Kirsten Thorpe is a Senior Researcher and Cultural and Critical Archivist at the Jumbunna Institute for Education and Research at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is also a PhD candidate at Monash University and has recently had an article called TRANSFORMATIVE PRAXIS – BUILDING SPACES FOR INDIGENOUS SELF-DETERMINATION IN LIBRARIES AND ARCHIVES published in the journal In the Library With the Lead Pipe.
What do you see as the barriers for Indigenous peoples and communities accessing libraries?
On a basic level, libraries can be really intimidated places especially if you are not familiar with the ways that you can use them. There is this great myth that libraries are for everyone, a place of open access for all to enjoy. However, libraries can also be viewed as dangerous places, especially if collections are offensive or outdated, or if programming is not tailored to the needs of the local community.
I studied my first University degree through the Wollotuka Education Centre at the University of Newcastle in the early 1990s. We were really fortunate to have an inhouse Library at Wollotuka that had specialist resources focussed on Aboriginal history and politics, many of which were created by Aboriginal people. Having the Library housed in the Centre, and curated by Indigenous people made it accessible, and it removed barriers for access.
Sometimes barriers exist if there are not any relationships that exist between a library, its staff, and members of the Aboriginal community. There is currently a major lack in pathways for Aboriginal people to get jobs in local public libraries. The library is a different place if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are employed, it brings vibrancy and relevance so that Indigenous perspectives can be shared within the library services.
On a more structural level, libraries operate in ways that often conflict with Indigenous ways of managing and transmitting knowledge. Libraries have also been places that uphold privilege and power, and they have held histories that have othered and marginalised Indigenous people.
In your opinion, what can libraries do better to work with Indigenous peoples and communities?
Libraries become more relevant when you see yourself represented in them. I have visited many public libraries and academic libraries around Australia, some get it right so right, others not so much. One area of real concern is the mantra that ‘the library is there for everyone’ which sometimes translates into a lack of recognition of diversity. Good service design means that you try and experience a library through the eyes of a diverse demographic, whether in relation to youth services, outreach, children’s story time or engaging with the elderly. It’s important that libraries don’t work on assumptions when developing these services, they should talk to people about their needs and see what services are needed to make the library more relevant.
I think every public library in Australia should acknowledge their local people and engage with local communities to tell stories about their areas. Collections should represent local interests as well, so that the wider community can gain an appreciation for the depth and length of Australian history. The State Library has developed a strategy Indigenous Spaces in Library Places to get people thinking about the ways that the can progress building a vibrant public library network inclusive of Indigenous people.
Libraries also need to make a commitment for long-term engagement and change. Start out by endorsing the ATSILIRN Protocols – The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protocols for Libraries, Archives and Information Services – and develop a long term action plan to support their development.
How can Library professionals support their Indigenous colleagues?
Three priority areas for me are: Library professionals building skills and competencies, Library curriculum and ongoing professional development including Indigenous perspectives, and renewed support for Indigenous employment pathways.
There is a big focus within the National and State Libraries Australia (NSLA) and ALIA for Library professionals to build cultural competency. This is vital as Indigenous people can’t build a focus on self-determination if we are always trying to work with our colleagues to build support them building skills and knowledge. There are online courses that people can do to build their knowledge and competencies. Library colleagues can also support the inclusion of Indigenous content in courses, and in ongoing professional development to encourage discussion and debate. We need allies to support a renewed focus on Indigenous employment pathways, this might mean making decisions to reallocate resources. Library professionals can advocate for a renewed focus and commitment to Indigenous priorities whether it is in their local library, or through professional activities.
How can we decolonise our libraries?
When I think about decolonising libraries, I always start by thinking about what an Aboriginal library would look like. If we totally turned everything around – from the physical spaces and architecture, to the publishing models, the formats that carry information, the way we classify things, the rules around access to materials, the systems that are in use – to make Indigenous libraries.
I love the fire pit at Kuril Dhagun at State Library of Queensland, it’s a place where community can come and gather and share stories whilst eating and watching the river and the wildlife that is running in and out of the trees. Fire & Libraries – not something you usually see next to each other as a positive thing! I just love the energy of that space, and the recognition that knowledge transmission and learning is not only found it books, it belongs in stories and through relationships with people.
Decolonisation is complex and multifaceted. A good place to start in my mind though is starting to discuss the ways in which colonisation impacted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to examine and discuss if your library (its services, collections, systems, policies, procedures) support ongoing colonisation. If so, try and address them in partnership with members of your local community. Examine the power structures in play and hand over some of the decision making to Indigenous people.
What advice do you have for students or new graduates?
Get involved! Make connections with local Indigenous networks and support Indigenous priorities in the library sector. This year for example is the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, show support for the recognition of Indigenous people and language and cultural revitalisation and maintenance.
Read and learn more about the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, cultures, languages and histories. Start with some essential reading lists here. Connect with other Indigenous people who work in the sector (see the Indigenous Archives Collective) and keep abreast of emerging literature and conversations.