Who has History? And who has Issues?

Last week, I was preparing a lesson for a Global History class that’s doing some research on South Africa. I’m new at my school, and we’ve just added several Gale In Context databases to our collection, so I wanted to introduce students to how those resources are organized. So I navigated to the Topics list on Gale In Context: World History and boldly scrolled to where the South Africa Topic should be.

I say “should”, because there was no South Africa Topic. In fact, all of Africa – all 64 countries – was under four Topics, separated by time periods. Germany alone has four Topics (also separated by time periods), in addition to separate topics for the Holocaust and Hitler. The British Isles have a total of 13 different Topics (two for Great Britain, three for England, three for Scotland, and five for Ireland). It does not get better when I look at the individuals who have Topic pages. The only three Africans I could find were Nelson Mandela, Idi Amin, and Musa, Sultan of Mali (but there are no Topics for either Uganda or Mali).

I have not gone in-depth on all of these pages, but I will also note that the African History during the Colonial Period Topic has a total of 534 sources. Germany: The Middle Ages has 777 news articles alone.

Next, I moved over to Global Issues in Context, where I did find a Topic for South Africa. And the Congo. And Zimbabwe. And Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Mauritius, Mayotte, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia and others. 

So, who has History, and who’s an Issue? 

After showing students what I’d discovered, I posed that exact question to them. One student pointed out that Great Britain has been a pretty major issue in global history – and has, in fact, made significant “contributions” to the issues in other countries. But there is very little representation for Great Britain on Issues in Context.

There are two issues here: what’s being collected, and what’s being curated. I’m guessing that there is a fair amount of overlap in terms of sources between these two databases, but the way they are organized is very different. And that framing matters. It’s similar to having a diverse print collection, but only displaying and promoting books with cis, hetero, white protagonists. However, I also suspect that the collection of resources that Gale is pulling from to curate these Topics could stand to be significantly more diverse in any number of ways. It’s hard to curate materials you don’t collect. 

Other than being mad, what do we do with this information? Like many of you, I’m taking a close look at my database collection, and which voices are included (many thanks to Tasha Bergson-Michelson for her leadership in this work), and also pushing our vendors to expand the representation in their collections. But that kind of change does not happen quickly. So until that change happens, we have an obligation to be transparent with our students and our teachers about the shortcomings of our database collections. We need to actively resist the “if it’s in a database, then it’s trustworthy” messaging that many teachers and students have internalized, because that includes an implicit message that resources found outside of databases are less trustworthy – and that’s simply not true. If we give more weight to databases sources, knowing full well that our databases do not include a full range of perspectives and sources, we are discounting those perspectives. Endorsing the idea that database = “quality” reinforces the systems of inequity that got us here in the first place.

UPDATE: I’ve been in conversation with some folks at Gale, and they’ve added Topic pages on South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Ghana to World History in Context! There is still more work to be done, but Gale has been responsive to questions and concerns. If you’re noticing issues, I encourage you to reach out to your rep!

6 thoughts on “Who has History? And who has Issues?

  1. Such a great illustration of what we are dealing with in the database collections, Sara! I’m wondering about layers of advocacy – have examples from each database product to share with vendors, suggested plans of action, and maybe some talking points for people attending conferences or who have good relationships with their vendors? I would love to find out how many people are thinking about ALA Annual in DC since I imagine the major players will be there and there’s usually some VP by the candy dish available to corner and speak to about this issue.

    • Yes! I love the idea of preparing people with talking points, and the idea of cornering some VP to talk about this is the kind of thing that could get me to actually go to Annual…

  2. Yes, that movement could also get me there! I have been looking at Gale’s new topics and have some thoughts, but was so grateful when you noticed this specific discrepancy which had escaped me. It has become excruciatingly clear to me that many of my students are *very* aware of their own (lack of) representations with databases, have been carrying that feeling with them, and it means so much to pursue this work. The more eyes, the more we notice.

    Thank you for your partnership, always!

  3. Stupendous – you shedding light on this, not the fact that this is an issue! Thank you for starting this conversation….can’t wait to discuss this with my AP Research class today.

  4. It seems to me that we’re expecting the breadth of topics found in a large encyclopedia but with depth of primary and secondary sources of various databases. Here’s a thought experiment…What would happen if we reversed the access? For example, what if Wikipedia landing pages linked out to database articles? (I know there are some open access articles in Wikipedia already – but this would be much larger.) Is there a model that would be financially viable for the database aggregators, as well as provide Wikipedia with additional funding? Would it encourage aggregators to check the breadth and depth of their holdings? Would we still pay by database? Establish an account and get charged by article? Looking for solutions….

  5. Excellent points, Sara! And after 23 years of helping students with projects, it would be great to see publishers increase their print and digital titles that focus on non-Western countries and historical themes!

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