The role of the library in decolonising

What follows are a few thoughts that are forming my thinking in advance of a staff briefing I will be involved in next month. As always, I’m keen to hear other perspectives and critiques of what follows. These are draft thoughts (I rarely redraft what I write) and form part of ongoing reflections as I develop my perspectives. These thoughts are particularly addressed to white colleagues within the library community.

Back in June last year I wrote a long piece providing an overview of some of the things I have learnt whilst I continue to work alongside and support colleagues’ leadership across the academy, tackling the domination of whiteness across the curriculum and beyond. The piece was broken down into various aspects of the work that I had reflected upon. I continue to reflect on activities and conversations that take place in seeking to support the work that is being undertaken, and I particularly wanted to build on one aspect of my previous post upon which my understanding has deepened.

It’s very easy as a library worker to over-estimate the centrality of the library within the academy. It is our work and we can seek to imbue it with a degree of importance that is perhaps over-stated. This is understandable, of course. Libraries (across all sectors) and library workers are fighting to demonstrate their relevance amongst a raft of cuts, closures and job losses. Under such conditions it stands to reason that we’d strongly assert the importance of the service and the work we do. It’s an understandable defensive mechanism. However, it can very easily trip into over-statement about the extent to which we can influence the wider environs in which we exist.

Decolonisation work is one such area where that over-statement can be evident. There is a real danger that, because we host a huge range of resources and facilitate access to those resources, we over-estimate the extent to which we can make change happen. That library workers can be in the vanguard of decolonising the curriculum. That our efforts, in and of themselves, can bring about the change we wish to see. That if we stock more books by people of colour we will magically transform the academy into a wholly decolonised place of learning. In working and collaborating with others, we must be clear about the limitations of the role of the library and of library workers.

Take the subject/faculty/academic liaison role (of which I am part). In this role, working with academics to ensure resources are available for the curriculum is obviously key. Academics produce reading lists, those in library roles (in most institutions) ensure that the resources for the curriculum are available. It is here that those in liaison roles need to tread carefully. We may, for example, lack the necessary subject knowledge to steer or guide academics in the development of their reading lists. We may, however, be in a position to point to colleagues within the academy that are in a position to provide guidance and support. Whether we guide the academics ourselves or we point to resources available to support them in changing their reading lists, we must be conscious of the extent to which this demonstrates a move towards decoloniality. Providing a handy list of readings or resources merely provides a veneer of decolonised teaching. Putting a book by a person of colour on a reading list isn’t of itself “decolonising”. It’s nothing more than a marketing exercise. Good PR. An effort by the lecturer to show they “get it”. The process of decolonisation, however, needs to be much deeper. It needs to permeate every aspect of our practice; our teaching, interactions, services, all must be subject to deep critical reflection. It must not be the role of the liaison librarian to assist academics in a process of rebranding, of performing decoloniality.

Equally, however, it is important for those in liaison roles (or, indeed, any library worker) not to sit on their hands and do nothing. The role of the library may not be at the centre, but it does have an important role to play if we are serious about tackling whiteness in the academy.

In my view, library workers and the library have a key role to play as a connecting force. The library is one of the few services that has the capability to connect like-minded people across the academy. We connect with academics and students every day. We have a good idea of the practice of particular academics and their research interests. Likewise, activity within the library draws the interest of individuals across the academy. Take a particular course of action, and you may find others interested in that action from different disciplines and faculties.

Over the course of the year I’ve been involved in conversations with a number of academics from different disciplines about decolonisation. One of the things that becomes abundantly clear very quickly is that there are lots of pockets of work taking place in silos. Given the nature of academic labour, you may find academics working in the same department (let alone the same academy) as others doing similar work, yet unaware of the work being carried out (this can be caused by many factors, including working patterns that don’t align with colleagues, work or home life pressures, or lack of opportunity to meet with colleagues more generally). Working in silos ensures the status quo prevails. Without solidarity, co-operation and mutual support in conducting radical work, we merely adopt the role of Sisyphus.

Connecting others can be a powerful force for change, and we are in a position to make those connections. When we know an academic is wanting to make change happen, and we know of good practice elsewhere in the academy, then the most powerful thing we can do is to connect them. Through connections, solidarity, co-operation and mutual support blossom, and change can happen. Raising awareness of other work across the academy can result in collaborations and further development of the work that has taken place, putting in place the foundations for far-reaching and substantial change (not just within the academy, but across academies). By not seizing the opportunities to connect like-minds, we are ensuring whiteness maintains its dominance, because those that seek to break it down are divided. A hundred different rocks being pushed up a hill, never reaching the summit.

The role of the library is not to dictate what goes on reading lists. It is not to tell academics what books to put on their reading lists so as to ensure a veneer of decolonised teaching and learning. The library cannot effect the change that needs to happen. The library cannot lead the decolonisation movement. What the library can do is help to build connections and solidarity. It is vital for white colleagues to understand that the role of the library in decolonisation work isn’t about traditional library work. It is not about books on shelves, it’s about building connections and linking together like-minded individuals. Only can then the library play a part in the solution, rather than merely reinforcing the status quo.