Indigenous 101: Decolonizing the library

June 7, 2019

Indigenous 101: Decolonizing the library

Lorisia MacLeod, a member of the James Smith Cree Nation and Instruction Librarian at NorQuest College, is responsible for introducing some notable innovations to the library system. She is a passionate advocate for prioritizing Indigenous voices and ideas and says that the concept of “nothing about us without us” is very important here.

Subject headings – many of which have been used for decades if not centuries – are an obvious concern in modern libraries. For instance, Indians of North America not only uses an incorrect term for Indigenous peoples, but erroneously reduces dozens of tribes and civilizations to one large group.

“Using the historical nomenclature Indian might be appropriate for someone who is looking for historical documents, since that was the term used at the time,” says Lorisia. “Back then, we didn’t have any voices at the table when this was decided – but now we do. I know that there are many libraries across North America that would benefit from an update.”

Lorisia points out that appropriate systems do exist, such as the Brian Deer Classification System in British Columbia, which is used to organize materials in libraries with specialized Indigenous collections. Deer, a Kahnawake Mohawk and one of Canada’s first Indigenous librarians, created the system with input from local Indigenous people at the time. According to Lorisia, decolonizing subject headers is being worked on in libraries across Canada and there are many active conversations happening about how to make improvements.

The next significant challenge comes from an outdated way of using citations. In academia, proper citation of Indigenous teachings has long been a point of contention with Indigenous scholars, researchers, and students. The colonial mindset is that printed information is more valid, but that’s commonly not the case in Indigenous communities, where some oral histories have been passed down for centuries.

“When I was taking my university courses, there wasn’t really a good way to cite oral teachings,” says Lorisia. “For example, if an archeologist visits a location and takes away oral teachings from an Indigenous community, it’s the archeologist who gets cited, and not the knowledge keeper. I thought there should be a better way.”

Lorisia was right, but such a citation system didn’t exist. Encouraged by her university instructors, she continued to ponder the problem as she completed her degree in library studies. Once she was working in the NorQuest library, the citation challenge arose again. Lorisia drafted a new template and showed it to the Indigenous team at NorQuest, who provided valuable feedback. As a result, Lorisia has pioneered a new way to create appropriate citations – and the NorQuest Library is the first library in Canada to use it. The template has since been adopted across the country, including the University of Toronto, Maskwacis Cultural College, and Red Deer College.

“Academia hasn’t done a very good job of acknowledging Indigenous knowledge as verified,” says Lorisia. “So I hope this sends a message to students that their community teachings are as welcome here as the books on the shelf.”

Another innovation that Lorisia took the reins on is making it easier for people to learn Cree through the use of 3D printed Cree syllabics.

I’m learning Cree myself, and I remembered that as a child, I really liked those magnetic alphabet letters. So I thought if there was something similar in Cree, that would be a big help.

Lorisia trained herself to use modelling software and with the help of NorQuest’s Technology and Creative Services team, created the syllabic set which can be borrowed by not just NorQuest students, but anyone within the NEOS library system.

When speaking about the ground-breaking innovations she has brought forward, Lorisia stays modest.

“They’re not perfect, but I want people to have conversations. And I’m happy that these changes are happening at NorQuest.”