De vill göra upp med kolonialismen

I England har en grupp bibliotekarier anslutit sig till en rörelse som arbetar för att dekolonisera universitetsutbildningarna, ”Decolonise the curriculum”. Rörelsen, som samlar såväl anställda som studenter, vill utmana de koloniala mönster som upprätthåller strukturell ojämlikhet. I en intervju med bis berättar de om vad biblioteken kan göra.

Text: Karin Råghall

Skyltning av böcker på ett bord i ett bibliotek med tema dekolonisering.
Foto: Eve Lacey

For library workers in Sweden who are not familiar with Decolonise the curriculum – could you explain what it is about?

The campaign to Decolonise the Curriculum grew out of other student protest movements, such as the #RhodesMust-Fall campaign to remove statues of British Imperialist Cecil Rhodes, first at the University of Cape Town and then at the University of Oxford, and the “Why is My Curriculum White?” movement founded by students at University College London. The campaign began with students challenging the biases and oversights in their course content, teaching, and assessment. 

What are the goal(s) of the movement?

To critically engage with the assumptions that govern the content and methods of teaching, and to examine the ways in which these grew out of, informed, and maintained colonial rule; to highlight structural inequality within education in terms of attainment, promotion, representation, and pay.

How did it all start in Cambridge?

Decolonise the English Faculty was probably the first major project involving a library in Cambridge. After the publication of an open letter written by students, English librarians met with students and contacted academics teaching American and Postcolonial literatures. As a result of the consultation, they created a new classmark for Contemporary Global Literature in English and moved over 2000 works by contemporary authors who write in English from American and postcolonial countries to this new classmark. They have plans to extend this model throughout the library, aiming to merge all English-writing authors together, separated only by relevant time periods.

Other starting points included the work of CUSU BME (Cambridge University Students’ Union Black and Minority Ethnic Campaign; Black Cantabs, which led to a public portraits exhibition in the University Library); and the Cambridge Decolonisation Network, which brings together movements to decolonise all the different faculties.

Now you are a group of librarians working together with the decolonising agenda in Cambridge. Can you tell us a bit about who you are?

Clara Panozzo and Christopher Greenberg work for the Latin American and Iberian Collections at the University Library, a copyright library which collects every book published in the UK through a system of legal deposit; Jennifer Skinner works at the African Studies Library, which caters primarily to graduate students; Mehves Dignum began work on this project from the Modern Languages Library and now works at the Engineering Library; Eve Lacey works at Newnham College library, the college student’s “home” library which caters to all subjects, with a particular emphasis on undergraduate requirements. We have established a mailing list of library workers who attended Decolonise the curriculum-workshops and hope to expand the group.

How did your work start?

The first workshop was held in November 2018, and our four presentations focused on:

  • the reclassification of authors at the English Faculty Library;
  • the Decolonising the Education Curriculum Project at the Modern and Medieval Languages Library and the importance of academic librarian role and engaging with students;
  • the consultation process for collection development in a College Library that caters for many subjects, and how to approach in-house classification schemes;
  • the implications and dilemmas around knowledge production and global publishing practices and how to engage with independent publications from the Global South (through the example of “cartonera” books from Latin America) from the perspectives of collection development and accessibility.

We then organised discussions in small groups around the decolonisation campaign and how it could be linked specifically to the practices of classification, cataloguing, collection development and information literacy.

How does your group work today?

We hope that the model of critical librarianship will allow us to interrogate the way we approach our collections and contribute to the ongoing Decolonise project from the perspective of library work. As well as sharing ideas through the mailing list, we would like to gather material for an online platform that could act as a reference resource for librarians attempting to change their policies and working methods. Finally, we plan to arrange regular reading and discussion groups where librarians can get together to advise each other on best practice.

In terms of collection development, our aims include sourcing material from a variety of international and independent publishers and suppliers to avoid an EU/US monopoly, and to counterbalance the inherent bias of legal deposit and the publishing industry. We would also like to encourage discussion on the power imbalance in journal publications and rankings, and of English as a lingua franca.

