Indigenous Leadership, Sovereignty & Libraries in Australia

Always Was, Always Will Be – Indigenous Leadership, Sovereignty & Libraries in Australia

Dr. Kirsten Thorpe (Worimi, Port Stephens) is a Senior Researcher at Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education & Research, University of Technology Sydney (UTS) with broad interests in research and engagement with Indigenous protocols and decolonising practices in the library sector. Dr. Kirsten advocates for the 'right of reply' to records and capacity building and support for the development of local Indigenous digital keeping places. She submitted her thesis titled "Unclasping the White Hand: Reclaiming and Refiguring the Archives to Support Indigenous Wellbeing and Sovereignty".

In the recent publication Living on Stolen Land, Ambelin Kwaymullina (2020) draws attention to Australia’s settler-colonial present, asserting that we live on Aboriginal land. Kwaymullina’s poem Stolen Land paints a vivid picture of ‘the chaotic violence’ of settlement, the policing of Indigenous people, the removal of children, and the ‘enterprise of annihilation’ that took place as part of Australia’s colonial project. In the final passage from Stolen Lands, Kwaymullina poses the question:

You are Living on Stolen Land, What Can you do About it?

The British colonisation of Australia established the claim that Australia was terra nullius – the doctrine of a land belonging to no one – justified the settlement and theft of land from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This doctrine set out to silence, subjugate and make invisible the long histories, cultures and experiences of Aboriginal people and nations in Australia.

Australian libraries and the broader GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) sector operate on Stolen Land

While there are current shifts to build greater engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, there is yet to be sufficient truth-telling about how libraries have played a role in the marginalisation of Indigenous people and denied recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination in Australia. One clear area that deserves discussion is in relation to the lack of representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers in the library, archives and information sector, and aligned with this the significant gap in the workforce that have specific roles that focus on the care and management of Indigenous knowledges locally on Country.

A report on the findings of the National Survey Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment in Australian Libraries released in December 2021 provided a snapshot of current rates of Indigenous employment in libraries across Australia. Despite the figures from an earlier Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) Workforce diversity trend report 2019 summarising 2016 Census data, indicating that approximately 315 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people identified as working in the GLAM sector in Australia (with approximately 85 Librarians, 65 Gallery, Library and Museum Technicians, 80 Library Assistants and 85 Archivists, Curators and Records Managers), there were a mere 52 responses nationally to the survey. 36 respondents came from public libraries, 9 from academic libraries and 5 from school libraries.

The survey was circulated widely through Indigenous grassroots networks, ALIA, and other channels, and recognising the potential that some Indigenous workers may not have been interested in responding, the numbers are stark. They demonstrate an urgent need for the sector to commit to improving pathways for Indigenous employment in Australian libraries. However, the increase of employment must also be coupled with a recognition that the sector has systemic issues relating to a lack of recognition of Indigenous people’s agency, sovereignty and rights to decision-making that needs to be addressed. The National Survey also included a series of yarning sessions to connect with Indigenous workers about workforce issues and trends that need addressing. Within this, there was strong recognition that Indigenous workers contribute to a vibrant library sector. However, there were a number of recommendations made to address issues requiring structural change.

