Decolonising Digital Childhoods: A pilot study towards enhanced participation and diversification in historical children's literature collections

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Faculty of Education


This project will pilot techniques for diversifying digital access to and content within archives of childhood through five main strands of activity. Firstly, we will address the problem of the colonised archive - whereby out of the millions of items held by major collections, those that accord with the canonical or dominant powers in society are selected for digital exhibition - by seeking to decolonise the hidden materials buried in the stacks, boxes, and basements of one of the largest collections of children's literature in the US, the Baldwin Library of Historical Children's Literature, and one of the largest in the UK, Homerton College, Cambridge. These collections are partially catalogued with incomplete MARC records that rely on decades-old hierarchies of 'significance'. Secondly, we will enhance metadata for these texts through direct research by the project team and also by asking users, including young adults, parents, teachers, and scholars, to supply anonymous commentary/reviews of children's books, so that more diverse perspectives can be accounted for. Thirdly, we will deploy full-text searches of identified trigger words that can be harmful to readers. Children's literature struggles with historical (and very often canonical) authors who have been offensive to historically enslaved, colonised, or denigrated people. The first item available in the Baldwin collection, "150 instructive stories", contains the word "negro" on page 101, for instance, calling the character "a simple and unlettered savage". It is a dereliction of our duty as gatekeepers to allow such casual racism to go unchecked. Similar problems are encountered continually with respect to the history of demeaning terms associated with disability and indigenous cultures, as well as the immigrants who have shaped modern America and Britain. Trigger warnings, with indications of harmful content for intersectional identities, will protect researchers, children, and general readers from offensiveness or hurt that can emerge in otherwise safe search queries or acts of browsing. Fourthly, we will curate a digital collection of 20 children's books designed explicitly to engage with decolonising historical children's literature. Some initial work towards such an edition has begun in the Baldwin Library's 2019 exhibition 'Racism, Representation, and Resistance in Children's Literature, 1800-2015'. We will build upon this exhibition to offer an expanded digital edition, jointly hosted by the Baldwin Library and Homerton College Library with materials from both collections, including scholarly introductions and video and textual commentary. Finally, we will through project training and wider activities encourage leadership and skills development towards diversifying digital archival practice.

Planned Impact

This research has impact as a primary objective, by enhancing the diversity of digital children's literature collections in the UK and US. The free availability of these digital archives, with the Baldwin Library hosting over one million pages of children's material, means that parents, teachers, and children have access to them, especially given appropriate platforms. The AHRC Network that foregrounds this project, Digital Collections in Children's Literature: Distance Reading, Scholarship, Community, has established a substantive community of followers among publishers, teachers, and parents, with around 40,000 average Tweet impressions per month. We aim to encourage the responses of this community, while adding more followers, as we test our methods of decolonisation. Our work will include soliciting responses on diversity texts from own-voices communities, so social media impact is both an outcome and a research method.

We aim to promote a digital culture whereby children and other users do not need to do what Elizabeth Acevedo has called 'reading en guarde' - in constant fear of hurtful content, or more generally expecting to find no sense of self reflected in dominant narratives. In promoting more diverse historical content, directly critiquing racist terms or authors who held harmful views, and implementing automatic trigger warnings, this project will provide a safer digital environment for young people who wish to acquire literacy, cultural capital, and historical knowledge through reading children's books from the past.

University-student navigation of these digital collections also has the potential to lead to significant impact, since frequent users are those in teacher training programmes. Undergraduate and graduate researchers in the fields of literature, education studies, and information science at the University of Florida, for instance, use Baldwin collections as part of their assigned course work, and such students typically learn digital research skills for applications in non-academic careers. We wish to encourage trainee teachers in particular to take diversity concerns into the classroom when they teach mandatory state reading lists that tend, especially in high school, to focus on historical texts. Similarly Cambridge has one of the most prestigious teacher-training courses in the UK, and students on the PGCM, and especially the MEd in children's literature, will be encouraged to take part in workshops and social media discussions. In addition, since ARU in Cambridge (the Co-I's institution) has a strong reputation and cohort in children's book illustration, we will encourage MA and PhD illustration student-practitioners to suggest creative ways to use the digital collections, too, with the aim of promoting more diverse visual representation in future books.


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Description As Covid19 lockdown has prevented access to physical archives, we have thus far focused on digital research and metadata enhancement. Existing digital archives have facilitated the recovery of forgotten voices, particularly the Baldwin Library digital collection, Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, Hathi Trust, and GoogleBooks. We have built up a list of over 50 neglected BIPoC authors and illustrators for children by mining those resources in conjunction with historic reading lists created by librarians and teachers for Black and Latinx children in the 1930s-1960s. With these anchor points in place, we have begun to trace the networks of particular authors, publishers, and illustrators to find additional titles, and we expect our pilot project to build a list of 100 texts for digitisation. (We should note here that our rejection rate is very high, as often seemingly positive texts also contain severe racism.) Our Twitter stream (@LitDigi) has been highlighting positive creators. It currently has 750 followers and typically generates 10-20,000 tweet impressions per month. Thus our principal goal of promoting forgotten, diverse historical texts for children has gained traction and would clearly benefit from the expansion of a proper digitisation programme once archives re-open. (The Baldwin is due to reopen in August and Homerton in September.) The pilot research to-date has also explored the limitations of catalogue metadata in permitting research on diverse materials for children. Library of Congress subject headings may be absent or thinly applied, commonly using only the generic "juvenilia". These headings also lack appropriate classifications for racist materials. In terms of metadata, the team has considered what can be learned about recovered authors, illustrators, publishers, and texts and begun to create a taxonomy of useful sub-classifications. The pilot's sample curated collection will be built in the second phase, enabling fuller exploration of potential metadata, including MARC records, headnotes, commentary, and sample video introductions. We are also building a database of racist language in children's texts, benefitting from conversations with staff at the Oxford English Dictionary, who have shared derogatory historical terms. These pilot project deliverables will be used to develop a sample of texts for testing corpus-wide content warnings.
Our pilot research has revealed a significant body of recoverable and antiracist material within the archives. A good example is Langston Hughes's A First book of the West Indies - a literary geography specifically designed to counter the prevalent racism found in early children's books about other countries and cultures. Curation of such material can bring together historical works not initially aimed for children, but which enhance a historical understanding of oppression or under-represented lives, as in Sara Schwebel's "The Lone Woman and Last Indians Digital Archive", a project conducted with undergraduates ( In lockdown new digitisation has not been possible, but we have curated high-quality material from existing digital collections, especially the Baldwin Library. In terms of pilot work on wider training, our Postdoctoral Research Associate (PDRA) has led a Cambridge Digital Humanities training course on "Doing Digital Literary History" that focuses on digital recovery and ethical perspectives in archival research, 16 Sept.-7 Oct. 2020.
We have received a 12-month no-cost extension to help further project aims relating to the physical archives in the partnership. During that period we interrogated scores of historical books with positive representation to provide a short-list for digitisation and digital exhibition and identified key terms of offensive language in the existing archive
Exploitation Route The rationale for our work is situated within the wider ecosystem of cultural professionals dealing with children's books who see decolonisation as an urgent priority. Our methodological interventions can help reduce the risk of harm and provide pathways to decolonising existing archives.
Sectors Education



Museums and Collections

Description Our research has been conducted with and used by the Baldwin Library of Children's Literature at the University of Florida to help amplify diverse voices and openly challenge racist holdings.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Societal

Description Collaboration with the University of Florida Baldwin collection 
Organisation University of Florida
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Work on banned books towards a British Academy grant.
Collaborator Contribution Access to rare books and archives.
Impact NA
Start Year 2019