How to read Aboriginal archives

My blog post about including interpretation of original material and records relating to Aboriginal people, culture and history into information literacy education

Because accessing and utilising information is a necessity to personal empowerment and social inclusion and because of the current mass proliferation of information and the abundance of information available, there has been a drive from libraries, especially academic libraries and information services to assist their users become information literate to better find, evaluate and use information. This is usually done by information services hosting and providing training and workshops with the aim increasing participants’ information literacy skills.

In Australia, these types of programs are usually based on Australian and New Zealand Information Literacy Framework which presents six standards which underpin information literacy acquisition, understanding and application by an individual. In the tertiary educational context, these programs are usually aimed at new students to show them how identify their information needs, for example what their assessment question is asking them, how to develop a search strategy for those needs, what resources they can use to search for the information they need, what resources are considered reputable, how to note take and cite these sources. Also, there are programs are aimed at students of a certain discipline to show them what databases and journals related to their discipline are available to them and how to fully utilise them for their studies.

I suggest that information literacy workshops aimed at history, Indigenous studies, and journalism students as well as many other students, incorporate a discussion on historical context around the original material and records in GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) institutions that relate to Aboriginal people, culture and history as part of their information literacy education as these sources are considered primary and reputable. This discussion will aim to help students critically engage with this material by assisting them understand that most of Indigenous material in GLAM collections was recorded by European colonisers and as such has a Eurocentric bias and lacks an Indigenous perspective which can mean these sources may intentionally or unintentionally misinterpret, omit and/or distort aspects of  Aboriginal people, culture or history. This discussion will also put material into its historical context, describing concepts like scientific racism, so students can for example, understand that material created right up to the 1970s were based in a time where major anthropological thought considered First Nations cultures and people as savage and primitive.

Additionally, this discussion will engage students to question the intention of the material. For example, government records are considered to be by many as objective, but they were created with intention. These intentions include justifying mass displacement and more governmental control over First Nations people. Furthermore, secondary sources also need to be questioned as most these interpretations have been done by non Indigenous people which has subsequently continued the lack of Indigenous perspectives and voices in history.

In addition to this, this discussion will ask students to critically examine GLAM institutions as many people, including students see GLAM institutions as sources of authority and places of neutral facts. However,  these institutions have historically privileged certain voices (chapter 11) and have been exclusionary of many other voices, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. This has proliferated and continued a one-sided history which has aided the colonial agenda and has contributed to a social hierarchy and the dehumanisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Because these institutions and people that work within them decide what to collect and preserve based what they believe would be valuable to future generations and  that their concept of value is heavily influenced by the dominant oppressive culture, then they cannot be places of complete neutrality. This is something that many students who would potentially use these institutions do not consider.

This is not to have students not use the original material and records in GLAM institutions that relates to Aboriginal people, culture and history, but to critically engage with this material, which includes questioning it. Like, who created it, why was it made, why was it collected and why was it preserved? And to examine any invisibilities or lack of voices in the dialogue, particularly first hand accounts from First Nations people.

I believe by doing this we are helping students become more information literate particularly in regards to standard 3 The information literate person critically evaluates information and standard 6 The information literate person uses information with understanding and acknowledges cultural, ethical, economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information of the Australian and New Zealand Information Literacy Framework.

By Nathan Sentance

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