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Decolonizing the Library

Ryerson University Library & Archives takes steps to rethink its practices, incorporate Indigenous knowledge
By: Will Sloan
June 19, 2018
Ryerson’s Library is questioning how colonialism impacts its practices

Photo: Ryerson’s Library is questioning how colonialism impacts its practices. Photo by Ryan Walker.

In university libraries, First Nations history is classified under the category “Indians of North America.” Ryerson’s Library, like libraries in all Canadian universities, adheres to international standards and principles designed to make the world of knowledge more easily accessible. But what if these standards perpetuate a mistruth, or reaffirm a western view of knowledge? Questions like this are what the Ryerson University Library & Archives must grapple with as it undergoes efforts to decolonize.

For chief librarian Carol Shepstone, the process will mean rethinking the most basic assumptions. “How do we prioritize and value information in all its forms? How do we describe it, sort it, and make it accessible? All these practices have had a very colonial lens—so how do we think differently?”

How can the library modify international classification standards used consistently in academic libraries for over a century? This is a stubborn question, but only one of many currently facing libraries that wish to decolonize their collections, spaces and programming. How might the library incorporate land-based teachings? How can it create more employment and experiential learning opportunities for Indigenous students? How can it rethink its spaces? How can it incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing into its programming and collections? How can it continue to openly share information and ideas while respecting the rights and protocols around Indigenous knowledge? How should we best partner with communities, Elders, knowledge keepers and Indigenous experts?

Nicole Ineese-Nash (project co-ordinator for the Inclusive Early Childhood Service System) is of Cree and Ojibwa heritage, and a scholar who graduated from Ryerson’s Early Childhood Studies program. She hopes that decolonization will involve developing other ways of expressing knowledge.

“The whole concept of a library is pretty colonial, as it is essentially a way of commodifying knowledge and retaining it for later sale,” said Ineese-Nash. “The values of a university library are pretty different from Indigenous knowledge systems, which are about relationship-building and propagating knowledge between different generations.

“The way the library functions is, it’s supposed to be an objective place that houses information that someone has decided is worthy of being showcased in that kind of format. Institutions in general need to think about how we can actually decolonize not only the content that we’re interacting with, but also the processes of how that knowledge is transmitted.”

As an Indigenous scholar, Ineese-Nash has sometimes had to develop strategies to access her subjects of study. “For the most part, those are not often topics that are accessible at the Ryerson Library. In that sense, it makes us feel as though they’re not valuable topics when you have to seek them out elsewhere. I’ve spoken to the Library, and there seems to be interest, so I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly negative experience. It’s more that, a lot of Indigenous scholars might be quite a bit further along than where the rest of an institution is at in terms of understanding decolonization.”

The first step towards decolonizing will be simply to ask these questions. On June 14 and 15, the Ryerson and York University libraries co-organized a summit/workshop at Ryerson Library called “In Our Own Words: Decolonizing Description in the Library and Archival Community.” The event brought together community members, scholars, and cultural heritage workers to discuss the standards and language used for information description; the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action; and the impacts of colonization on institutions. The event was designed as both a forum for discussion and a space for cross-disciplinary coalition-building.

“The standards that we use were created in the early 19th century by settlers,” said Ryerson librarian Trina Grover, an organizer of the event. “They were very concentrated on Christianity; were looking at this land as terra nullis that had to be discovered and conquered; and looked at the original inhabitants of this land as something to be eradicated. Those ideas all informed the standards that libraries are still using today.

“Rather than us coming up with a plan and saying, ‘Here are all the things we’re going to do to fix this mess,’” Grover continued, “we are having an event to have conversations. There is a danger, especially for someone like me who has been at Ryerson for a long time, to come up with answers. But that’s part of the problem: dropping in and ‘fixing’ the problem. … We’ve already started doing some things in the Library, but we really need to start with building relationships with the community.”

At Ryerson’s Library, some steps are already being taken. The Library’s website includes an Aboriginal Research Portal providing easy links to important resources, as well as prominent display of the land acknowledgment. The Library participates on the Truth and Reconciliation working group, and is expanding its internal education for staff on Indigenous issues with more speakers, film screenings, the blanket exercise, self-study MOOCs and other educational offerings. The Library also recently received a donation of art from the Aboriginal Education Council.

Looking ahead, the Library is planning Indigenous programming, events, and community engagement initiatives for the fall. It is preparing to support efforts to bring Indigenous knowledge to the curriculum and to develop new research initiatives and institutes. It is also consulting on ways to Indigenize its spaces (both large scale and small scale) and plans to expand its holdings of works by Indigenous authors, experts, and scholars (the Library currently  acquires content through the First Nations-owned book wholesaler

Guiding these changes must be a more nuanced understanding of Indigenous history itself. “Indigenous histories are a very small section of our collections,” said Grover. “They’re marginalized and underrepresented. That’s partially because the systems we’re using were created by settlers, professionals in the early 19th century and they reflect that worldview. There’s also the idea that Indigenous Peoples are relegated to history. There’s less recognition that people are still here—still part of our communities.

“The dominant narratives in our collections are western. That’s something that we’ve focused on in our collection-building, and we want to re-think that. We have some unlearning to do.”

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