Culturally Safe Libraries: A collaborative step towards cultural change

In late 2017, National and State Libraries Australasia’s (NSLA)nine Australian members – the heads of our state, territory and national libraries – confirmed Indigenous cultural competency as a collaborative priority. The commitment acknowledged that the information within our institutions is a powerful resource for Australian First Nations peoples, and that the collection materials we hold can be both enlightening and wounding. The sensitivity and significance of these materials means we have a particular responsibility to show leadership in delivering respectful, culturally appropriate services.

The program

The three-year Culturally Safe Libraries Program (CSLP) formally began in mid-2018, led by a steering group of representatives from each member library, including First Australians staff with expertise in collections and engagement. Steering group members were also the local drivers of the program in their organisations. Lesley Acres, Indigenous Services Program Officer at the State Library of Queensland, joined as the CSLP Project Officer in acknowledgement of the cultural knowledge, skills and experience needed to successfully implement the program.

The project’s broad objectives were to:

  • foster culturally safe workplaces for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and public spaces for clients
  • collaborate and engage effectively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, communities and organisations to ensure that First Nations peoples’ voices and views are considered and incorporated
  • take culturally informed approaches to collection management, description, access, and use of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander materials
  • ensure that programs and services are accessible, appropriate, and responsive to the needs and perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • develop sustainable strategies in each Australian member library to ensure policy and practices reflect, and are appropriate to, the interests, needs, and perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees and clients.

The program focused on four areas of collaborative activity:

  1. foundational cultural competence training for all staff
  2. specialist training for collections staff
  3. development of national principles for Indigenous cultural competency
  4. the establishment of a network for Australian First Nations staff in NSLA libraries.

These would be supported by resources, programs, and policies in each library to foster culturally competent behaviour and practice at all levels of the institution.

Foundational cultural competence training

To establish a base level of cultural competency across NSLA libraries, all staff were to complete Core Cultural Learning (Core), an online course developed by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). While it was known that this type of training had not been widely available as part of organisational activities across the NSLA network, the pre-course survey revealed that 63 per cent of participants had not completed any cultural competency training previously.

Between July 2019 and October 2021, almost 2000 staff were enrolled in Core, with a completion rate of 84 per cent. Across NSLA libraries, the online training modules were supplemented by facilitated debrief sessions to give staff an opportunity to talk through and reflect on their responses to their learning.

Specialist training

Staff whose work brings them into contact with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections need to take culturally-informed approaches to collection management, description, access, and use of collection materials. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library, Information and Resource Network (ATSILIRN) Protocols for Libraries, Archives and Information Services outline the practical application of concepts such as secret and sacred materials, Indigenous cultural and intellectual property, and the right of reply.

NSLA endorsed the ATSILRN Protocols in a 2014 position statement intended to guide progressive action in our libraries’ plans and approaches to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander library services and collections. While all NSLA libraries have made progress in some areas contained in the protocols, it is recognised that the protocols themselves are still not embedded in the way we think about and work with our collections, or the peoples and communities to whom they belong.

To begin to address this, a full-day workshop focused on the ATSILIRN Protocols relating to collections was designed for each NSLA library. These workshops, co-facilitated by the CSLP Project Officer and local staff with expert knowledge of the First Australians materials in the library’s collection, aimed to stimulate participants’ thinking about how the protocols might be applied in their work practices as well as to increase their capability.

A suite of content was developed for use in the workshops: videos featuring First Nations staff from NSLA libraries sharing their perspectives on each collections-related ATSILIRN Protocol, case studies illustrating the protocols in action, and extensive links to further resources. The Working with Indigenous Collections resources are freely available on the NSLA website, licensed under Creative Commons so that they can be used as widely as possible.

Due to travel restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic only two of the workshops were able to be presented in person. Given the ongoing uncertainties around travel and library closures due to lockdowns, it was decided to deliver the remaining workshops online and the workshop agenda was quickly reconfigured to accommodate this.

Despite the fact that workshops could not be delivered in person, the results of the post-training evaluation survey were extraordinarily positive, with the activities felt to be engaging, presenters knowledgeable, and content relevant. Most importantly, over 98% of respondents came away with greater insight into the ATSILIRN Protocols and their application to Indigenous collection materials. An incredible 100 per cent of respondents said that they would recommend the training to colleagues.

National Indigenous cultural competency principles

Designed to sit alongside the ATSILIRN Protocols, NSLA’s Indigenous cultural competency principles support member libraries to develop practical and sustainable strategies appropriate to their community context and workforce requirements.

The principles focus on:

  • valuing identity, culture, and diversity in our libraries
  • engaging in respectful and inclusive partnerships and work practices
  • demonstrating leadership, integrity, and accountability in the adoption and maintenance of culturally competent work practices
  • fostering culturally responsive library and information services.

