Reflecting on Decolonising the Academic Library

Gaz Johnson's picture
By: 
Kaye Towlson, De Montfort University

One of the organisers provides a detailed report on the recent decolonisation event, which is a very hot current topic in academic libraries.

The first digital workshop event hosted on behalf of the Collaboration’s Staff Development Group (MSDG) offered a varied and thought-provoking programme centring on the reasons, practices and processes of decolonising academic libraries. Speakers and attendees presented and discussed with participants the underlying ethos and challenges of this crucial movement. The speakers, who were drawn from the universities of De Montfort, Leicester, Northumbria, East London, Surrey, King’s College, and Coventry, expanded on their own experiences, along with exploring current practices and approaches, around decolonising academic libraries. The event also provided space and inspiration for attendees to think about potential actions

>Slides from the event can be found by clicking on the respective headings.

Introductions

Keith Nockels (Leicester), welcomed everyone to event before speaking about the Decolonising Group working at Leicester. To acknowledge the current societal context Heena Karavadra then read CILIP’s BAME Network statement in response to the murder of George Floyd. This statement ends by acknowledging the key role that library, information and knowledge professionals have in dismantling racism and asks for all to personally reflect and take action. Kaye Towlson (De Montfort) then presented the background to and ongoing work of the Decolonising DMU project, which is seeking to create an anti-racist university where all can succeed. Kaye detailed various related activities, such as Kimberlin sessions where speakers share good practice and facilitate discussion, as well as their Read to Debate sessions. In these latter events attendees reflect on given readings around decolonising within the context of their practice and the student and staff experience. Kaye stressed the importance and impact of getting people talking, thinking and doing in order to progress the project, and in inviting all to work towards decolonising universities.

Decolonising work and the Staff/Student Experience

Kelly Stockdale (Northumbria) then presented details of research conducted initially at York St John University and then continued at Northumbria. Kelly and her colleagues had developed an inclusivity matrix, delivered in the classroom as a visible expression of racial and gender bias in the researchers and knowledge base taught in the UK. She explained how seeing the western, eurocentric bias, serves to encourage students and staff to broaden their research and knowledge base. The matrix had also been applied to a classroom setting in both Criminology and computing studies (with Biddy Casselden) at Northumbria. Kelly acknowledged the important role of the library in helping researchers broaden their perspectives to a more global representation of knowledge. However, the ‘chicken and egg’ situation of reading list driven library acquisitions was noted as a challenge to achieving these goals, noting related research detailed in (Stockdale & Sweeney, 2019).

White people need to do the work (not lead it)

In the afternoon the programme moved on to a series of lightning sessions. Ian Clark (University of East London) spoke first in a thought- provoking talk highlighting several of the barriers put up by white people which obscure the need for decolonising and anti-racist work, challenge assumptions or refute privileges. He gave a rebuttal to these challenges and offered a route to move away from these to engage in active allyship. Ian also supplied a link to a Zotero library of relevant material relating to this, highlighting in particular a guide by Muna Abi  entitled Advice for being an ally.

Liberating the Library through Staff-Student partnership

The next talk provided examples of co-creation, student curation, giving space to the breadth of the student cohort, paying heed to the lived experience of students of colour and moving away from the ‘single story’. Oluwapelumi Durojaiye (Surrey) was a student who had worked in the library as an education intern alongside Catherine Batson (Surrey), and both shared their experiences within this talk. During her time in post, Oluwapelumi had developed the ‘student curator initiative’ where students created virtual and physical displays in the library. Students were also invited to add to the library collection by making suggestions for purchase. To help further with developing decolonised reading lists, Oluwapelumi had collated an inclusive publishers index, which enabled staff to source a wider, more diverse body of knowledge and reading. The underpinning ethos of this work was to inspire curiosity, enable a more diverse choice, representation and co-creation, along with amplifying hidden, less dominant voices. It was intended that this would help bring into focus and consideration the breadth of lived experiences of students of colour.

