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.