A York university is warning of ‘white supremacy’ and ‘colonial narratives’ in a major book collection it holds that features classic children’s stories including Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.

York St John University has made national headlines concerning its 3000-strong Rees-Williams Collection, named after 1970s university librarian James Rees-Williams, who collected the enormous volume of books dating from the 1780s to the 1920s.

The university, whose website advises white people to “use your privilege and stand up for change”, contains an online disclaimer concerning the books, to which it has restricted access to.

The warning says: “Within the 150 years of children’s writing which is represented in the collection, there is a widespread occurrence of colonialist narratives which centre white supremacy, and racist and orientalist methods of both fictional and historical storytelling.


“As such, it is possible, if not likely, that items consulted from the collection will include language and visual imagery which is racist, and many people may find their contents upsetting and offensive.”

The JM Barrie stories about Peter Pan, the Daily Telegraph noted, features references to “savages” inhabiting Neverland and some “Red Indians” being described as “Pickannies.”

Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days also makes references to ‘coolies’ in Hong Kong and a book by 19th Century Scottish writer JM Ballantyine is called The Cannibal Islands.

York St John further comments: “As custodians of historical documents, it is our duty to recognise their historic and current power in the marginalisation of the peoples who are subjects within them, and examine why we continue to preserve and house such items when their ability to cause damage endures.

“Here at York St John University, we unequivocally reject the stereotypes and offensive narratives which are contained within these documents.”

The university says due to the age and condition of the books, access is restricted but people can see specific examples and tour the whole collection, if they make an appointment.

It added: “We are also committed to preserving and providing access to the evidence of the racist marginalisation and stereotyping of peoples through children’s literature during this time period.

“To do so requires continuous learning, reflection and consultation on how such a collection should be managed, and as such we welcome conversation about and research into the collection.”

A spokesman for the university told the Daily Telegraph: “As custodians of the Rees-Williams Collection, we have a responsibility to both provide access to historic books, and to inform our students and other users about content in our institutional archives and special collections which many would find offensive and outdated.

“This guidance has been in place since 2019 and aligns with our ongoing commitment to challenging racism, as a Race Equality Charter Bronze award holder.”

The university told the York Press it had nothing to add to what was reported by national media.