Starting points: Building your on-campus decolonisation network

Michelle Bond (Coventry) next offered a series of steps to deconstruct one’s own predominantly white, western mode of thinking, while challenging existing assumptions, knowledge of education as well as the position and role of libraries. These steps could be facilitated through networking and engaging with reading and discussion. Michelle described the benefits of engaging with a cross campus staff book club composed of staff with a range of cultural backgrounds and experience as an example. Decolonising starts, she argued, with oneself and your own mindset. These must be challenged and changed to make space for hidden voices, new ways of thinking she explained. Michelle reminded delegates this work takes time, as it has a long history but through becoming involved you are able to become ‘part of the continuum of people seeking decolonising’. She stressed how achieving these goals were something which required achieving a deep-rooted change, not a quick fix. Michelle reinforced the need for safe spaces and diverse groups on campus to discuss decolonising actions and visions. She also advised delegates to not be afraid to get things wrong and rather learn from these mistakes alongside reading and discussion. Decolonising, she explained, was a challenging and painful process.

Maintaining a decolonial approach to teaching collections in crisis mode

The final lightning talk was delivered by Vanessa Farrier (King’s College, London) who spoke of maintaining a decolonial approach to teaching collections in a crisis mode. Vanessa raised the question of: how people can pay attention and facilitate decolonising in an environment driven by the COVID crisis? This was a crucial consideration, as under the current crisis mode of working stock was being primarily acquired digitally, with collections developed through a process, rather than subject collection, driven approach. Vanessa also spoke of enshrining the concepts and actions of decolonising within library staff job descriptions, a phenomenon enabled at her own institution by the recent restructure of posts. This had helped enable library staff to ‘fight against colonial structures of knowledge’ and support the development of a diverse and inclusive collection, bringing to the fore previously hidden voices.

Vanessa explained how it was essential reading lists were seen as tools of pedagogy and not merely a process driven means of access to relevant information. Library staff, she stressed, must advocate for this perspective and pedagogic application. They must also be involved in both the process of the curriculum and the development of content for the curriculum to enable decolonising to happen. She highlighted how the library also needs to engage with this process as well as being involved with quality assurance, curriculum and collection development. In this way it can help ensure non- western, non-white voices are available and heard both inside and outside of the classroom. Decolonising, Vanessa stressed, should be seen as vital to student experience and success.

Represent

The last presentation of the day was by Heena Karavadra (Leicester) who spoke of her work and experience at the University of Leicester with particular focus on building a representative leisure reading collection for all of the student community. Heena’s work had grown from the Read at Leicester initiative, where group selected texts were given to all first-year undergraduate students as part of freshers’ activities. They provided opportunities to share and engage with discussion around selected texts throughout the year. One particular text, The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla was also tied in with some common modules within the university’s programmes. Heena had liaised with Leicester’s student union’s (LSU) equality and liberation champions, who were working on a project to create a liberation wall. This wall celebrated those less represented students who had worked with the LSU to help shape the organisation and service which it offers today.

A LSU liberation library book swap had grown from this project, leading Heena to ask whether such a diverse and inclusive leisure reading collection be offered in the library? Despite the hurdle of zero funding, Heena had been able to identify and collate a diverse range of existing stock to form an inclusive liberated leisure reading collection, which represented the university’s diverse community. The resulting collection was being used by students. Additionally, before lockdown, Heena had secured university funding to grow this collection further.

Heena had also run a ‘zine’ workshop with students, exploring the theme of representation. During the event she invited attendees to contribute to a padlet wall detailing their considerations of why representation was important. Themes and terms which emerged in this exercise included: belonging, empowerment, avoiding the single story, encouraging empathy with people ‘not like you, demonstrating all are an inclusive and equal part of the university, showing other ways of understanding the world along with students needing to see relatable and aspiration role models. Heena highlighted how these are all good and inspiring reasons for ensuring diversity in all collections and help enable students to connect with the curriculum, as well as engendering a sense of belonging and inclusion.

Conclusion

In summing up the day attendees were invited to contribute to another padlet wall noting each of the following aspects:

  • Personal reflections
  • A take home point
  • An action that to accomplish/instigate within their roles

The results of this feedback can be viewed online.

Organiser Reflections

Despite the digital challenge the event went smoothly and was well attended by library staff from across the Mercian region and beyond. Both Kaye and Keith would like to express their thanks to all the presenters for such an informative and inspiring day. The speakers not only helped advocate the need for decolonising academic libraries, but provided a call to action and change in academia, potentially benefiting the whole community. Likewise, the organisers’ thanks is expressed to all attendees for participating and engaging with the topic so willingly.

---

For more on future Mercian Staff Development Group events, see the group’s pages, speak to your institutional representative, or contact their chair, Sarah Pittaway (s.pittaway@worc.ac.uk).