So, if you are looking at a collection and wondering why certain materials or perspectives are missing, first you could ask yourself, are there gaps because the materials aren’t there? Or, are there gaps because they are described poorly and thus you cannot find the materials?
Why do gaps in collections matter? Because if materials from different communities aren’t being preserved, then their perspectives are missing from the historical record. Such absences can also limit the types of research you can do.
Take for example, this very cool collection of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, which is housed at UCLA Library Special Collections. The collection includes an illuminated psalter, rental records from the 16th century, and an engineer’s sketchbook. All of these items are rich resources for research, but all are created or used by people of authority and position—clergy, landlords, and engineers. What about the perspectives of the people who attended church, rented land, or assisted the engineer in bringing inventions to life? These perspectives are missing from a collection of manuscripts, likely in part because: (1) the materials to create manuscripts were expensive and thus limited to affluent classes, and (2) historical collecting biases favored materials from people in prominent positions.
As the library and archival fields reckon with such biases, some collections are attempting to address this imbalance, featuring voices, communities, and materials that were historically excluded from collections. The International Digital Ephemera Project, for example, features cellphone videos, fragile early 20th-century newspapers, and posters. Many of these materials were used during political movements and represent significant cultural and research value, but due to their ephemeral nature would likely be lost without proactive collection. The International Digital Ephemera Project attempts to capture perspectives that historically were marginalized or lost due to the ephemeral nature of the items documenting them.