Because of this and other learning opportunities, I have been reflecting on the land I live on, which is the unceded territory of the Chochenyo Ohlone. If you are curious about the land you are on a good starting point is the Native Lands website.
As we have been engaged in conversations about the difficulty of cataloging topics relating to Indigenous peoples in respectful ways, OCLC Research has sought to better understand the issues through readings, presentations, and structured conversations with library staff. This post attempts to bring some of these learnings together.
Background, and “decolonizing description”
In January 2020 I was fortunate to attend the Ontario Library Association (OLA) “Superconference” in Toronto. The conference featured a special strand of programming on “decolonization” of libraries. Attending as many of these sessions as I was able provided me with an accelerated introduction to this topic. I’m grateful to the many presenters and practitioners who shared their wisdom and experiences in these sessions and discussions. I especially benefitted from presentations given and discussions led by Camille Callison (University of Manitoba), Anne Carr-Wiggin (University of Alberta), F. Tim Knight (York University), Kelly Buehler (Toronto Public Library), Trina Grover (Ryerson University), and Stacy Allison-Cassin (University of Toronto).
In these sessions and in other reading and discussions with colleagues, I’ve come to understand some of the ways that current library structures are inadequate to meet the needs of librarians and the researchers and community members that libraries support, including:
- Catalogers lack the power and systems to represent Indigenous people and topics relating to Indigenous people in appropriate and respectful ways. They would like to be able to use accurate, culturally appropriate controlled vocabulary terms and (if appropriate) remove or replace those that that are offensive or inappropriate.
- There is tension between exerting control locally versus being able to leverage collective library networks.
- In addition to resource description, classification is an issue. Librarians need tools to help reclassify and reshelve works that are offensively placed (for example, many items related to Indigenous history and culture are shelved with folklore and fairytales).
- In a variety of localities there are cultural expectations that heritage institutions wish to attain—or are sometimes required to meet. In Canada, for example, institutions seek to fulfill the recommendations of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Although the term “decolonization” and the phrase “decolonizing description” were used frequently throughout the OLA conference, nearly every session started by footnoting the use of the term, with reference to the article “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor” (by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, 2012). The article cautions against the easy adoption of the term. When my OCLC Research colleagues and I convened the conversations described below, we invited interviewees to contribute their own terminology; some examples include anti-colonial, “unlearning,” indigenization, and anti-racist.
I have gravitated towards using a more cumbersome phrase, “respectful and inclusive description of materials related to Indigenous people.” As a settler and non-expert, I am in the process of learning and am open to hearing how I can improve the way I think about and discuss this topic.
Interviews with library staff
To increase our understanding of this topic and the challenges faced by librarians, we conducted a series of semi-structured informational interviews. I was fortunate to have OCLC Research colleagues Mercy Procaccini and Karen Smith-Yoshimura as collaborators on this project. Interviewees were drawn from institutions in the OCLC Research Library Partnership and were also referred to us by members of OCLC Global Council. These conversations took place between March and June 2020, the first happening right at the beginning of the pandemic shutdowns that were occurring globally. We interviewed 41 library staff members at 21 institutions located in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. Most interviewees work in the context of an academic library, but we also spoke with staff at national libraries, independent research libraries, and public libraries. The interviewees generously shared their experiences with us, and in turn, I am sharing a summary of our learnings. What follows is the list of questions discussed and a summary of interviewee responses.
What communities are represented in your collections, and how are you working with those communities?
The answer very much depended on the nature of collections in the care of the institutions represented. Several interviewees work with collections that span almost an entire continent while others work at institutions with only modest collections related to local communities.
Of those interviewed, no one felt they were doing an adequate job of outreach to communities. Several people weren’t even sure how to go about connecting with stakeholder communities. Some brought up the possibility of working with a campus or community-based Indigenous center. These organizations can be a locus for making connections and holding conversations. A few working in a university setting have found strong allies and partners to advocate for increased resources in faculty members of the Indigenous Studies department (or similar unit). Those with the most developed outreach efforts saw those activities as being anchored in exchanges that originated at the reference desk, such as when tribal members came into the library to learn something about their own history, language or culture using materials that are stewarded by the library. Engaging with these communities to understand needs offers the opportunity to transform interactions with them from one-time transactions to ongoing, meaningful relationships. Learning how Indigenous community members use and relate to these materials can decenter default approaches to description and inspire more culturally appropriate ways. Some institutions have developed fellowships to foster increased use of materials by community members.
Regardless of where institutions were on the engagement continuum, all emphasized that this work needs to be supported with adequate staffing and resources. And all emphasized the importance of engaging with stakeholder communities, work that requires adequate staffing and resources to be done well—and the recognition of the need to balance this with other urgent priorities at the institution.
How have you built support for this work? Or, how has your institution articulated the need for this work?
Many that we spoke with said they could see a clear connection between this work and equity, diversity and inclusion goals articulated in the library or campus mission statement or a strategic plan. Some of those further articulated that this was the first time they were able to tie the work that they do to such strategic plans.
In a campus setting, engagement with faculty was again called out as critical to building support. Faculty advocates can communicate the importance of this work to library leadership.
For others the directives to support the needs of Indigenous peoples are clear; for example, all Canadian interviewees referenced the CFLA-FCAB Truth and Reconciliation Report and Recommendations).
As with the previous question, the discussion returned to the need for funding to support work, most importantly investment in positions—the people to do the work.
What harm have you observed (or has been reported to you) in the current situation?
Some interviewees felt they were not in a position to directly observe or hear about harms that may have been experienced. They pointed out that most library catalogs lack a feature or mechanism for users to report errors or offensive language. Even with such mechanisms, interviewees weren’t sure that they would hear about issues.
