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This item is taken from PN Review 257, Volume 47 Number 3, January - February 2021.

On 30 June the British Library management made a commitment to its staff and to library users. It would become ‘an actively anti-racist organisation’, altering its governance and its policies to honour this objective. Roly Keating, the Library’s chief executive, spoke of effecting a ‘generational shift’, to make the institution representative of the nation’s diversity in its staffing, its collections and the users it serves. ‘There have been incremental changes over the years,’ he said, but the murder of George Floyd and its aftermaths was ‘a wake-up call for the Library’s leadership that it’s not enough. Our duty at this moment is to show humility, to listen, to learn and then to enact change.’

Immediately the issue of BAME representation within the executive management and senior curatorial staff was addressed, and ‘the urgent and overdue need to reckon fully and openly with the colonial origins and legacy of some of the Library’s historic collections and practices.’ The Library was in a hurry: ‘[T]o address these issues, the Library will fund and implement an Anti-Racism action plan, with recommendations developed over the next two months by a Working Group including members of the BAME Staff Network, which has played a leading role in highlighting institutional issues of racial inequality, along with other staff members drawn from across the Library.’ The Chief Librarian Liz Jolly lamented how far behind the library had got: ‘[W]e haven’t done enough to ensure that this organisation is anti-racist, and I apologise for that. In convening the Anti-Racism Working Group this is our chance to get it right.’

All this was commendable and timely: the Library set out to recognise and empower people who should have been empowered long ago.

The initiative to name and shame the literary descendants of unsound ancestors, those who had links to the slave trade and colonial exploitation, would ‘make a difference’ in a very visible way. I came late to the news of the British Library exposé that turned into a damaging ricochet. In November the Library issued a press release and a spreadsheet detailing more than 300 literary figures with ‘evidence of connections to slavery, profits from slavery or from colonialism’. It was the product of Printed Heritage Provenance Research, and the brief it had given itself seems to have been unduly capacious. Use every man after his ancestors’ deserts, and who should scape whipping?

A British Library spokesman declared: ‘In response to growing scholarly interest worldwide, and in common with best practice in other major heritage collections in the UK and worldwide, the British Library’s Printed Heritage Collections curatorial team has been conducting a continuing programme of research to ensure that our users have an accurate understanding of those parts of the collections which have direct connections with slavery and other aspects of colonial history. […] Initial findings from this research, which are subject to further review, have been made available on the British Library’s website.’

He went on to highlight one instance in particular. ‘In addition to these direct connections, curators have noted some other instances where researchers may wish to be aware that an “associate” or indirect connection can be made, through family history or otherwise. One such instance is the reference to Nicholas Ferrar (1592–1637), a distant ancestor of English poet and writer Ted Hughes, which is included solely for the sake of completeness and accuracy, and is not, of course, intended in any way whatsoever to affect the reputation of Hughes himself. […] Ted Hughes was a major figure in twentieth-century English poetry and the British Library is proud to be custodian of one of the world’s finest archival resources for the study of his work.’ Ted Hughes was just one of the 300 individuals fingered. George Orwell was another. I am told that Byron and Wilde were also on the spreadsheet.

I looked for the spreadsheet online to get a sense of its wider scope, its terms and methods, and to see which scholars were assembling the dossier of the directly implicated, those with an ‘associate’ or ‘indirect connection’, and those included ‘otherwise’. It was not to be found on the Library website. It had also disappeared from social media where it had been widely discussed and seemed to have become invisible.

What had happened? A public and widely publicised ‘exposure’ intended to demonstrate the staunch spirit of the new British Library had managed to ‘cancel’ itself. Moral enforcers are hard on individuals who seek to retract and excuse ill-considered statements or actions: it leaves a permanent blemish on their reputation. But if the ill-considered statement or action proceeds from the enforcers themselves, the situation is differently handled. The British Library, our main copyright library, the most authoritative public record in the land, with its welcome undertakings on diversity, transparency and answerability, erased its ‘error’ and the record of it.

I still have not been able to get to the bottom of it, but the bottom of it is where we need to get. I wrote to the Library: ‘Can you point me to the full list and explanatory text of Printed Heritage Provenance Research in which Ted Hughes was erroneously included? I would like to see it and can’t trace it within the BL website.’ Then I wrote again. ‘I am concerned about the spread of cancel culture and the damage to a lot of people in our “sector” of false or maliciously construed or misconstrued connections. Is it possible to get access to the list of 300 allegedly implicated parties and any of the documentation surrounding the project? Whose initiative was it; if not an individual’s, then which committee? It’s unfortunate how allegations stick, even when their inaccuracy is revealed and apologies are issued.’

The reply I received was simple. ‘We’ve taken the list down now, so I can’t send it to you now I’m afraid,’ a Library employee replied.

On 25 November the Guardian carried a report: the Library had retracted the list and apologised to Ted Hughes’s widow. That left 299 other figures ‘whose collections were associated with wealth obtained from colonial violence’ and whose executors or descendants could not speak for them. No doubt there was some substance in the list and in some of the underlying scholarship that we must assume went into it, but the damage of the list, and then of its retraction, will take some time and effort to repair. Some process for reviewing research must be implemented without delay. The Library admitted that ‘early presentation of these findings has caused confusion and concern, particularly in relation to connections drawn between named individuals and their ancestors’. It still has the institutional knack of understatement and obfuscation in its public statements. Having slapped its own wrist for failure in implementing diversity policies, it is doing its best to hush up another failure, of supervision and research. Hughes scholar Jonathan Bate commented, ‘Over-zealousness of this kind undoes the important work of excavating the history of the institutions that have benefited from slavery – it plays into the hands of both the “cancel culture” and the “anti-woke” press.’ As was indeed the case.

How does its subsequent action, behind its grand closed doors, tally with Roly Keating’s commitment – ‘Our duty at this moment is to show humility, to listen, to learn and then to enact change’? 

This item is taken from PN Review 257, Volume 47 Number 3, January - February 2021.

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