Monica Galassi shares her experience on the importance of how reflecting on one's personal positionality can strengthen opportunities for individual leadership across the library sector.
Monica Galassi is a PhD student at the School of International Studies and Education, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FAAS), University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and a researcher at Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education & Research. Monica’s work and research interests focus on the importance of people having the right to access and manage their cultural heritage materials, also recognising that this is a key driver for social justice.
I have been a library user since I can remember, and a professional who has worked in and collaborated on projects with libraries. As vital spaces for engagement and common good, they are undoubtedly one of the only few places left in this world where people can meet, feel a sense of community and, most importantly, access knowledge for free. I believe library workers hold vast responsibilities as active mediators across societies.
I consider the library profession a rewarding one and a career pathway that brings responsibilities towards creating a society I aspire to live within. However, to see libraries as a safe space for everyone, and for everyone’s knowledge, is as much as a naïve, utopian thought as it is a dangerous one. In my experience working in Gadigal Country focusing on programs, services and collections dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities, I quickly learned how Australian libraries have the power to privilege narratives and exclude knowledges, dictate agendas, and perpetuate exclusion of First Nations’ voices within their organisational structures and internal culture.
In 2005, Torres Strait Islander leading academic Martin Nakata reflected on these issues warning us that to be inclusive of everyone doesn’t necessarily imply to be reaching everyone: “In recognition of diversity within the Indigenous collective, Libraries and the Information Sector (LIS) services for Indigenous Australians must always assume the broadest notion of Indigenous access and use of libraries in ways no different from other Australians. However, it has also to concede that both in the collective sense and in terms of many Indigenous individuals and communities, there are Indigenous needs and interests that are distinct from those of other groups of users” (Nakata et al. 2005, p. 15).
In 2022, in a historical moment where structural racism and white privilege have been brought to light and the world is pulsing for change, the question of how libraries and librarians become relevant for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander users remains still largely unexplored.
The more recent field of Critical Librarianship has been emphasising these tensions affecting libraries within a range of communities, investigating the ways in which “It uses a reflexive lens to expose and challenge the ways that libraries and the profession consciously and unconsciously support systems of oppression” (Nicholson & Seale, 2018, p. 2). Mindful of the divergent narratives and points of views existing in this area of study, I would like to explore how self-reflection can be used as a tool of empowerment for staff, and for improving equity of access in libraries.
While I do not claim to represent the experience of everyone, I am able to share my journey of how deepening my understanding of my personal and professional positionality has equipped me with new ways of thinking about my skills and forged a space for feeling stronger in influencing change.
What does ‘positioning’ or ‘positionality’ mean?
When I started working in and with libraries in Australia, I was constantly feeling apprehensive about not having the right to speak in this area. I was a newly arrived Italian migrant, had very little experience working in libraries and, most of all, I was a non-Aboriginal person working in the field. As well, I was aware that in my professional role I didn’t have opportunities for influencing leadership and I felt powerless on many occasions, also observing other colleagues feeling the same way, in a system that encourages you to take an objective approach that “Helps reinforce the racialized power-dynamic status quo” (Brook, Ellenwood & Lazzaro, 2015, p. 274).
In this journey I found it helpful to investigate social sciences approaches, that over the last decades has started to widely accept that “Objective reality can never be captured” and that “We know a thing only through its representations” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005, p. 5). But I also reflected on my past studies in cultural anthropology, for example through the depiction of anthropologist Gillian Colishaw (2004), who describes ‘Positioning’ as a technical term in social science referring to the links between an individual’s position within a social order and their social consciousness and thus their social theorising (p. 68).
More recently I became familiar with Indigenous approaches to knowledge that understand that, where you are placed, – your positioning or standpoint – “Will fundamentally influence the way you see the world” (Behrendt, 2019, p. 176). I started reflecting on where I was situated within the landscape I was working within and looking for opportunities for impact. What were my weaknesses? What were my strengths? How could I have contributed to the overall discussion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights to access and control their knowledges held in libraries? I then decided to start my PhD research focusing on the investigation of intangible cultural heritage related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges and experiences held in Italian collecting institutions and on how this work could support Aboriginal sovereignty on a transnational level.
It was during the “Voyages of discovery” that gave rise to colonialism, that a range of European authors (such as explorers, missionaries, and private individuals) wrote diaries, journals, official documents, drawings and took photographs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. A considerable amount of this information was exchanged and sold among European collecting institutions, churches, cultural societies, and private collectors. A number of these records are still held in Italy, scattered among different regions, institutions and collections, often unknown in Australia.
I summarised some of these reflections of this journey below:
Learning 1. Being aware of the knowledge system in which I operate
|I am a white woman who was born and grew up In Italy and migrated to Australia. Professionally, I was trained as a cultural anthropologist and therefore studied colonial and Aboriginal histories through a western lens.
|I am now conscious that I have been adopting this lens when approaching work for cataloguing or making available library collections online.
|CARVING SPACE FOR LEADERSHIP
Create opportunities of learning from the direct experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with libraries, decentralising my Eurocentric experience.