Others witnessed very real harm firsthand. Almost everyone we interviewed observed the pain experienced by faculty, students and members of the public who had encountered the term “illegal alien” in the catalog. (Several interviewees referenced the documentary, Change the Subject.) Others described “the look of horror” on the face of someone who has been told to search using the term “Indians of North America.” Students — Indigenous as well as settler—who work with the collections point out to staff the many incorrect or outdated terms they encounter. Having to tell library users that they need to search in ways that are inaccurate, outdated or racist doesn’t “help to set the right tone” — in fact, it directly undercuts library efforts to engage community members.
Beyond the terms used to describe the collections, the collections themselves—especially digitized collections—are problematic. In some cultures, it is inappropriate to show an image of a deceased person, or even to display their name. Digital collections may contain graphic and disturbing images that can be deeply traumatizing to community members or descendants of those depicted—especially when encountered without warning or context. Libraries could take steps to minimize or eliminate such harm by adding culturally sensitive warnings, blurring thumbnails, and adding ways for catalog users to report inappropriate content.
These types of harms undercut the sense of trust and respect that are required for building relationships and fostering community engagement. Community members may feel unwelcome at the library and uncertain that the institution is aligned with their interests and well-being. Creators may refrain from donating materials to the library because they aren’t convinced the materials will be stewarded in an appropriate and respectful way. Financial donors may be put off as well. In short, lack of action can convey that the library or parent institution is willing to tolerate a certain level of cultural insensitivity, undermining credibility, outreach efforts, and equity and inclusion goals.
What structural barriers are you encountering?
The biggest structural barrier identified by interviewees was related to the use of systems designed to handle large quantities of homogenous materials efficiently. Library of Congress Subject Headings were mentioned repeatedly. Specifically, the access point “Indians of North America” is offensive in the Canadian context. Current cataloging systems and structures do not support the fluid and nuanced ways of working required to be culturally responsive. Institutions face a hard choice: either continue to invest in the goodness of shared vocabularies which may be flawed and harmful or implement local vocabularies which generally results in extra work. Additionally, locally defined vocabulary terms may be lost when contributed to a shared environment.
There is a continuum of ease with which descriptive practices can be adapted. For those working in the main catalog, systems and procedures are more rigid. For those describing collections in finding aids, there is more flexibility; and those using systems to describe digital collections seemed to have the greatest flexibility in terms of both architecture and descriptive practices.
One approach suggested was a decreased emphasis on the 1xx fields (in MARC) as main access points, with all terms considered as alternative terms so the system can select the best term to display at point of need.
Those that are invested in shared cataloging infrastructures (used by many libraries on single campus or across multiple campuses in a consortium) face an additional layer of complexity because of the need to get buy-in from partners. Decisions about structural changes in both cataloging practices and about how changes would show up for end users can get bogged down by the need for consensus.
“Cataloging culture,” which may be optimized for efficiency and throughput, was also identified as a barrier to change. Those that had undertaken local change in structures recommended an iterative approach, which can be difficult and disruptive. In addition, in some cases discussions about changing terminology result in a type of paralysis caused by the concern of doing more harm.
What mistakes have you made, and what have you learned from them?
Participants shared stories of the harm that resulted when community members had not been fully included in decisions, particularly around digitizing collections and making them broadly available. Indigenous community values may not align with the widely held library ethos of “open is good,” as certain sensitive or culturally significant material aren’t appropriate to make freely available to everybody.* Other learnings included accepting that this type of work takes time, and that this work needs to be approached with a collaborative spirit. The importance of building trust and relationships was emphasized repeatedly – this is work that cannot be rushed.
Other lessons were around the need for librarians to cede authority and recognize the kinds of knowledge and expertise that Indigenous community members bring, flowing from the unique and more meaningful relationships these individuals have with the materials than the librarians and curators who steward them
If you had a magic wand, how would you change the structural impediments you face in your situation?
In closing, we asked interviewees to dream of the “magic” that might be employed to improve this situation. Repeatedly we heard about the general need for more Indigenous librarians, especially those engaged in metadata work. In the end, the ultimate structural barrier is who is empowered to make changes to terminology.
Another bit of magic is around changing mindset and values: acknowledging that it’s okay to slow down, and to be thoughtful in addressing the problem. Recognize that this is an ongoing process, not something that can realistically ever be declared as “done.”
There is pressing need for the “magic” of resources as well. This space needs more advocates. An important step would be educating library leaders about the harms of the current system and bringing them into the process of creating solutions.
Some existing magic was called out in the work done by the Xwi7xwa Library, which includes Indigenous subject headings and classification system. This is work that could be emulated and extended elsewhere.
Other magic included technical solutions, such as linked data solutions, specifically, mapping inappropriate terms to more appropriate ones, or connecting the numerous alternative terms with the single concept they represent. For example, preferred names and terms may vary by community, generation, and context—what is considered incorrect or inappropriate may be a matter of perspective. Systems can also play a role: the discovery layers should have a disclaimer stating that users may find terms that are not currently considered appropriate. Terms that are known to be offensive terms could be blurred out (with an option to reveal them).
Those who participated in these interviews shared so much, all motivated by their desire to move forward. To improve discovery and stewardship for collections. To imagine anti-racist systems and structures. To move toward more and better learning and understanding by library staff, to a more diverse library staff. To repair, build and sustain meaningful relationships. To begin and continue a journey of undoing the long history of erasing Indigenous voices and perspectives. We are grateful for their generosity of time and insights into this topic.
*This topic is covered in some detail in Dr. Kimberly Christen’s talk, “We Have Never Been Neutral: Search, Discovery, and the Politics of Access”
Merrilee Proffitt is Senior Manager. She provides community development skills and expert support to institutions within the OCLC Research Library Partnership.