview of LGBTQ archives

LGBTQ Studies Web Archive

Womxn’s Histories

The Women’s Library (LSE)

Digital Women’s Archive North

Women and Gender Studies Archive/Library list

Indigenous Peoples Histories and Archives (University of British Columbia)

Pernilla Severson (2018) The Politics of Women’s Digital Archives and Its Significance for the History of Journalism, Digital Journalism, 6:9, 1222-1238, DOI: 10.1080/21670811.2018.1513336

Indigenous Histories

The Sustainable Heritage Network (SHN) is an answer to the pressing need for comprehensive workshops, online tutorials, and web resources dedicated to the lifecycle of digital stewardship. The SHN is a collaborative project that complements the work of Indigenous peoples globally to preserve, share, and manage cultural heritage and knowledge.

Native Land Maps

Indigenous Digital Archive 

Indigenous Archives Collection

Indigenous heritage (Canada)

Mukurtu: an Indigenous Archive Tool

Kirsten Thorpe (2005) Indigenous Knowledge and Archives, Australian
Academic & Research Libraries, 36:2, 179-184, DOI: 10.1080/00048623.2005.10721258

Black Histories and histories of Race and Racism

Overview from the excellent Blackpast website

Black Central Europe

‘There are over 1 million Black people in Central Europe today. Most Europeans still don’t know of the long history of the Black Diaspora in their countries. As a result, there is a general assumption that Black people are a relatively new presence on the continent and thus are historical and national outsiders. Through historical investigation, Black Central Europe challenges these assumptions.’

African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection

African-American Band Music & Recordings, 1883 to 1923

Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia: Using objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice. This collection contains many images of racist images and objects, framed with extensive commentary and discussion by founder and curator Dr David Pilgrim.

US archives

250 US Digital Libraries and Archives

Library of Congress (LoC) digitised archive collections

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library


@jaxwendy, request for digital archive links

Banner, J. (2020) ‘The imagined ecologies of Mary Robinson: or how to see what isn’t really there’. Studies in theatre and performance. [Online] 1–12. (See Wolverhampton library catalogue for student access)

Becker, H. S. (2008) Art worlds – 25th Anniversary Edition, Berkeley, Calif., University of California Press.

Canas, T. (2017) Diversity is a white word, ArtsHub Australia, [online] Available from: (Accessed 25 November 2020).

Taylor, D. (2003) The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, Duke University Press

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