Banner IN_CONTEXT: Colonial Histories and Digital Collections


The project

IN_CONTEXT is a two-year project with the aim of securing funding to digitise library collections related to colonial histories and to develop a virtual research environment. In the medium term, the virtual research environment is to serve as a central platform to study historical sources by documenting and by making available all relevant collections in Germany and from international partners. The project is based at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (State Library Berlin) and receives funding from the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation).

Debates about coming to terms with colonial pasts have been gaining urgency, ranging from discussions about the restitution of objects in museums to renaming institutions or streets. Cultural heritage institutions increasingly reassess their roles within the history of colonialism. In doing so, their involvement in the global colonial project raises important questions about the shaping and disseminating of knowledges in collections across libraries, archives or museums. Since the seventeenth century, the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin held a central role in acquiring printed books, manuscripts, personal papers, maps and photographs in Germany. Within this historical context, the project identifies those collections that relate to colonial histories within the library.

With the use of “colonial contexts”, the project adopts a comprehensive definition of colonialism. Colonial contexts include those collections that relate to formal and informal forms of colonial rule. They also include collections that reflect colonial or imperial ideologies and practices such as racist notions of cultural superiority over ethnic minority groups and the ways these were used to justify forms of exploitation and oppression.

IN_CONTEXT situates itself in debates about colonial entanglements and aims to contribute to this ongoing process of institutional reflection. As part of these efforts, the project advances reviews of library practices, provides digital access to historical material and devises a virtual research environment in close collaboration with institutions, international partners, and Communities of Interest.


Identifying sources for the digitisation that relate to colonial histories in the collections of Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin
IN_CONTEXT is assessing a source base for digitisation in the collections at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin and the potential for future projects across the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz and other national and international partners.

Devising a framework for the development of a virtual research environment
IN_CONTEXT is designing a virtual research environment to serve as a hub to sources and collections connected to histories of colonialism. As part of this web-based platform, users will be able to work collaboratively and to examine sources and collections with the help of digital tools. The exchange with experts and knowledge holders connected to colonial material is critical to ensure appropriate data structures and meta-data standards. In doing so, the project seeks to engage debates about ethical implications of data modelling, design development, and accessibility.

Collaboration with representatives of institutions, international partners and Communities of Interest in the collections
IN_CONTEXT is building relationships with networks from heritage institutions and research and societal sectors through workshops, visits and other collaborations. These connections are essential to openly share knowledge about the library’s collections and to obtain advice on dealing with sensitive materials and information. In this way, the project team aims to critically reflect on the ethical dimensions of digitising collections related to colonial histories. The project further aims to act as a catalyst for wider studies and engagement with the library’s collections and colonial pasts.

Get in touch!

As we are getting underway, we look forward to hearing about suggestions and to having conversations on colonial histories, digitisation, colonialism and the development of digital infrastructure.

Project lead: Larissa Schmid
Research associates: Lars Müller and John Woitkowitz

You can reach us at


Our main goal is to successfully acquire third-party funding to digitize library collections from colonial contexts and develop a virtual research environment. In the medium term, the virtual research environment is to be expanded into a central platform for researching sources on this topic.

The term “colonial contexts” encompasses a broad field of historical colonialisms and their legacies in contemporary societies. The project IN_CONTEXT focuses on those holdings of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin that enable scholars and interested parties to research the history of colonialism and thus also reflects the historical as well as current development of the SBB’s holdings.

In a first step, holdings can be identified that were acquired in colonial contexts (formal or informal). In addition, there are holdings that reflect colonial thought and which have are relevant as a source for researching formations of colonialism. Travel literature from the 18th century to state colonial decrees or colonial revisionist reception literature are only some examples of titles that fall within the purview of the project. As a result of the SBB’s collection history, we focus on holdings from the Kaiserreich period (special collection area).

Assessing library holdings in terms of their “colonial contexts” is a recent field. For our work, the Guidelines for the Care of Collections from Colonial Contexts by the German Museums Association offers an initial orientation. In order to further develop the category “colonial contexts” when dealing with historical holdings in libraries, we are organizing the workshop “Colonial Contexts in Libraries” in cooperation with the dbv and the DZK from November 6-7, 2023. You can find the corresponding CfP here.