In cataloguing and classification, we’re looking for strategies to challenge monolingualism and overcome the “technical” problems around using diacritics and non-Roman scripts. Members of the network will also contribute to an international code of ethics for cataloguers. It would be great if our work could eventually put pressure on larger organisations (such as Library of Congress and Dewey) to reconsider their practices too.

For special collections, we hope an online resource could feature a list of international suppliers, a guide to providing the right contextual material when curating exhibitions, and outreach ideas to make our libraries more welcoming and accessible.

Within information literacy, we hope to evaluate the ways we teach research skills (for example, criteria that privilege “western” practices over indigenous knowledge) and develop more inclusive methods, as well as acknowledging algorithmic bias (race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity) when teaching users to search online resources.

Do you feel that your work has contributed to a change?

It is hard to tell yet. It has hopefully made people consider the Decolonise agenda in the context of library work (as opposed to an issue that only affects students and academics). However, partly due to the decentralised nature of libraries across the university, it is likely that work will be sporadic and patchy. There may be small, simple (but time-consuming) measures such as modifications to the in-house classification schemes in different libraries, as well as broader changes in special collections policies. We think this could be more effective than a top-down instruction, and continue the incremental and collaborative nature of the campaign.

What has been most difficult so far?

It is always harder to reach the people who are not already interested or sympathetic to the politics behind the campaign, but luckily the student movement seems to have gathered enough momentum that universities are considering the question of their involvement in colonial thought and practice at institutional levels.

Another challenge is finding the time to promote and encourage work. We hope that efforts to decolonise cataloguing, classification, special collections, and information literacy will come to be considered as integral to every library role, but the initial stages rely on individuals’ enthusiasm to get established.

How has the response to your work been?

We have had lots of enthusiastic response from a self-selecting group of librarians who were interested enough to attend the workshops in the first place. We are hoping that the next steps will include opportunities for librarians who were not already familiar with the movement to join in and learn more about how to best adapt their practice. We are hesitant to encourage any response that might appear celebratory – we’re all-too-aware that this is the very start of a project with no end, and that the focus of the campaign should remain on the original demands for change and critical thinking, rather than an occasion to celebrate the success of the institutions the campaign seeks to challenge.

Can you describe how you see decolonising initiatives in relation to “diversity initiatives”? I’m asking because in Sweden there is a strong tendency – within the society as a whole as well as within the library world – to talk widely about diversity/integration, whereas more critical concepts (such as anti-racism, anti-discrimination, decolonisation) are seldom mentioned. That is, most institutions and people in positions of power rather use concepts that blur potential conflicts and power imbalances.

One of the topics discussed in our workshops was ways in which librarians can engage with the campaign beyond creating displays and making our acquisitions more “diverse”.

These methods worked well as a first step to demonstrate our interest to students and encourage them to engage with the collections. However, we know that this is an easy and limited response, and that we should go on to address more difficult questions.

One frequent early response came from library workers who were unsure how the Decolonise campaign could apply to STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) subjects. This concern seems to derive from a confusion between diversity and decolonisation; while it may appear easier to address diversity from the perspective of Humanities and Social Sciences (with increased spending on fiction by writers of colour, new acquisitions on world history and political thought from the Global South, more writing in translation from a wider range of languages, etc.), the links between STEMM subjects and contemporary imperial practices (which intersect with environmental and ethical investment concerns such as the campaign to Divest, Disarm, Decolonise) seem more pertinent and urgent.

We hope that the new network will allow us to think critically about the ways in which our work collaborates with or shores up models of pedagogical oppression, rather than limit the library response to considerations of diversity and representation. The split into four strands was designed to encourage more thinking about library policies (in terms of acquisitions, suppliers, loans, inductions, access, and discoverability). Focusing on the more technical aspects of librarianship seemed to encourage critical thinking beyond diversity and towards changing our working methods.

Something else you would like to share with us, library workers in Sweden?

Here is a mailing list where UK librarians have been sharing relevant resources, events, and ideas: lis-decolonise@jiscmail.ac.uk.

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