University of Sydney: Library adopts sector-leading Indigenous protocols

The University of Sydney Library has introduced sector-leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural protocols to promote culturally safe practices across services, spaces and resources.

The protocols – the first of their kind at an academic library in Australia – are designed to address wide-ranging issues including access to culturally sacred and secret materials, racism and inaccuracies in historical materials, and representation of First Nations voices and perspectives. As they are implemented – an ongoing process that will take several years – the protocols will have an impact on every aspect of library operations, from collection development to the design of library spaces.

“Libraries are places where knowledge is collected and stored, and where people go to learn and potentially create new knowledge,” said the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor Indigenous (Academic), Professor Jennifer Barrett.

“Libraries are not immune from history and too often perspectives and knowledge systems of First Nations peoples are underrepresented or misrepresented. This has a serious impact on our understanding of what Australia is.

“These protocols – the most comprehensive at any academic library in Australia – seek to address that imbalance and ensure that First Nations peoples, their material and cultures are appropriately acknowledged, that the library is culturally responsive so that all staff, students and community members feel safe, respected and valued in the library.”

The protocols provide a set of principles and guidelines to improve library practices in areas including:

Acknowledgment of cultural custodianship The library will avoid acquiring newly authored material containing First Nations cultural knowledge created by non-Indigenous people without the informed consent of relevant communities. The library will also work to ensure its cataloguing system retrospectively acknowledges First Nations communities as owners or contributing authors of legacy material, where relevant.
Access to cultural information Where collection material contains secret or sensitive cultural information, the library will strive to consult with relevant First Nations communities to determine who has access, under what circumstances. For example, material including images or descriptions of gendered cultural information (men’s business and women’s business) might be accessed physically for research purposes only, but not duplicated. At the same time, the library will work to make cultural information more accessible to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members, digitising material containing First Nations languages, songs and family histories to ensure it can be seen by those outside Sydney.
Collection development The library will seek to increase acquisitions of material by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people and communities, working with First Nations academics and the University’s Indigenous Strategy and Services portfolio.
Interpretation of inaccurate and outdated material The library’s collection includes material containing inaccuracies and outdated views about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture. The library will look to challenge such misrepresentations by providing information about the historical context of material created by non-Indigenous people without First Nations input or consent.
The protocols will also shape library spaces and increase First Nations representation in exhibitions and events. As an early step, the library has commissioned a video artwork by Wiradjuri artist Jazz Money, Yilabara (Now). The work, on display in the library entrance foyers, is an acknowledgment of Gadigal land, contrasting the built environment of the University’s Camperdown campus with the Ku-ring-gai National Park – a landscape that existed for millennia before colonisation.

The protocols draw and expand upon the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protocols for Libraries, Archives and Information Services, published in 1995 by national organisation, the Australian Library and Information Association, and endorsed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library, Information and Resource Network. While influential, these protocols are not universally implemented.

Outdated and offensive material can be damaging, but also potentially useful. We don’t want it to be closed away, but we want to make users aware of the context it was created in.
Nathan Mudyi Sentance, Cultural Adviser in Residence
To lead the development of the new protocols, the University of Sydney Library appointed Wiradjuri librarian and museum educator Nathan Mudyi Sentance as Cultural Advisor in Residence. Sentance, who is Head of Collections, First Nations, at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, has loved libraries since childhood but has nevertheless experienced “a sense of colonialism” inside such institutions.

“There are factors at play that can give you a sense of, ‘Am I meant to be here?'” he said. “A lack of First Nations perspectives gives you the feeling that the default library user is a non-Indigenous Australian from an Anglo background.

“I’m particularly interested in how we engage with our historical collections – that tension between understanding that outdated and offensive material can be damaging, but also potentially useful. We don’t want it to be closed away, but we want to make users aware of the context it was created in.”

Close collaboration between the library and First Nations communities will shape the implementation of the protocols, with plans to appoint an Indigenous Engagement Officer and convene an advisory group to facilitate consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders. The library also aims to increase the proportion of First Nations staff to approximate parity with the broader Australian population.

The next step is to begin to survey the library’s collection – numbering some three million printed items alone – to better understand the scope of First Nations cultural material and identify secret and sacred material.

“Our collections are vast, so implementation is going to be a multi-year endeavour,” said Dr Antonia Mocatta, the library’s Director of Central Services.

“We have covered all aspects of academic library work, across services, collections, acquisitions and maintenance, and how we engage with First Nations clients. In terms of scale and scope, this work is unprecedented in the academic library sector in Australia.”