National Library of Scotland addresses ‘silences’ in wake of Black Lives Matters

The National Library of Scotland has promised to address the “silences” in its massive collection in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Black Lives Matter protesters hang their banners on the fence of Holyrood Palace. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Black Lives Matter protesters hang their banners on the fence of Holyrood Palace. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Launching a five-year strategy to take it to its centenary in 2025, the organisation said it wanted to highlight a “richer and more representative variety” of voices that it had in the past.

Dr John Scally, its chief executive, said this would include efforts to address the “historical biases” in its collection and reflect the reality of 21st-century Scotland.

The National Library of Scotland is the nation’s only legal deposit library, meaning it is entitled to receive a copy of every book published in the UK.

It owns more than 30 million physical items dating back more than 1,000 years as well as a rapidly growing library of digital material, collecting about 5,000 new items every week.

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Dr Scally said the library had already changed its collections policy to ensure that material was explained properly in the context of slavery and wanted to address other silences.

“What I mean by that is more women in the collection, more young people in the collection, minority ethnic groups, more working-class voices as well,” he added.

The library will be profiling Frederick Douglass, the celebrated abolitionist who gave hundreds of public lectures in Scotland, during Black History Month in October.

It also plans an exhibition on Scotland’s female mountaineers called Petticoats and Pinnacles next month, featuring pioneers from Ella Christie to Vicky Jack.

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Dr Scally said the Black Lives Matter movement had been widely discussed by staff and had become a “catalyst” for changes that visitors to the library would see over the next five years.

He added that future exhibitions about celebrated Scots such as Robert Burns and Daid Hume would not shy away from addressing their connections to the slave trade.

“We would talk about the plantation in Jamaica and [Burns] considering taking up a job offer there,” he said.

“If we were talking about David Hume, we would foreground the issue around slavery, his attitude to slavery, we would do the same possibly with Adam Smith and with others.

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“For me it’s really about context: less about being neutral and more about setting context. It is important to think about the contemporary but also about the past.

“What was possibly acceptable in the past is not acceptable now, and we have to help put that context in place when we’re helping people access the collections.”

The University of Edinburgh recently renamed its David Hume Tower due to the 18th- century philosopher’s “comments on matters of race” after an online petition was signed more than 1,700 times.

This decision proved controversial, with some of the university’s own academics writing an open letter to its principal expressing their “strong objection” to the plan.

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Dr Scally said he accepted that he was courting similar controversy but argued the library should not “shirk” from presenting historical figures in their proper context.

“I think we would all find it difficult to ignore the current debate in society about race and about racism and anti-racism,” he said.

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