Libraries and decolonisation: a conference report

By Alice Corble and Danny Millum

A couple of weeks ago we attended the ‘Decolonising the curriculum –the Library’s role’ conference at Goldsmiths, at which Alice was speaking. Given that the University of Sussex Library is in the process of formulating its own approach to decolonisation, and that this is both an extremely important and yet often frustratingly vague topic, we thought colleagues might be interested in a quick report.

Conference presenters. Photo credit: @ElizabethECharl on Twitter

The conference in many ways embodied both the importance and the vagueness referred to above – it was absolutely packed (with apparently sixty more people on the waiting list) – with a diverse range of enthusiastic library professionals and academics, and the number of talks (see the full programme, abstracts and presentations here) shows how much activity is going on and how much interest there is in this area. One of the conference organisers, Elizabeth Charles (Assistant Director of Library Services, Birkbeck, University of London), has recently published an excellent UKSG Insights Paper on the pressing need for UK library and scholarly communications sectors to engage with the difficult work of decolonising curricula, which can be broadly defined as:

creating spaces and resources for a dialogue among all members of the university on how to imagine and envision all cultures and knowledge systems in the curriculum, and with respect to what is being taught and how it frames the world’ (Keele University, 2019, cited in Charles, 2019).

Academic libraries play an integral role in providing ‘spaces and resources’ and facilitating access to ‘knowledge systems’, and hence should not be exempt from participating in such dialogue. Indeed, the Decolonise Sussex student-led campaign extends its definition of decolonisation beyond the focus of ‘the curriculum’ to the very structures of the higher education institution itself.

“Decolonisation” has become a key concept in the Higher Education landscape over the past few years, with a number institutional strategic initiatives emerging in responding to Student Union campaigns, while some argue that its growing popularity as a buzzword risks glossing over crucial and painful complexities in its meaning. Many of these knotty problems were discussed amongst conference delegates at Goldsmiths, during lively and constructive breakout groups throughout the day (read a record of some of these here).

The conference presentations can be grouped into three main areas as outlined below: projects pertaining to (i) diversifying collections and BAME inclusion (ii) decolonising cataloguing and classification and (iii) decolonising reading lists and pedagogy.

Diversifying collections and BAME inclusion

Highlights included learning about the University of Huddersfield’s ‘Broaden my Bookshelf’ project, which was promoted and organised by newly-appointed student BAME ambassadors, who engaged in a reading list audit and a series of high-profile events in order to address the vast disparity in awarding outcomes between white students (78% of whom received 1st / 2:1 degrees), Asian students (66%) and Black students (55%). There is also a significant gap in academic attainment between students at Sussex, where the BME gap is 14.3%, with the black attainment gap is worryingly higher at 26%.

Meanwhile at the University of Winchester, a Human Library project involved visitors ‘borrowing’ a Human Book for half an hour to ask direct questions about their lived experience, especially in relation to societal bias and prejudice. As a side note, it was also interesting to contrast the level of funding required for the different projects – Huddersfield had a whopping £20k to spend on books, whereas Winchester’s Human Library budget was just a few hundred pounds.

Several more talks described other laudable projects of this sort, often centring around Black History Month. While completely understandable, this meant that there was not always a clear distinction between ‘decolonisation’ and a wider diversity and inclusion agenda, with the potential danger that if institutions believe they can address student/staff demands for decolonisation with a once-a-year display of books by black authors (or changes to a couple of reading lists in already sympathetic departments), this may forestall more serious attempts to address deeper structural issues. It should be noted that everyone at the conference seemed to be aware of this issue, with concerns around ‘tokenism’ being cited in all discussion breakout groups.

Decolonising cataloguing and classification

Another theme that emerged concerned efforts to address issues of bias in classification systems. A great deal of work has already been done on this in University of Cambridge library services (see here for the excellent website they have produced with resources on the subject), while a fascinating presentation from the Scott Polar Institute highlighted their plans to revise Polar UDC’s subject headings so that (within the system they have), the catalogue does not reproduce colonial terminology and classification structures, drawing on the broader expertise and ideas from students and staff across the Institute.

This area in particular is of interest to us at Sussex, where the cataloguing team are already working on substituting offensive terms (e.g. ‘illegal aliens’) and where the BLDS Legacy Collection Project is looking at applying metadata to a collection drawn primarily from the Global South and which literally represents the structures of empire and colonialism. A recent launch event for this project highlighted a big appetite amongst attendees for it to be a key opportunity for collaborative decolonising work.

Decolonising reading lists and pedagogy

Kevin Wilson shared important insights gained from analysing LSE reading lists, using data gathered from Talis Aspire and Alma (headline: even those courses solely concerned with the histories of Latin America or Africa are sourcing nearly all their books from the UK/US). You can read more about this project here, which might provide a useful template for providing an evidence-based argument to academics to support a change of purchasing policy.

A favourite session for Alice was a workshop-based presentation on ‘Creative Library Research’ from library and academic skills staff at University of the Arts London, which asked delegates to respond to abstract diagrams and quotes from Marcel Proust and Malcolm X as a way of opening a discussion about the curatedness of libraries, and critiquing systems of knowledge using critical reading and creative literacy skills. Another hugely engaging presentation on the pedagogy theme was led by Goldsmiths’ own Sara Ewing (based in the Library’s Academic Skills Centre), who used Linda Tuhiwai Smith‘s work as a basis for a series of Decolonising Research Methods workshops, showing students in disciplines as unlikely as law that there are biases, assumptions and unquestioned legitimacies inherent in the very foundations of the Western epistemological approach.

Concluding thoughts

All in all we came away with a huge amount to think about, lots of new contacts and great resources, and a sense that if someone were to ask us what ‘decolonising the curriculum’ meant we would probably say ‘well, it’s a complicated (but overdue) work in progress…’

If you would like to learn more about this complex but vital topic, Alice has created a reading list here.

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