How this Indigenous programming librarian is helping to decolonize the library

2022-04-20

As we move into 2022, we are entering the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. The roots of this began when the United Nations declared 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages, given their importance for development, peace building and reconciliation. The organization noted that “languages play a crucial role in the daily lives of people, not only as a tool for communication, education, social integration and development, but also as a repository for each person’s unique identity, cultural history, traditions and memory.” They identified five core focuses of the initiative, including integrating Indigenous languages into standard settings, increasing understanding and reconciliation worldwide, creating favorable conditions for knowledge-sharing, and empowering communities through capacity building.  

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Much of this is in line with the work libraries do every day. As preservers of cultural and intellectual history worldwide, it’s a pertinent time for libraries to look at their own practices as well. As countries around the world home in on reconciliation efforts and revisit their relationships with local Indigenous communities, the need for Indigenous libraries, along with the decolonization of libraries on a broader scale, is increasingly top of mind. 

To offer one perspective on this important work, we spoke with an Indigenous programming librarian about her experience and how she’s working with her community to evolve her library’s practices. 

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Kayla Lar-Son is originally from Treaty 6 Territory — Amiskwaciwâskahikan (ᐊᒥᐢᑲᐧᒋᐋᐧᐢᑲᐦᐃᑲᐣ), which means Beaver Hills House, the traditional name for Edmonton, Alberta. She currently lives and works on the unceded traditional territories as an uninvited guest of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations in what we call Vancouver, British Columbia. “My mom is Métis and my dad is a Ukrainian settler,” she says. “My worldview and the way that I practice librarianship is connected to the land that I'm from and the communities that claim me.” 

Lar-Son’s current role is as the Indigenous Programs and Services Librarian for the Xwi7xwa Library at the University of British Columbia (UBC), which is the only Indigenous-focused academic library in Canada. She is also the Program Manager Librarian for the Indigitization Program, a collaboration between various UBC partners, as well as the Northern British Columbia Archives and Special Collections at the University of Northern British Columbia. “It’s a program committed to clarifying the needs of Indigenous communities regarding conservation, digitization and management of Indigenous knowledge,” she says.  

We spoke with Lar-Son about Indigenous libraries as part of our 2022 Future of Libraries report research. Here, she shares some of her initiatives for decolonizing the library space and the important considerations guiding her work. 

Let the community define who they are and what they need 

 

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A critical first step is actually listening to the community and their wants and needs before embarking upon any new efforts. Lar-Son made it clear that libraries will face challenges if they try to define the community they serve, rather than having community members’ voices at the table to advocate for themselves. “We need to involve our community members in all aspects of decision-making around ways that the library can better serve them,” she says, “whether this is programming, or technology use, or even building new libraries and what that space looks like for them.” 

Look at the digital tools and capacity building provided by Indigenous libraries 

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One of the initiatives Lar-Son is most excited about is providing servers for the community, along with digital collection hosting. “This is a fairly new service that some libraries are exploring. We are collaborating with the British Columbia Electronic Library Network to host digital heritage collections for Indigenous communities. This will allow communities to securely access and preserve their digital content.” 

She notes that this needs to go hand-in-hand with giving communities the skills and knowledge to access this technology. “Additionally, with the hosting service, we are also exploring ways for communities to upload their own content and build the capacity to facilitate their own collections. We need to provide training so that communities can actually use these technologies in the most barrier-free way,” says Lar-Son. “This could be online or in-person workshops, or toolkits that we provide that are free of charge and open access…We can do this through library granting or funding programs.” 

Prioritize Indigenous data sovereignty and data management 

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Along with digital tools and access, Lar-Son highlights another important consideration: that libraries need to prioritize Indigenous data sovereignty. This means giving Indigenous communities the right to regulate and control the data that is recorded and collected about their communities, histories, culture and lands. 

“Indigenous data sovereignty is not necessarily new to Indigenous communities, but it's fairly new within libraries,” she says. “So many Indigenous communities have very specific protocols for how to access and share information about them, and often this is informed by their own worldviews and understandings. When it comes to us as libraries, we need to be aware of how to facilitate conversations with communities, especially when we're acting as stewards of sensitive information or stewards of materials that we have gained in our collections over time, without the permission of the specific communities that we work with.” 

One tactic is to change classification systems to use more culturally appropriate language. “When we adopt and include terms that are reflective of the experience and perspectives of communities, it's a step forward in the redress of colonial powers and power structures,” says Lar-Son. “For example, at the Xwi7xwa Library, we use an adaptation of the Brian Deer Classification System and the First Nations House of Learning subject headings. Both the classification systems and the subject headings take into account the language communities use to describe themselves and how they want to be called.” 

Redefine protocols around information ownership

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On a broader scale, decolonizing the library also means putting ownership of information back in a community’s hands. “We have to be aware of what is in our collections, the content we hold and how us having these collections might affect community members,” says Lar-Son. “When it comes to digital collections, we should advocate for the adoption of content management systems that allow for tiered access to community collections and knowledge. Often these permissions are defined and delegated by the community. It's the onus of the library to ensure that these content management systems and servers are sustainable and that the preservation of the collection is long-term — or that we hold them in trust until the community asks to be in control again. In that case, we have to be prepared for conversations around the repatriation of digital collections.” 

Lar-Son notes that it’s also important for academic libraries to re-examine what constitutes research — and who constitutes as a researcher. ”From there, we can then adapt our policies around things like borrower cards and restrictions to specific borrowers,” she says. 

Develop culturally responsive programming  

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To create culturally responsive programming, Lar-Son recommends listening to communities’ asks: What are their interests? What are the gaps in services that the library has right now, and how can working with community members address those gaps? 

“When it comes to libraries changing the way that they operate, we're seeing a lot of learning and unlearning,” she says. “It’s important to engage in heart-learning and listen to communities' wants and needs in the process of doing this work.” 

For librarians looking for resources to help guide their own decolonization efforts, Lar-Son suggests the University of Alberta’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Indigenous Canada. The 12-week program explores Indigenous histories and contemporary issues in Canada. Students will acquire a basic familiarity with Indigenous/non-Indigenous relationships and receive a certificate upon completion. Of course, it’s important to turn to your own community and involve them as well. This process requires libraries to revisit their practices and policies regularly to reflect what’s happening outside the library walls — both in their community and worldwide. 

“One thing that I think libraries need to do is not only engage with the community, but really look at our responsibilities to different communities that we serve and hold ourselves accountable to them for doing better,” Lar-Son says. “Then we can change our practices to be more welcoming, provide programming and updated technology, and truly be informed on how to best serve our communities. Because really, without community and without patrons, there is no library.” 

The decolonization of the library space is one of six topics we explore in our new Future of Libraries report, featuring Kayla Lar-Son alongside other industry experts. Read the full report here 

 

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