Key focus area: Key Points / Recommended actions
Leadership support for current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library workers Gaps in supporting career pathways for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees. Issues of people being pigeonholed in ‘Indigenous’ roles. Clear need to create pathways and options to extend leadership capabilities in line with appropriate cultural frameworks. Leadership at all levels, with a focus on growth and retention. Showcase vibrancy of career pathways for new people to enter the profession utilising these profiles and experiences.
Addressing issues of cultural load and identity strain by reviewing current role descriptions relating to Indigenous employment in libraries The cultural load and identity strain that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience in is not recognised. There are concerns that people are doing multiple roles and invisible labour in their work. This leads people to burn out and turns people away from library roles. Clear need to make invisible labour visible and address any concerns of level/remuneration relating to these roles, and address the support that library workers require more broadly in their library setting to implement Indigenous priorities
Continue to invest in nationwide efforts for culturally safe libraries across all Australian libraries Cultural safety is an issue, and with it comes more complex areas of attention such as the existence of lateral violence. These concerns require further support, but they also be recognised as being complex and multifaceted problems. Further investment should take place in continuing support for cultural competence, and simultaneously developing mechanisms for addressing the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff for their cultural safety.
Articulate and plan Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander priorities in libraries through appropriate strategic frameworks A lack of strategic frameworks and planning for Indigenous priorities in library settings was evident. This led to ad hoc and informal approaches that were unclear in direction or how they engaged in Indigenous community stakeholders and partners. Investment in an Australian libraries research and engagement project could address these gaps to build a future for Australian libraries’ engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including a key focus on employment. The framework aligning with the M&G Roadmap First Peoples: A Roadmap for Enhancing Indigenous Engagement in Museums and Galleries may be a useful model.
Increase opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander networks professionally Without ATSILIRN there is a gap in how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can network effectively within the profession. There are no formal structures that provide opportunity for information exchange on a national level across different types of libraries. There is a clear need to support ATSILIRN’s revitalisation and develop in-person or online forums that support the networking of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people nationally. The network is not for institutions to gain but for people to build connections and participate in dialogue, exchange, and learning.
Data collection Improvements and need for ongoing collection As a pilot study the research also tested the methodology for data collection. The study highlighted a need for further improvements in collecting more granular data on employment conditions. There were limitations in the pilot survey design and survey tool utilised to reveal these connections in the data. A clear area of need is looking at data relating to employment pathways and career development, for example, looking at types of roles and time in employment and analysing the type of role versus conditions employment status.

Table with Recommendations from the National Survey on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment in Australian Libraries.

Undoubtedly, significant work is needed to build vibrancy in the AUSTRALIAN LIBRARY AND GLAM SECTOR to support Indigenous people’s priorities. However, this work will only be meaningful if forged through Indigenous leadership. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are currently driving significant change in the sector, and the communities they work with, need to be given the space and resources to consider communities needs around their sovereignty and self-determination. Put simply, professional associations and GLAM institutions – in the process of reckoning and truth-telling – must support these new agendas by identifying resources and creating spaces for change, but then they need to step out of the way. The potential harmful impacts of this work being misdirected by institutional needs and priorities are only now rising to the surface. It is time for listening and transformational change to support Indigenous people’s information needs.

Your Library is operating on Stolen Land, What is the One Thing you do about it?

Returning to and expanding the call to action from Kwaymullina, I ask that you:

Make your first step by considering issues of power & representation.

Think about:

  • Who sets the agenda? 
  • Who has the power? 
  • Who controls the resources? 
  • Who makes the decisions? 
  • Whose voices are dominating? 
  • Who is listening? 
  • Who is being heard?

Make your second step to support Indigenous leadership.

The words Always Was, Always Will Be provide an opportunity for GLAM workers to reflect on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s positions of sovereignty and representation and for people to open up their practices to engage deeply with the history of place. Indigenous representation in libraries requires acts of refiguring practices beyond the status quo. It requires a giving back and a handing over of power to enable Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing to permeate library practices. Indigenous people are ready to lead this work, but is the sector ready to support the change that is needed? Are we prepared as a sector to talk about what it means for our libraries to operate on Stolen Land?


  • CONNECT with the long-history of the land – We live in a country that has within its nations ‘thousands of generations’ of histories, long histories of people connected with place, family and communities over millennia. 65,000 years of continuous living history. Australian libraries can play a significant role in supporting this long view of history, and the recognition of Indigenous people’s sovereignties. Make this recognition central to your library (as a site) and your library (as a mindset) and connect deeply with your local community networks. 
  • RECOGNISE the features and tools of the colonial project – The efforts to silence and subjugate Indigenous sovereignty are systemic and libraries, archives and museums continue to use these tools in their collecting and documentation processes. Call out the systemic and structural bias and work towards dismantling and transforming these systems in your library. Be open to have difficult conversations and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. 
  • RESPECT Indigenous knowledge management requirements – Action to support Indigenous protocols for the management of information and archives are not issues of ‘cultural sensitivities’ they are real requirements for the protection of knowledges according to local ways of knowing, being and doing. The work of supporting Indigenous knowledge management cannot be approached through colonial frameworks, they require approaches that support relationality and respect.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the diverse communities across Australia and acknowledge and pay our respects to Elders, and leaders, past and present. I also acknowledge my family who are Worimi (Port Stephens, NSW).

Further reading

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