Does Your Historical Novel Contain a Protest? Some primary source documents on social activism
Does your historical novel’s plot incorporate a protest movement or other type of historical social activism? There are a lot of great primary sources on protest movements that have been digitized and made available for free on the internet, thanks to university and government websites.
My thanks to Jennifer Kaari for her article, “Social Activism in the United States: Digital Collection and Primary Sources,” from College & Research Libraries News, September 2017, which pointed me to some of the U.S. websites.
Does your novel have a character who has joined the Suffragettes? View the digitized banners on this website in order to get the details right about a banner your character might carry in a parade. The site is from the UK Visual Arts Data Service, which offers “over 140,000 images that are freely available and copyright cleared for use in learning, teaching and research in the UK”. The 248-item banner collection is part of the Service’s Women’s Library. The VADS’s site says, in addition, “Access to the VADS catalogue is provided free of charge to all users and without any need for registration. The images are copyright cleared and free for use in non-commercial education and for personal research purposes only.”
The University of Waterloo has an interesting scrapbook with news clippings and other documents on the Suffrage movement. It also offers a small collection of postcards on the Suffrage movement, some of which are satirical.
This page on the BBC website is archived and no longer being added to, but it contains interesting audio clips of interviews with people involved in the movement, including the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst.
If your character is campaigning for women’s right to vote in the U.S., this collection offers over 400 photographs from the Library of Congress’ records of the National Woman’s Party. Most were created between 1913 and 1922, and “depict the tactics used by the militant wing of the suffrage movement in the United States—including picketing, petitioning, pageants, parades and demonstrations, hunger strikes and imprisonment—as well as individual portraits of organization leaders and members”. Click on “collection items” to browse, and then you can filter the results by subject, location, or format. Among the documents: Pauline Adams models her prison uniform, and portraits of noted figures in the movement like Alice Paul and Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to a federal office.
This site, hosted by George Mason University, has over 600 primary source documents, “an accessible and lively introduction to the French Revolution as well as an extraordinary archive of some of the most important documentary evidence from the Revolution, including 338 texts, 245 images, and a number of maps and songs”. Most of the non-English documents have been translated. While a scholar might not like this website because the original text documents are not reproduced, merely translated, it’s a good place to start for someone wanting to set a novel in the French Revolution and needing background information to get started.
Broadsides (single sheets printed with news, public notices, ballads, etc.) can document historical protest movements. This collection includes one in the “royalty” section that at first glance seems to praise George I, but closer reading shows that he is being mocked. The site is useful for both scholars and laypeople, since it reproduces the original documents, and offers transcriptions for those who find historical typefaces hard to read, plus PDF downloads. Another broadside describes a political riot in Dundee in 1830. A third, an anti-Popery riot in 1841 Edinburgh.
“Scholars and students can explore how institutions and organizations communicated with African populations from the mid-19th century through the present day”, states this website from Northwestern University. Novelists setting a book in the apartheid period will find a large number of posters on that issue, and get a taste of the kinds of protests that took place in the era. Less controversial topics are also represented, such as art, music, and public health.
Is your story set in the 1950s or ’60s in the U.S.? If your characters will be involved in the Civil Rights movement, this website “promotes an enhanced understanding of the movement by helping users discover primary sources and other educational materials from libraries, archives, museums, public broadcasters, and others on a national scale”. You can browse documents by people, events, topics, or places, or do a keyword search. A search on “protest” brings up over 600 hits. A box to the left of your results lets you filter them by media type, date, or other means.
The AFSC, a peace and social justice organization, offers highlights from its archives on this website. Sections include “Resisting the Vietnam War,” “Japanese-American Internment,” and “Civil Rights and Racial Justice.” Are you creating a character in your book who was a conscientious objector during wartime? The section called “Civilian Public Service” offers documents such as a booklet from 1943 explaining how CO’s served without pay as noncombatants in the military, worked in hospitals, constructed roads, or volunteered to be human guinea pigs in medical research. That would be a cool story idea.
This website’s aim is “to increase the accessibility of transgender history by providing an online hub for digitized historical materials, born-digital materials, and information on archival holdings throughout the world.” If you are creating a transgender character in your novel, this website has a wealth of information. You can keyword search from the landing page, or click on “browse” to view various topics such as passing, discrimination, and religion. I spotted quite a few historical newspaper clippings on cross-dressing. There are practical resources a novelist would find useful, like a how-to guide to cosmetics and clothing for male-to-female cross-dressers.
This collection of women’s history documents at Harvard University offers material on 19th-century American activists Susan B. Anthony, the Beecher-Stowe family, the Blackwells, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Diaries, correspondence, news clippings, scrapbooks, and other primary source materials abound. You can keyword search or browse, and the software allows you to zoom in for a closer look, useful when the document has faded ink and cursive writing.
The University of Warwick offers a series of images on the UK General Strike of 1926 compiled by unionist Henry Sara. The strike was called by the General Council of the Trades Union Congress, lasting 9 days. The collection includes caricatures, photographs, news clippings, cartoons, and other documents. Clicking on an image will enlarge it and display a caption.
The University of Pittsburgh has digitized a collection of photos depicting the Union Switch & Signal strike. Employees upset with working conditions walked off the job in June of 1914. Selected images have been made available, including picketers, company management, and non-striking workers. View these images to get a visual idea of what an early 20th-century strike would look like.
This is a collection of “leaflets and newspapers that were distributed on the University of Washington campus during the decades of the 1960s and 1970s.” Items like these don’t often survive, as they were meant to be used briefly and then discarded. The digitized documents give a picture of student activism in one U.S. city in the Vietnam era. The link takes you to where you can browse objects, like an ad for a rally on boycotting lettuce to support the United Farm Workers, a Gay Liberation Front platform statement, posters announcing peace marches, underground newspapers, and newsletters from Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The site offers a keyword search feature if you want to search for a document on a particular topic. If your novel is set on a college campus in the 1960s, this would be a valuable resource to research the world of student activism.
Pennsylvania State University Professor Benson assembled this collection of political protest documents from his early years as a faculty member at the University of California Berkeley, and at the State University of New York in Buffalo. The site allows you to click through to browse the collection, or do a keyword search. The graphically striking posters offer a glimpse into 1960s’ design, as well as serving as historical documents.
University of Sydney students were inspired by U.S. Freedom Riders in the Civil Rights movement to form Student Action for Aborigines, touring New South Wales in 1965 in a bus to fact-find and protest racial discrimination. Curthoy’s diaries are an important primary source for this chapter in Australian history. When you click on a thumbnail, you’ll view a scan of the diary page, and a useful transcription is provided for anyone having trouble deciphering the handwriting.
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.