Conference synthesis: one unifying idea of knowledge

This year’s IFLA program was packed with stimulating Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA) sessions. The satellite conference on “Empire, Indigeneity, and Colonial Heritage Collections: Confronting Difficult Pasts, Enabling Just Futures,” organized by the IFLA Rare Books and Special Collections Section (RBSC) and the Indigenous Matters Section (IM) and hosted by the Leiden University Library on 18-19 August 2023, kicked-off the conversation. In this post I present a synthesis of ideas that emerged from this two-day meeting.

Multiple backgrounds and contexts in one room

Cover page illustration of the conference program booklet
Cover page illustration of the conference program booklet

The satellite event attracted a rich variety of individuals and perspectives, working in very different contexts. There were First Nations peoples librarians negotiating space to hold tribal histories considered extinct, librarians of the colonial record scrutinizing the provenance of their collections, and librarians from former colonized regions reconstructing national identity resources.

Presenters and discussants made positionality statements, revealing not only widely differing backgrounds and engagement positions, but also a complex mix of social identities and intersectionality.  

Given the diversity of perspectives and contexts in which problematic collections were discussed, it was all the more surprising to discover commonality in aspirations and approaches towards these collections.

One unifying idea of knowledge

“One unifying idea of knowledge”—a term coined by Damian Webb, the keynote speaker—emerged from the series of presentations, namely: to resurface and reconstruct oppressed languages and knowledge systems, and to claim space for different and parallel histories and truths, next to the dominant narrative, grounded in colonial collections. To this end, legacy collections around the world are being re-examined and new ways of contextualizing and describing them are being devised.

Reconstructing knowledge systems

A recurring theme in the presentations was how the literacy of dominant peoples silenced the existence of ethnic groups in many parts of the world and even destroyed their languages. From the three Saami languages in Finland to the 170 ethnical group languages in the Philippines, Indigenous and tribal languages were systematically forbidden (e.g., in schools and churches) and only used as a conduit for forced assimilation, to propagate values of the ruling power, and support the work of missionaries (e.g., Bible translations). Research into the collection of printed North American Indigenous language materials held at the British Library demonstrates how language collections were built and described to serve the erasure of Indigenous cultures. Investigating language material collections and reconstructing (near-) extinct languages is therefore considered key to preserving those languages and the knowledge systems they embody.

Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC)
Melvil Dewey, the architect of the Dewey Decimal Classification

It is widely acknowledged that the histories of oppressed peoples are not well reflected in the typical memory artefacts (e.g., manuscripts and books) of western colonizers/settlers nor well represented in their memory institutions (e.g., libraries, archives, and museums). The conference showed a strong commitment to remedy this situation and invest in the reconstruction of those histories based on what has been recorded and is available. Practitioners explained that doing so requires not only compromising with dominant western European knowledge organization tools (e.g., the Library of Congress Subject Headings or the Dewey Decimal Classification)—which can be challenging—but also developing Indigenous taxonomies from scratch (e.g., the Brian Deer Classification system).

To foster the creation of Native archives and knowledge systems, the group called on libraries to share their legacy collections with and involve those whose voices had been silenced or their descendants—in other words, librarians should pass the mic, a saying that became the mantra of the conference.

Recontextualizing collections

Which sources can be found in library collections to help reinterpret history? The types of collections that passed in review during these two days included undocumented photos of Aboriginal peoples taken by settlers, books of friends belonging to Indonesian freedom fighters captured by the Dutch military during the decolonization war, translated Bible collections from missionary printing houses, Native language materials collected and studied by linguists, and more.

Institutions with large colonial collections in Britain, the Netherlands and elsewhere have started to systematically scrutinize their holdings to better comprehend the legacies they are safeguarding, to better describe them and to prepare for possible restitution requests.

