Primary Source Literacy at USC Libraries & Beyond

Privilege, Gaps, and Silences in Rare Book Collections

Book-collecting and the study of books were, and still are, activities for people who usually have the means and the time to dedicate to the subject matter. Thus many libraries or book collections were created by white (often male) people who collected mostly books written by (you guessed it!) white people (often men). It does not come as a surprise that most libraries and book collections are representative of the people who created them. As a result, the Western book tends to preserve the Western world view. 

Melinda Hayes & Michaela Ullmann

Book collections, like archival collections, often reflect privilege and bias, and may contain many gaps and silences. Historically many libraries tend to preserve the Western world view, with predominantly white male authors represented, and books by female authors and people of color underrepresented. One reason is that women and non-white people traditionally have had fewer opportunities to write and publish books. Furthermore, white men typically had the means and status to collect books, and later donate their books to a library to preserve.

Although many libraries are working to rectify the inherent representation of privilege and bias in their collections by adding works by women and people of color, we need to understand that at this point in time rare books libraries primarily are the result of centuries of white (male) privilege. 
Remember to keep in mind, that although fewer works by non-white, non-male authors are found in these collections, this does not mean that publications by and about diverse authors do not exist. 

Further Reading:
Jesse Ryan Erickson: The Gentleman's Ghost: Patriarchal Eurocentric Legacies in Special Collections Design. In: Mary Kandiuk (ed.). Archives and Special Collections as Sites of Contestation. Sacramento, 2020.

Image Header: Sarah H. Bradford: Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Auburn N.Y.M.J printer, 1869. USC Libraries Special Collections.

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