how to make a site for free

Presence and Absence

Module Overview

Just as it is important to critically interrogate the primary sources that live in digital collections, it is also important to interrogate the digital collections themselves. How were these collections created? Whose voices are missing from them? How does that impact your research and understanding of history? Can we find these voices elsewhere? This 2-part module will allow you to meditate on the presences and absences within collections and consider their impact on your research.

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • Critically examine representation within a collection, identifying gaps in representation of communities, media types, and/or topics 
  • Reflect on the impacts of underrepresentation or erasure from the historical record
  • Understand how gaps in the historical record affect your own scholarly work
  • Brainstorm alternative means of finding voices missing from digital collections
What's needed


Approximately 30 minutes per part, 60 minutes total


Internet access
Microsoft Excel

Part I: Identify

Just like the collections of books you find in libraries and the collections of papers you find in archives, digital collections are created and curated by people. An immense amount of work is involved—which inherently means an immense amount of decision-making. First, librarians and archivists decide what materials should be collected. Then, they describe these materials in the way that they believe will enable you to find and access these materials.

Implicit and explicit bias—on the part of the staff doing this work and the broader institution—can affect all of these decisions, including which communities, voices, and perspectives make it into a digital collection, and which ones do not.

There are a number of reasons why certain histories and communities may be excluded from digital collections, including: 

Community bias

Institutions—like many syllabi, academia, and the culture at large—may prioritize collecting and promoting works and materials by dominant cultures.

Institutions may prioritize collecting materials from people of prominent societal positions, which are often white men due to systemic and historic bias.

Materials bias

Ephemeral materials—like flyers, newspapers, mass-market paperback books, and social media posts—which capture the lived experiences of more communities, are less durable and likely to disintegrate, and thus never make it to digital collections.

Materials used by people from privileged, affluent classes are often prioritized for collection for their aesthetic value (for example, an illuminated manuscript versus a paperback book).

Some communities do not generate as much physical materials that could thereafter be digitized and included in a digital collection, such as transitory or orally-based communities. 

Description bias

Items are catalogued with outdated terms or terms not used by the community.

Items are not described fully or accurately, because the librarian or archivist cataloguing the material is not from that community and thus does not understand the full complexities of the item. 

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.

Let's try it!
Complete "Part I" of the worksheet.

Part II: Recover and Acknowledge

So, what can you do after you’ve identified missing perspectives from a collection? There are a few steps you can take in your research to try to find these voices.

  • Reach out to a reference librarian. A reference librarian might have a deep understanding of the topic you are researching, and be able to advise on potential collections or sources to explore. UCLA Library offers research consultations and live chat reference.
  • Dig deeper with your searches. Try searching with synonyms, wildcards, and related terms to retrieve as many results as possible on your research topic. Check out the Strategic Search module for advice on search tactics.
  • Look elsewhere. Visit other digital collections to see if they have related materials. The Online Archive of California links out to over 200 archives throughout the state, the majority of which have digital collections. Outside of California, there are plenty of digital collections to review—look at these additional resources to learn of a few.
  • Search for "bottom-up" historical records. There are some records that are able to recover histories that are typically marginalized. "Bottom-up" scholarship explores the experiences of ordinary people as opposed to "top-down" scholarship's focus on leaders and prominent figures ("Glossary of Histiographic Terms"). Oral histories, for example, are a way for people to tell their own stories if their physical records are lost, providing personal histories and viewpoints into historical moments. UCLA's Center for Oral History Research has digital collections of their oral histories. Additionally, community archives are archives created and led by communities who are often marginalized and excluded from governmental or university archives. Accordingly, community archives often have materials documenting broader and diverse perspectives not found elsewhere. There are several community archives in Los Angeles, some of which have digital collections or exhibits.

Unfortunately, despite taking all of these steps, there will likely be some perspectives you’ll be unable to recover because their records were never maintained and are lost to history. If you are unable to recover these perspectives, it is important to evaluate how that will impact your research. You may need to adjust your research questions, and acknowledge these absences within your final work.

Let's try it!
 Complete "Part II" of the worksheet.

What did you think?

We'd love to hear your feedback! Please complete this brief, 5-question survey to help us improve this module.

Exploration & Inquiry was created as part of the Digital Resource Development Initiative, sponsored by UCLA Department of Information Studies
Photographs are from the Los Angeles Times Photographs Collection and are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License