Recently, I have been working with two undergraduate students as part of the River Campus Libraries’ Career Exploration In Libraries And Mentoring (CEILAM) program. In the program, library workers collaborate with students on semester length projects in support of library service areas. Our project focuses on using identified grant funds to expand our local collection of Seneca materials. We seek to expand these collections as a land acknowledgment, and as part of our strategic goal of enhancing collections diversity, equity, and inclusion. The River Campus of the University of Rochester sits on Seneca Nation Land, in fact the site of a village by the Genesee River.
Both students have provided leadership in resource identification and community outreach, coordinating work with local Seneca scholars, leaders, and creators. I have provided feedback and logistical support particularly in the form of collection development and acquisitions frameworks.
From the start, we identified the priority of honoring contemporary indigenous knowledge and art. We didn’t want another biography of Sagoyewatha by another white guy. We have been routinely aided in our approach by the work done in Canadian libraries.
In their work, “Moving the Circle: Indigenous Solidarity for Canadian Libraries,” Julie Blair and Desmond Wong put it clearly.
“In their collections, libraries must work to ensure that authentic Indigenous voices are represented. Indigenous experiences written by Indigenous authors, and resources developed by small community publishers should be represented in the collections as an alternative view to enrich diversity (Woroniak, 2014).”
In the vast majority of academic libraries in North America, the whiteness of the collection is a given because of the whiteness of The Academy and the whiteness of Western scholarship. It has been a privilege and a tremendous opportunity to step outside the acquisitions workflows that can create barriers to libraries connecting with and supporting creators directly. It has also been eye-opening to approach the process with undergraduates who carry no conceptions of how knowledge should be brought into the library.
There are many challenges to tackle when considering how to approach increasing nonwhite representation in research materials at an academic library while avoiding the pitfalls of cultural theft and appropriation. There are many opportunities we can make to decolonize collections. But our purchase workflow, and the homogeneity of the channels through which we acquire resources, had not occurred to me as a major barrier until this project. Try finding indigenous creators in Gobi- it’s a nightmare.
In the process of “simplifying” and “streamlining” the vendors we work with, we have helped to reinforce the dominance of larger publishers and we have reinforced white hegemony. Now, when we go to look for small community publishers, they are gone or been consolidated. We are losing voices when we lose presses. For libraries with larger budgets, I believe small press investment and engagement is crucial to the redress that needs to be made.
Beyond that, this process has made me more of a believer in the importance of the so-called “inside-out” model for library collection building. If my library- which has one of the strongest budgets and collecting interests in this area- if my library cannot find resources to buy, we should commission it, host it, share it.
All of this is to say that sometimes the work of managing and developing an ARL collection can feel very macro- so large-scale a view as to be incomprehensible. The joy of the smaller collection project is the way it always reminds you why you are fighting what you are fighting for. If access is justice, representation is another step towards equity. It feels good to do the work.