Each principle is guided by a number of associated measures of success.

NSLA Blakforce

Established in 2019, Blakforce is a network for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff working in NSLA member libraries. Intended to facilitate self-determination and peer support, it is self-driven and governed by a Convener and Co-convener. Voluntary membership is open to any First Nations staff member in a NLSA library.

Blakforce functions as a forum for information-sharing and problem-solving at a professional and cultural level, specifically ensuring that cultural safety concerns and opportunities to access other First Nations peers and staff are made available to First Nations library workers at all levels.

In their discussions about CSLP, members reported that, for many, the program had a negative impact, saying that dealing with their non-First Nations colleagues’ reactions to Core training (both positive and negative) “has added to our already full workloads in ways that were not fully understood or planned for by the steering group”. Experiences varied in each library, depending on organisational culture, professional role, and number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues, but highlighted the need for changed employment practices. The lack of First Nations staff in senior and leadership roles was identified as a consistent and fundamental problem.

Members of NSLA Blakforce speak with author Dr. Anita Heiss at their first meeting in 2019; hosted at kuril dhagun, State Library of Queensland.

Individual library programs and policies

Part of the commitment to the Culturally Safe Libraries Program was about instigating library programs and policies that would address the specific gaps or needs identified in individual member libraries as a result of Core training, and in response to the national Indigenous cultural competency principles. This was at the discretion of each library’s leadership, and not overseen by the program steering group.

Examples of actions taken by individual libraries during the program period include:

  • Establishing or reinvigorating First Nations advisory groups.
  • Creating Identified positions for roles working focused on First Nations collections and community engagement.
  • Partnerships with local First Nations organisations.
  • Ensuring that collection development policies and collection management processes comply with the ATSILIRN Protocols in relation to First Nations materials.
  • Creating and staffing appropriate spaces for First Nations peoples to access cultural collection materials.

Outcomes and next steps

The results of the Culturally Safe Libraries Program are testament to the commitment, collaborative spirit and capacity of the NSLA member libraries.

On many levels, that program was a resounding success. Nearly 2000 staff undertook cultural competence training, supported by approximately 200 facilitated debrief sessions. National principles for Indigenous cultural competency were endorsed. A suite of online resources about working with Indigenous collections received over 20,000 page views in its first eighteen months. Nine specialist Indigenous collections workshop, featuring local collections content and receiving unanimous praise, were delivered despite the challenges of a global pandemic.

More difficult to concede is that the program also caused harm to a number of individuals or groups in unexpected and unsettling ways. It surfaced racial tension in places where that tension was previously hidden. It increased cultural labour for some First Nations staff, with colleagues seeking advice or approaching with confronting conversations. It introduced apprehension for those who feared they may again have to watch an organisation make commitments and pronouncements that would never be acted upon. On a more benign level, it left a large number of staff wondering what to do next.

The primary recommendation of the CSLP Steering Group is that individual NSLA libraries transition out of cultural competency as a ‘program’ (something by definition separate to ‘business as usual’. The group asks that libraries take the collective benefits and lessons of the program, listen to staff, and initiate the changes most needed in their local context, in all areas of business – whether further training, recruitment, consultation, or review of policies and procedures. While this important work is happening locally, there are a number of ways in which NSLA libraries can continue to usefully collaborate.

These include:

  • Establishing a NSLA First Nations Advisory Group to provide leadership and culturally appropriate guidance on matters relating to collective initiatives for First Nations visitors and staff.
  • Completion of an annual Indigenous cultural capability audit mapped to the ATSILIRN Protocols, to track and transparently report progress in cultural capability.
  • Continued consortia licensing of Core Cultural Learning training so that it can be offered as part of library induction processes for all new staff.
  • Continued support of participation in, or collaboration with, established and new groups in the sector such as the OCLC Reimagine Workflows project group, IFLA Indigenous Matters Section, and the new Indigenous Expert Advisory Group under the auspices of ALIA (the Australian Library and Information Association).
  • Continued support of Blakforce, with one in-person gathering per year when possible.
  • Rollout of additional rounds of Indigenous collections workshops in coming years.
  • Collaboration in any further training where more than two member libraries share an interest.

Barbara Lemon, NSLA Executive Officer:

Further resources

In-depth series Leadership Conference: Culturally Safe Libraries – ALIA (video, 2021)

Reflecting on CSLP – NSLA (2021)

National survey on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment in Australian libraries: Research report – ALIA (2021)

One thought on “Culturally Safe Libraries: A collaborative step towards cultural change

  1. Dr. V.K.Bajpai

    Thank you so much for sharing this information with me. This information is useful for practising librarians or LIS professionals who want to update their knowledge and skills to remain in this digtial envirnment.

    Dr. V.K.Bajpai

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