The project’s corpus of sources includes various types of material. We are concentrating primarily on monographs  from the SBB’s main collection. For the period between 1871 and 1912, the SBB maintains a special collection here as part of the Sammlung Deutscher Drucke (SDD). Furthermore, we review holdings from various special departments of the library, such as manuscripts, personal papers, newspapers, maps, sheet music or photographs.

Digitization of the material will proceed in different steps. In a first step, we compare which holdings are already available as digitized material at the SBB/SPK or other institutions and identify gaps that should be closed by our project.

As a first step, we focus on collections held by the SBB. We are in touch with other SPK institutions and plan to integrate selected holdings into the digitization project. In the medium term, metadata from relevant holdings of other SPK institutions will be included in the virtual research environment.

We are in contact with other libraries, archives and museums working on the topic of “colonial contexts”. For example, we plan to include selected digitized collections as well as metadata of existing digital collections of external institutions in the virtual research environment.

IN_CONTEXT is building a network that involves various actors. Currently, there are three main groups: First, there are cultural heritage institutions, with whom we exchange information about holdings, digitization, and metadata. Secondly, there are scholars with research interests in the collections stored here. These two points explicitly address (also) actors in the Global South and indigenous groups. Thirdly, there are source communities that have produced or used the books, manuscripts and/or about which knowledge (for example in the form of historical accounts, cultural descriptions, photographs, encyclopedias, etc.) has been collected. Likewise, we aim to exchange with BIPoC. We group these diverse actors together in the project as Communities of Interest. In addition, we are open to inquiries from other interested stakeholders.

Yes, it is a central goal of IN_CONTEXT to work collaboratively with actors from the Global South. This collaboration spans all phases of the project, i.e. the selection of digitized materials, the design of the virtual research environment, and the digital presentation of the collections. In doing so, we hereby follow the obligation as a public institution to present our holdings transparently. In addition, we also want to enter into an exchange with representatives of societies of origin in order to take up research questions and interests from the areas from which the knowledge, practices and, if applicable, objects originate.

The repository and the virtual research environment are aimed at an international scholarly audience as well as the communities of interest mentioned above.

Primarily, the platform is aimed at scholars from the historical humanities and social sciences. Researchers from the fields of history, colonial and global history, historical geography and sociology, digital history, area studies, social and cultural anthropology, (historical) literature, provenance research, media history as well as library and information science may find the holdings of particular interest.

The digitization of collections from colonial contexts is a complex process. As a public institution, we are obligated to present our holdings transparently and freely to an internationally interested public within the framework of open access regulations stipulated by funding agencies. However, the endeavor to make holdings accessible without restriction may, under certain circumstances, be in tension with ethical aspects and usage conventions as practiced by source communities. This is especially true for collections from colonial contexts, which, for example, describe racist content, glorification of violence, or practices and knowledge of indigenous societies. Against this background, raising awareness and contextualization of problematic holdings are important elements in the development of concepts for the digital presentation of source material. The project is therefore guided by the FAIR and CARE principles in dealing with digital cultural heritage and seeks to collaborate with Communities of Interest to ensure responsible provision of SBB holdings in the area of tension between research, public interest and source communities. In its Open Science Declaration of November 2021, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation committed itself to incorporating these principles in making digital cultural data accessible.

We are aware that this is an ongoing process and that making holdings available is an opportunity for further discussions in the areas of digitization and presentation of cultural heritage from colonial contexts. The sheer size of SBB’s holdings does not allow for case-by-case consideration by the project. We therefore look forward to hearing from you should you have any questions or criticisms about the digitized holdings.

Yes, a workshop on “Colonial Contexts in Libraries” is scheduled for November 2023 at the State Library Berlin. The Call for Papers was released in early May 2023 and can be found here.

Additional events are planned for 2024.

We are delighted to hear about your ideas and suggestions as well as critiques. You can get in touch with the project by contacting

You can also find current news about project activities and discussions in the News and Blog section.


“We Are Our History” at the Stabi Berlin