Australia’s oldest uni library overhauls how people use Indigenous resources

Sydney University library will restrict access to sacred Indigenous materials and offer First Nations communities a “right of reply” to historically inaccurate texts under changes aimed at making it less Eurocentric.

The protocols will also stop the library acquiring new works from non-Indigenous academics and authors containing First Nations knowledge unless the communities involved have provided informed consent.

Nathan mudyi Sentance lead the development of the new protocols.Credit:Rhett Wyman.

In making the changes at Australia’s oldest university, the library has also acknowledged that much of its collection contains inaccurate, offensive and outdated views of Indigenous people and cultures.

Wiradjuri man Nathan mudyi Sentance, a librarian and museum educator, led the development of the protocols and said he hoped they would make the library less Eurocentric and a more welcoming place for First Nations students, researchers, and academics.

“I was excited by the fact the University of Sydney library even thought to do this,” Sentance said. “University libraries think of themselves in a very particular light, they provide a very particular service, but they do have repercussions.”

“They serve a diverse audience, so they need to reckon with systems and structures that are designed for one particular audience.”

Nathan Mudyi Sentance said the protocols were about ensuring the library was a culturally safe space.Credit:Rhett Wyman.

The library has committed to providing additional information explaining the historical context and challenging incorrect assumptions made in its outdated and offensive works. Furthermore, the library will offer First Nations communities a “right of reply” to outdated material so that they can correct the record if they choose.

Sentance argued that unless additional context was provided to these inaccurate resources, the library ran the risk that people would use those texts to perpetuate false information or outdated views about Indigenous communities in new research.

“A lot of people see things in there as authoritative … so they’d take it as almost gospel, and we need to try and provide more context,” he said.

The protocols also require the library to audit its collection to check for sensitive material that should not be accessed without permission from communities.

Jennifer Barrett, the university’s pro-vice-chancellor Indigenous (Academic), said library staff wanted to ensure they were following best practice.

“It's been really interesting for us to take responsibility for the history of our collections,” she said. “I think the library staff realised that while they had an amazing collection, some of it was not always appropriate to be accessed by the general public.”

Sentance said this was important to acknowledge, as some material may include information on subjects that are sacred or meant to be kept secret.

“There’s a lot of this cultural information that was taken at a particular time, probably without free, prior, and informed consent – the things you’d need to ethically use this information,” he said.

Dr Antonia Mocatta, the university library’s director of central services, said while work was underway it would take at least four years to fully implement the protocols. But she said the library viewed the changes required under the protocol were a top priority for the institution.

“The University of Sydney library is committed to embedding culturally competent practice in what we do, and we’ll work to ensure all staff, students and community members with whom we interact feel safe, respected and valued,” she said.

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