Cover page of the Clues report
Cover page of the Clues Report

As new policies are put in place to facilitate the return of misappropriated objects from museum and archive collections, libraries with special collections feel compelled to be prepared as well. We heard from presenters at both the Leiden University Libraries and the University of Amsterdam about the new guidelines (in Dutch) for colonial heritage in academic and library collections in the Netherlands. One of the main restitution issues is the scarcity of provenance information and the Clues Report was developed specifically to provide guidance for conducting provenance research.

The presentation by the Universiti Sains Malaysia (UMS) on the decolonization of the Light Letters Collection—which is held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London—illustrates the complexities at hand. There were issues of provenance, ownership, copyright, and public accessibility. It took seven years of negotiations, but in the end, accessibility through digitization and, by extension, transliteration and translation, outweighed the rights issues. This project is of importance to Malaysia because the letters provide a new source for the writing and reinterpretation of its history between 1771 and 1794.

Digitization and providing online access are generally considered as the way forward to allow the creation of new virtual collections. However, the issue of selection was raised, denouncing the questionable practice of carrying out digitization projects only to celebrate canonical historical events, such as the abolition of slavery. It was pointed out that digitization “magnifies the drama,” as one presenter put it. It perpetuates the colonizer narrative. Digitization needs to become a sustained and comprehensive effort and needs to go hand in hand with multiple representations and narratives engaging the communities concerned.

Post-custodial archiving is not only about digitization. More importantly, it is about connecting and empowering communities to engage with archives, reveal hidden histories and meet their need for legacy. Initiatives such as the House of Legacies, around performing art collections from immigrants in the Netherlands, or the Firekeepers project from Arizona, supporting tribal nations to build archival collections, were presented as examples of community-based participatory archives.

Reimagining descriptive workflows

As communities of practice form around problematic collections and begin to create new and multiple knowledge systems, the one-sided knowledge system that originated from the colonizer/settler/ruler perspective has come under pressure. Fostering and giving space to multivocality and multiple respects means there cannot be only one knowledge organization system—that is considered universal, objective and neutral—as is the case in most libraries, archives, and museums today.

The collection management systems in place need to adapt and allow for multivocality. It’s not about replacing the old metadata with the new—it is about making multiple metadata models and languages equally searchable. Reviewing and remediating problematic descriptions requires a set of rules. We heard examples of this from the Allard Pierson in Amsterdam—where the thematic Surinamica Collection was formed, and Maynooth University Library in Ireland—where they catalogued The Northern Ireland Troubles Collection.

Illustration from the RDW Report: Better Workflows Map by Dorothy Berry
Illustration from the RDW report: Better Workflows Map by Dorothy Berry

OCLC’s sponsored project Reimagine Descriptive Workflows (RDW) was mentioned several times. This project investigated, through an intensive consultative process, the challenges facing the library and archive field in inclusive and reparative metadata work. This work is important to OCLC because, as a steward of the world’s library data, OCLC has a role in helping create inclusive descriptions. The recommendations from this project, were published last year, in the report entitled: Reimagine Descriptive Workflows: A Community-informed Agenda for Reparative and Inclusive Descriptive Practice.

The conference in Leiden demonstrated that reparative and inclusive metadata work is ongoing and increasingly collaborative as opposed to being siloed. Much effort is being invested in “holding generous spaces” (a phrase used in the RDW report to mean “adapting workflows to a more consultative, community-centered approach”). For example, in Canada, The National Indigenous Knowledge and Language Alliance (NIKLA) was established “to unify and amplify the voices of Indigenous Peoples (First Nations, Métis, and Inuit), to network and nurture a community of practice related to Indigenous knowledge, cultural memory, language, and Indigenous ways of knowing, as they relate to culture memory and heritage.”

As might be expected, the recommendation from the RDW report that resonated most: “Address systemic changes to transform the profession at its core,” is proving to be a bigger challenge to tackle. The last quote in the 26-page notes I took during the two-day meeting is telling in this respect: “Think of disruption as caring.” 

All presentations and discussions of the Leiden satellite conference were recorded and are open access available via the Leiden University video portal.