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Reflections on ILIG's Decolonisation conference
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Reflections on ILIG's Decolonisation conference
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I was lucky enough to be able to attend this conference, thanks to a CILIP Wales bursary. As a BAME library professional myself, I am glad that there is growing awareness around this topic. Decolonisation is a buzzword in academic libraries at the moment. As a concept, it refers to people being unfairly disadvantaged because of their race and relates to the historical effects of colonialism still impacting today.

Image from Fields & Mires-Richards, Kent University, 2019
(Image from Fields & Mires-Richards, Kent University, 2019)

The main themes of the Conference were:

- Understanding of race in the UK both in higher education and the wider context.
- How libraries/universities raise awareness on issues of race
- Innovative uses of resources such as curated reading lists
- Applications of User Experience (UX) Research specifically geared to people of colour.

The way that Jamie Finch (ILIG Chair and the conference organiser), set the scene for the day was great. We wouldn’t just be looking at abstract ideas but at actual lived experiences of BAME delegates and students:

Understanding of Race (aimed at non-BAME attendees) --- Realization --- Lived Experience

(Finch, 2019) (Finch, 2019)

Dr Zainab Khan’s(London Metropolitan University) keynote “Race Equity in the Academy: Are Institutions ready to move from Rhetoric to Action?” was hard-hitting. Today’s divisive political and social climate means that understanding and respecting race continues to be very important in the UK’s academic sector. As Dr. Khan said, all too often, this is treated as part of “diversity work” when it is much more than that. It is about re-situating European thinking and scholarship, so that it isn’t placed above non-European or non-white thought, but alongside it.

Much of what Dr. Khan said resonated very much with me, particularly when she talked about only learning about Indian and other non-Eurocentric history and experience, outside of school. Learning about forgotten or ignored parts of history, such as the fact that 89,000 Indian soldiers died fighting for the Allied forces in World War II, would benefit children and young people in improving their understanding of the society that they live in today.

I liked Dr. Khan’s practical suggestions. She told of how, when she was teaching a Law module to students who were almost all from Malaysia, that she decided to change the module content from EU law, which had no relevance to them, to one based on Malaysian Law which they could relate to. De Montfort and Kingston Universities were cited as examples of good practice.

How do we ensure that decolonising isn’t treated as just a fad, a fashionable bandwagon involving token gestures such as displaying posters during Black History Month or adding a couple of books to reading lists, but that it is taken seriously and leads to lasting, meaningful change in organizations? Genuine buy-in from the leaders of the academic institution is key. We need to identify which committees are making changes and try and get involved. The work that may be going on separately in different parts of a University, such as working to address the attainment gap of Black students, needs be co-ordinated. This may mean actually slowing down change, so that it can be implemented more successfully.

Alex Mormoris (Postgraduate Student, University of Birmingham) shared some of his quite beautiful writing and poetry exploring identity, in “Decolonisation or Recolonisation: a narrative exploration. When 96.7% of library staff are white, (compared with 85% of the general population workforce), as CILIP’S recent workforce mapping survey found, there is clearly a need for greater ethnic diversity. Jenny Bayjoo , from the University of Salford and Founder of Diversity in Libraries in the North (DILON) discussed the challenges of talking about race in libraries in “Fitting in and Speaking Out”. Bayjoo highlighted that you need to be prepared to be regarded as a “killjoy” if you bring up matters about race. As libraries are traditionally viewed as “nice spaces” it can be awkward to criticise or be taken seriously. Bayjoo made the rueful observation that, just because she has a brown face she is viewed as an expert on everything to do with race! She has been contacted by many other library professionals and other Universities to review their decolonisation policies.

Examples of User Experience (UX)

Belonging in the Library – Making sense with Zines (Ka-Ming Pang, University of Roehampton).
With University students getting “survey fatigue” from being asked to fill in so many surveys, such as the NSS (National Student Survey), library staff need to employ different feedback methods.The way that Ka-Ming used zines to get student feedback is a method that could be easily used in academic and other libraries. Zines, (handmade or cheaply-produced leaflets), were designed in a workshop by a focus group of BAME Student ambassadors, to explore how they felt about the Library. Ka-Ming made the good starting point of creating a zine about herself first, to share with the students. She commented that, although we can try and steer our students/users towards answering questions about the library, students will talk about what interests them. How we frame questions is important, for example, asked about the use of 24/7 opening – one student felt she was being judged as being “last-minute” with her work, as she preferred working at 3 a.m. in the morning. Reassuringly, the Library was felt to be a space of positivity, kindness, and a place to invest in yourself.

Can UX Decolonise the Library? (David Clover, University of East London)
David described how UX techniques were part of the Belonging Project, at his University. First, observational studies were conducted on how students used the library spaces, and then student interviews provided the key data as to how they felt about the spaces. Comments included students saying that they liked to be able to see library staff there, but didn’t want them to be situated too close to them. Also, that they thought of library staff as their friends. One student said that she felt comfortable and safe enough in her own enclosed study booth that she could remove her hijab.

Toolkit for Change: Diversifying Library Collections (Sarah Field & Emma Mires- Richards, University of Kent)
Sarah and Emma explained about their role in Kent University’s wide-ranging “Diversify my Curriculum” project. Firstly, they liaised with academic staff on a small number of modules, asking the academics to assess the diversity of their reading lists. As librarians, although we don’t compile the reading lists, we can offer support and awareness. The response was lukewarm, with staff implying that the core texts were all written by white, male writers and why did it matter who wrote it. However, once students themselves became involved in phase 2 of the project, the students were far more engaged and reviewed a large number of module reading lists. They were really keen to make their readings more representative. Sarah and Emma have created a “Diversity Award Mark” for departments at the University and are compiling a diversity toolkit of useful resources. Image from Fields & Mires-Richards, Kent University, 2019 (Kent University, 2019)

Decolonising the LIS (Library & Information Science) education curriculum (Briony Birdi, University of Sheffield)
I thought Briony’s presentation was really pertinent and we do need to think about how to improve the LIS curriculum, for those entering the library profession. Her discussion about starting the conversation and how to explain “white privilege” (taken from “Race equality at the University of Sheffield, September 2019) was illuminating. The CALISE Cultural Awareness Model that she has devised sounds like an excellent practical resource.

Overall, the whole conference programme was well-thought out, with some wonderful speakers. I learned so much about how we can help to decolonise our own library settings.

Key Take away Messages:

- Often it’s about starting the conversation on decolonisation.
- Think of achieving small wins – it will take perseverance and patience.
- Student and NUS (National Union of Students) engagement is crucial to the success of projects. Similarly, user engagement in other library settings.
- Ensure follow-up with any UX undertaken, by liaising with committees and making recommendations.

Yasmin Noorani, Academic Support Librarian, Bangor University

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