Gateways to knowledge

Published on 26 April 2021 Go back to The ACU Review
To Māori, the silver fern stands for strength, resistance, and enduring power (Credit: Georgeclerk / iStock)

How can university libraries become more representative of, and responsive to, indigenous communities?

By Spencer Lilley, Massey University / Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

In colonised Aotearoa New Zealand, education was identified as a way in which to ‘civilise’ and assimilate New Zealand’s indigenous people – Māori. This involved distancing Māori from their culture, language, values, and systems of knowledge, and was reinforced through the introduction of political, social, and economic structures that reflected the dominance of western thought and traditions.

Formal education was introduced by members of the Church Missionary Society. Although the first mission schools used te reo Māori (the Māori language) to deliver lessons, the style of teaching and curriculum were modelled on that used in Britain. This remained true of the Native Schools system that followed, except, by then, English had taken over as the language of instruction.

The first universities in New Zealand were established in the 1870s, with educational and governance structures that mirrored those of Europe and emphasised the supposed superiority of western academia. Although Māori students with the necessary academic credentials were able to enrol, the curriculum remained firmly focused on western forms of knowledge. It was not until the 1950s that the first courses on Māori language and culture were introduced into the curriculum.

Since the 1980s, however, Māori language and culture have undergone a renaissance, and this is reflected in the range of courses and qualifications now available at all eight of New Zealand’s universities. These universities now not only reflect the traditions and philosophies of western knowledge but are also increasingly inclusive of mātauranga Māori – Māori knowledge systems.

The number of Māori students enrolled in university study has increased from a mere trickle in the 1890s to more than 17,000 in 2020. However, this participation rate is only 12% of all university enrolments and is considerably lower than the Māori population over all – an estimated 17% of New Zealanders. Recruiting Māori students is important, but of greater importance is ensuring that they can thrive and remain in education. This calls for strategies and services that are designed to help Māori students to achieve academically and culturally.

Ka Mua Ka Muri, a mural by Xoë Hall, brings te ao Māori (the Māori worldview) to vibrant life on campus at Massey University The Ka Mua Ka Muri mural and artist Xoë Hall at Massey University | Image courtesy of Massey University (1)

Colonial constructs

The role of the university library in assisting Māori to succeed is critically important. However, like the universities to which they belong, libraries are colonial constructs, formed and developed on the principles of western knowledge.

Prior to colonisation, Māori had other ways of sharing, storing and preserving knowledge, and there have been calls for libraries in New Zealand to decolonise themselves to become more representative of Māori approaches to knowledge. This is a complex issue: a true decolonisation process would involve the deconstruction of bureaucratic, cultural, physical, and psychological structures and the rebuilding of these to reflect the values and knowledge structures of the colonised peoples. Implementing a decolonisation strategy within a university library would ultimately lead to the duplication of services, collections and facilities. This, for many libraries, would be highly complex and often impractical.

I prefer the alternative approach of indigenisation. In contrast to the deconstructive approach of decolonisation, indigenisation is a process of transforming existing services to make them more representative of, and responsive to, indigenous needs. A critical aspect of this process is to ensure that it’s embedded in every part of a library’s structure and functions.

Kanohi kitea – the face seen

Indigenisation enables the integration of services, resources, collections, policies, and strategies that are specifically tailored to the needs of indigenous staff and students. At the heart of this is the creation of specialist positions aimed at engaging with Māori clients.

These specialist staff require traditional library skills as well as expertise in mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge), tikanga Māori (Māori culture and customs) and proficiency in te reo Māori (Māori language). Although much of their time may be spent providing Māori specific services, not all Māori staff and students are focused on Māori studies. However, these clients might still wish to be supported by Māori library staff rather than a subject specialist in their chosen discipline. This requires the Māori specialist to have a broad range of knowledge of different disciplines and the ability to navigate the essential information tools that enable access to these resources.

It is also important for Māori specialists to be known to the communities they serve, which includes attending important Māori events on campus. This is the principle of kanohi kitea (the face seen), which helps build stronger connections with groups and individuals, and creates opportunities for Māori library staff to share what the library can offer.

Ngā Kupu Ora – the living words

A key element of the indigenisation process is the development of specialist collections focused on Māori knowledge. At Massey University library, we created a collection called Ngā Kupu Ora (the living words).  It includes more than 9,000 different items including books, newspapers, and audio-visual items. Another collection includes copies of Māori Land Court minute books – a rich source of information about how Māori land was alienated and very important to researchers seeking information on whakapapa (genealogy) and tribal history.

Māori Land Court minute books are a rich source of information on how Māori land was alienated from its people (image courtesy of Archives New Zealand) Māori Land Court Minute Books | Credit: Archives New Zealand via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

But for students and staff to benefit from these resources, it’s essential that they can find what they need. Standard library catalogue and classification systems have often been felt to be monocultural and monolingual, making accessing Māori information more difficult. Moreover, mātauranga Māori (knowledge) systems are distinct in their interdisciplinary nature, meaning Māori library users may wish to draw on knowledge across disciplines which may otherwise be seen as unnatural partners in western academic frameworks.

Today, however, university library catalogues, as well as those in public libraries across New Zealand, now include Māori subject headings created in a mātauranga Māori (knowledge) framework using te reo Māori terms. This allows users to search for and identify library resources that relate specifically to how Māori knowledge systems are structured and connected, and can be much more precise about cultural matters than other library subject headings. Meanwhile, the controlled thesaurus of Māori subject headings and search terms continues to be developed to reflect the distinctiveness of Māori related resources. New terms added in 2021 include those for infectious diseases (mate hōrapa) and artificial intelligence (atamai hangahanga), as well as fire-making (hika ahi), fishing reefs (ngā toka ika), and heavy metal music (puoro tino pīauau).

As well as subject headings, te reo Māori can be integrated throughout library services and facilities. At Massey, classes on how to use the library, taught in te reo Māori, mean that fluent te reo Māori speakers can learn using the language they feel most comfortable with. Te reo Māori can also be found in brochures, websites, signage, and a dual name for the library itself: Te Putanga ki te Ao Mātauranga, which translates as ‘the gateway to the world of knowledge’. This name represents the interconnectedness of knowledge systems and evokes a library’s ability to provide access to knowledge beyond its four walls.

Responsibility for indigenisation cannot rest solely on the shoulders of Māori or other indigenous peoples. It needs support from senior leadership and other non-indigenous allies who are able and willing to develop their own te reo Māori abilities and knowledge of the Māori world. Nonetheless, indigenisation offers a constructive and practical way for university libraries to become more inclusive to a greater and more diverse community of users, and this is to the benefit of everyone.

Dr Spencer Lilley is Associate Professor of Information Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. At the time of writing this article, he was Associate Professor at Te Pūtahi-a-Toi – the School of Māori Knowledge – at Massey University, Aotearoa New Zealand. He identifies as a bi-cultural New Zealander, with genealogical affiliations to Māori (Te Atiawa, Muaupoko and Ngapuhi).

Images: The image of Ka Mua Ka Muri, a mural by Xoë Hall, is courtesy of Massey University. Learn its story here. Image of Māori Land Court Minute Books, courtesy of Archives New Zealand , licensed under CC BY 2.0. Fern (top) by Georgeclerk at iStock

Missed our previous issue on indigenous and endangered languages? Catch up now, including Hēmi Kelly on 'A new dawn for te reo Māori'

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