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Cambridge University Library


In recent months, particularly following the shocking death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 and the spread of the Black Lives Matter protests round the world, we have been reflecting on our responsibility as a library service to acknowledge and play our part in addressing the interconnected issues of racial inequality, intolerance and historically entrenched racism.  

Together, the community of Cambridge University Libraries, has a strong strategic commitment to openness and inclusion, and to sharing our collections with the world as part of the University’s mission to contribute to society at the highest international levels of excellence in research and education. Yet our history and experience tells us libraries are contested, not neutral, spaces, and working across our network of University Libraries, we have a responsibility and opportunity make change happen.

Cambridge University Library is home to more than nine million books, manuscripts, maps and other objects, collected over 600 years, spanning more than 4,000 years of human history, in more than 2,000 languages. Today we are also home to tens of millions of electronic items, and a Digital Library of over 50,000 openly accessible versions of our historic special collections. We are one of the world’s greatest research libraries.

Some of our collections were previously owned or donated by or acquired with the help of those whose wealth was associated with the Atlantic slave trade and many of our collections reflect the history of British colonialism, and its impact on communities round the world.

We are committed to a programme of work across Cambridge University Libraries to research, understand and address this legacy, including the historic assumptions, narratives and language use around some of our collections.

We need to make changes to ensure more inclusive recruitment and services, and to adapt our collecting practice, collection descriptions, public programmes and the information published on our website.

We have convened the Libraries Decolonisation Working Group to help formulate guidance and policy for the decolonisation strategy with Cambridge Libraries – and to commission specific work/projects to embed best practice. The working group will include staff from multiple levels of the Libraries network, as well as both academic and student representation, working alongside our partners in UCM (University of Cambridge Museums) and the wider University. To help steer this work with external peer review from academic year 20/21, we will recruit a consultant expert in heritage and decolonization and recruit a Shadow Board to help advise with expertise and experience from the BAME community. 

We will also engage and work closely with Decolonising through Critical Librarianship, an existing grass-roots organisation for Cambridge Librarians.

Cambridge University Library has formally asked the University’s Advisory Group on Legacies of Enslavement to include some historic benefactions to the library as part of its two-year inquiry into Cambridge’s historical links to the slave trade. The University has also committed to Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter; a Bronze Award was confirmed in 2019, with targets for 2019-2022 set out in the Race Equality Action Plan.  

We accept change to address the problem of structural and historically entrenched racism is necessary and that we have a responsibility to be part of that change.

We are also aware of some of the inherent limitations in using contested classifications and acronyms such as BAME and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour), and part of our ongoing work will be to better understand how to champion, celebrate and acknowledge the true diversity and lived experiences of our staff, students and global audiences.

The devastation caused by the Atlantic slave trade and other colonial histories continues to affect millions of people globally to this day. We cannot effectively demonstrate solidarity with our BAME and BIPOC colleagues and students at Cambridge – and with others around the world – without first examining and understanding how we as an institution have benefitted from the proceeds of slavery, colonialism and empire.



Dr Jessica Gardner

University Librarian and Director of Library Services

University of Cambridge

1 September 2020