Welcome to The Decolonized Librarian

Welcome to The Decolonized Librarian, a blog for exploring diversity, contestation and hegemony as expressed and played out in the spheres of libraries and information. We will be exploring — and who knows, maybe even answering? — the question: In a world that seems to be both coming together and flying apart in unprecedented ways, how can the academic library respond, accommodate, learn from and be transformed by dramatic social change and diverse user communities – who are, themselves, responding to these changes?

My name is Michael Dudley. As the Indigenous and Urban Services librarian at the University of Winnipeg, I have for the past year been travelling on a transformative professional journey as I engage and work with the racially and culturally diverse students on campus, in particular those associated with the Aboriginal Student Service Centre. It’s been a privilege to be welcomed into the lovely, supportive and politically active community they’ve developed there – standing alongside them at Idle No More rallies, and congratulating them at their Graduation Pow-Wow. There’s a lot of library literature around being “embedded” in university departments, but there’s something very special about building relationships with culturally distinct user groups. I look forward to working with other campus constituencies such as the International Students Services Centre and Accessibility Resource Centre! To better help me in this work, and to develop my own understanding of the theories, methods and practices of academic library diversity services, I’ve decided to document my journey towards being a “decolonized” Librarian. My reasons for blogging about this work are five-fold:

  • First, I’m doing a huge amount of reading, and want to engage with this literature in as close to real-time as possible. The literature I’m exploring — Indigenous studies, critical race theory, critical disability studies, queer theory, multicultural education theory and how all these intersect with librarianship — is raising all kinds of questions that I’m anxious to get into exploring, if not answering.
  • Second, these issues are continually arising in contemporary events, and I’d like to be able to respond to these events in a timely manner. The energetic media analysis around the Idle No More movement comes to mind!
  • Third, blogging is an opportunity for dialogue, and I’d like to gain insight and input from fellow librarians, educators and students.
  • Fourth, the very interdisciplinarity of these explorations means that there will be ample opportunities for making connections with other bodies of literature, contemporary scholarship, active practitioners and organizations working in similar areas. Blogging will allow me to provide readers with linkages to these on an ongoing basis.
  • Fifth – and from a practical perspective — all this material can provide a rich basis for me to generate more formal scholarship and publishing down the road.

So why a Decolonized Librarian?

In his classic book, Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said noted that, in an imperial society, the culture itself becomes inseparable from its government’s imperial project. In an imperial culture, the belief systems and assumptions that make colonization possible, acceptable, desirable and justifiable become a part of the social environment to the extent that they are scarcely recognized. The violent erasures of other cultures has, far too often, happened without comment or censure, and gone unobserved and unremarked – or worse, been viewed with approval.

By extension, Western academic libraries — emerging as they did from Enlightenment-derived epistemology and premised on Euro- and Christian-centric knowledge structures – retain this legacy of imperialism, whether we consider biased Library of Congress classification and subject headings, the enculturating role of library collections, or our libraries’ very physical presence on Treaty – or stolen – land.

This is not to say that libraries are locations of oppression — far from it. As I myself have argued in my book Public Libraries and Resilient Cities,  libraries have a long history of embracing progressive causes and working to address a host of challenges facing their communities. As well, readers of Revolting Librarians and Revolting Librarians Redux will know that librarians can be passionately radical advocates for social justice and structural change.

That being said, the structures upon which libraries are premised — that is to say classification and catologuing schemes such as the Library of Congress and the Dewey Decimal system — are the children of an imperial era, which was replete with its own, self-justifying vocabulary and iconography. To illustrate, consider the masthead photo I chose for the Blog: of a centuries-old “Geography of Africa” tome housed in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Hofburg Palace, Vienna, Austria. I present it here as a metaphor for the present project: a book printed during the Imperial era, offering the then-current state of European knowledge about the world — in this case Africa — by Europeans and for Europeans.  The cherubs above (white, of course) carry a banner labelling the scene for us, and the African “Other” is depicted as a cornucopia-like source  of wealth, offering forth the bounty of the Continent, including ivory, to the European reader.  The promise of civilization awaits in the form of the massive obelisk on the horizon, even as serpents portend that the knowledge gained in Africa may be dangerous. It is, in other words, a near-perfect manifestation of the Colonial model of the world — a hegemonic model that would be subsequently legitimated and codified in library classification and cataloguing schemes, to say nothing of our systems of public education.

A hegemonic culture is not, however, confined to matters of race, imperialism or outright colonization. Rather, it occurs whenever the belief systems and structures of a dominant and satisfied majority overwhelm, overlook, harm or deny the needs and aspirations of multiple constituencies, whether these are people with disabilities, women, children, the elderly or those expressing diverse sexuality and gender identities. This is a theme about which I gained extensive familiarity in my years teaching and writing about urban planning, and through such literature as Leonie Sandercock’s Towards Cosmopolis. Recognizing and challenging these assumptions on the part of institutions and professions — and the multiple but often hidden disadvantage they create — involves processes of decolonization – internal, social and institutional.

One more thing, but it’s important: please don’t assume that the title refers specifically to the author; after a half-century of acculturation and enculturation as a white heterosexual North American male without a disability, I realize I have a fair bit of privilege to unpack, assumptions of my own that will need examination. Rather, it is a statement of general intention for the Blog, and an aspiration for the profession — and yes, also for myself.

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4 thoughts on “Welcome to The Decolonized Librarian

  1. Greetings. A great initiative! You say your reasons for blogging about this work “are five-fold”. Wondering if you would be interested in a sixth — what can a decolonizing librarian do to assist in decolonizing Canada?

  2. Absolutely, great point; I should have addressed the larger horizon as that is the context of the whole project.. Thank you!

  3. As a Canadian lecturing in a university based in the global south, I look forward to reading “the decolonized librarian” for dialogue and inspiration. Thanks for starting this project.

  4. Hi, I’m a Navajo/Omaha/Cherokee librarian down here at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute. I happened upon your blog and will continue to check in and read your insights into your environment. I have worked at a university library in Arizona, at Dine’ College Library on the Navajo Reservation and now here at SIPI which has a diverse population of indigenous students. All three library environments present similar and then different challenges within processes already in place or lack of. I do agree on the premise that, overall, libraries are historically places where the user/worker must adapt to the culture. It is most definitely a challenge to Indigenize a library even in the smallest of ways. I think that, for me, because I am from the Navajo Nation and know only one way of approaching people, I continue to do so which is very simple and includes an introduction into who I am and who I come from. An introduction establishes the relationship to the students/staff/faculty that I work with. Visually and with organization, I like seeing things happening at other tribal organizations basing structures on their own ways of knowing the world and in that way decolonizing the library/archive/museum. Thanks for creating this space to bounce thoughts off of.

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