This includes, asking and listening to what is not working, and what makes sense for other peoples’ operating within different knowledge systems.
These investigations included suggestions for cataloguing, preserving digital content, and sharing appropriate guidelines and best practice for the management of these content widely across the LIS.
Learning 2. Acknowledging my presence on stolen land
|I have had the advantage of living on unceded Aboriginal land for the last twelve years.
The richness and vibrancy of Aboriginal cultures made me fall in love with this Country, but reminds me every day that I wake up and live on stolen land.
How am I part of this still existing history?
How can I acknowledge it to show the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people visiting the library that I care?
|CARVING SPACE FOR LEADERSHIP
I adopted my own ways to share knowledge about this current and multifaceted histories, including:
Learning 3. I am a migrant, but I am not excluded from reflections on truth telling in Australia
|I have the privilege of living in the Land we now call Australia, as many other refugees and migrants from across the world do not have the opportunity to do so.
I have been able to possess these rights also thanks to the ongoing migration to Australia that slowly started in 1770 when Italy wasn’t a unified political entity yet, and to the political alliances of the two countries.
The archival records related to Aboriginal peoples that are held in Italy and in the Vatican that I am now investigating have been collected over time by Italian migrants, scientists and missionaries and are inextricably interconnected to the exploitation of Aboriginal Land and the threats to Aboriginal self-determination and sovereignty.
On the other hand, being a migrant working in Australia also means I am fluent in Italian and that I have both an understanding of the Italian cultural landscape and the complexities around the management of cultural material related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (for example regarding the dangers of appropriation of knowledge and privilege in this area).
|CARVING SPACE FOR LEADERSHIP
Sharing Aboriginal voices internationally through my PhD research, reflecting on the meaning and importance of the ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ during events, and reflect on my own colonial past.
Learning 4. If I want to work in this area, I need to give back
|I am building a professional career working with cultural collections related to First Nations knowledge and lives.
I am occupying a place which could be an opportunity for someone else. The ALIA employment survey highlights the repeating structural issues present in libraries with Aboriginal employment and lack of opportunities (Thorpe, 2021).
|CARVING SPACE FOR LEADERSHIP
|The minimum I can do is to try to give back part of this privilege, carrying on my work, but looking for Aboriginal leadership (inside or outside the library). Utilise any opportunity to connect with management and external stakeholders about the need of supporting Aboriginal pathways across libraries, especially in leadership roles.
1 Behrendt, L. (2019). Indigenous Storytelling: decolonizing institutions and assertive self-determination: implications for legal practice. In Archibald, J., De Santolo, J., Lee-Morgan, J. (Eds.), Decolonising Research. Indigenous Storywork as a Methodology (pp. 175-186). Zedbooks.
2 Brook, F., Ellenwood, D., Lazzaro, A. E. (2015). In Pursuit of Antiracist Social Justice
2 Denaturalizing Whiteness in the Academic Library. In (Ed.) B. Mehra, Social Justice in Library and Information Science and Services. Pp. 246-284.
2 Cowlishaw, G. (2004). Racial positioning, privilege and public debate. In A. Moreton-Robinson (Ed.), Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. Aboriginal Studies Press.
2 Denzin, N.K. and Lincoln, Y.S. (2005). Introduction. The Discipline and Practice of Qualitative Research. In N.K. Denzin and Y.S. Lincoln (Eds). Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research (3rd ed, 1-32). Sage Publications.
2 Nakata, M., Byrne, A., Nakata, V., & Gardiner, G. (2005). Indigenous knowledge, the library and information service sector, and protocols. Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 36(2), 7-21.
2 Nicholson, K., Seale, M. (2018). Introduction. In The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship. Pp. 1-18. Litwin Books.
2 Thorpe, K. (2021). National survey on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment in Australian libraries: Research report. Australia Library and Information Association (ALIA). https://read.alia.org.au/national-survey-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-employment-australian-libraries-research
- Belarde-Lewis, M. & Duarte, M., L. (2015). Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies. Cataloguing & Classification Quarterly, 53(5-6), 677-702. 10.1080/01639374.2015.1018396
- Land, C. (2015). Decolonising Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles. Zed Books.
- Barrowcliffe, R. (2020). #BlackLivesMatter and Archives in Australia. Indigenous Archives Collective. https://indigenousarchives.net/2020/06/17/blacklivesmatter-and-archives-in-australia/
- Finlay, S. M. Where do you fit? Tokenistic, ally – or accomplice?. University of Wollongong Australia. https://www.uow.edu.au/media/2020/where-do-you-fit-tokenistic-ally--or-accomplice.php
- Stevens, K. (2020, October 1). REVEALED: The shocking comments about indigenous Australians found in outdated children’s books still stocked in school libraries. UK Daily Mail. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8792737/Shocking-comments-Aboriginals-childrens-books-stocked-school-libraries.html
- Thorpe, K. (2019). Transformative Praxis—Building Spaces for Indigenous Self-determination in Libraries and Archives. In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Accessed 5 November 2019 at: http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2019/transformative-praxis/
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.