Bulletin of the
Office for Diversity
American Library Association
ISSN 1554-494X



Book Review: Australian Indigenous Knowledge and Libraries
Karen Underhill

Australian Indigenous Knowledge and Libraries
Edited by Martin Nakata and Marcia Langton.  Canberra,
Australia:  Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 2005. (Co-published
as Australian Academic & Research Libraries, vol. 36, no. 2, June
2005).  216 pp.  Available from the Australian Library and Information
Association, $29.95 AUD or the University of Technology, Sydney ePress home
page: <> (Summer
2006).  ISBN  0 86804 563 2.

Since the early 1990s, issues surrounding Indigenous culture have generated
global discussion and recognition of different approaches to the
management, preservation, and dissemination of intangible and tangible
heritage.  As Professor Martin Nakata-director of the Jumbunna Indigenous
House of Learning, University of Technology, Sydney-notes, these complex
issues have profound implications for libraries and archives as stewards of
Indigenous knowledge.  He believes the information professions have
“responded with great goodwill.”  In the words of anthropologist Michael F.
Brown (Who Owns Native Culture?), how should we promote “respectful
treatment of native cultures and indigenous forms of self-expression within
mass societies?”

In 2004, Nakata and Professor Marcia Langton, Chair of Australian
Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, set out to address the
future of Australian Indigenous knowledge vis-à-vis libraries.  A
colloquium, co-sponsored with the State Library of New South Wales, formed
the basis for this publication, which includes sixteen chapters and
nineteen authors--nine of whom are Indigenous.

This compilation explores the intersection of Indigenous knowledge and the
information professions in the broadest sense, from the traditional and
cultural to local and contemporary.  Human rights themes are echoed
throughout the text.  The book covers five major areas:   Indigenous
knowledge in Australia and the world; the politics of Indigenous knowledge;
intellectual and cultural property rights; Indigenous knowledge centers;
and Indigenous knowledge and archives.

The writing styles and content of the chapters are varied.  The authors
offer a refreshing mix of the theoretical and practical.  A strong
introduction, cogent first and last chapters which frame the issues, and a
thoughtful “Afterword” compensate for the diverse nature of the individual

The topics can be disquieting.  Can libraries and archives entertain
differential levels of access to sacred or secret Indigenous knowledge
based on age, gender, initiate status, and role?  How can extant records be
annotated or modified to reflect Indigenous concerns?  How could
intellectual property laws be expanded to recognize Indigenous communal
ownership of knowledge?

Librarians hold dear the concept of intellectual freedom and shy away from
the notion that knowledge can be “owned” or that access may be a privilege
rather than a right.  Dagmar Schmidmaier, State Librarian of New South
Wales, advises all of us to move beyond our “comfort zones.” Collectively,
the authors urge librarians and archivists “to understand the complexities
of meeting the needs of Indigenous people, but also go further to question
assumptions and an ‘unsettling of established practice.’”

Unlike some authors who lament “irreconcilable views of information,” the
Australian writers are more optimistic in their attempts to find common
ground and, in Langton’s words, to put aside the “absurd presumption of
Western supremacy over other societies.”  Dr. Alex Byrne observes in his
“Afterword” that “we have a shared commitment to the preservation and
transmission of knowledge” and points to Article 19 of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights.  The right to know can be balanced with
respect and autonomy.

The ground-breaking work captured in Australian Indigenous Knowledge and
Libraries can serve as a model for comparable dialogue in the United
States.  Tribal leaders, archivists, and librarians in North America have
expressed interest in exploring ways to engage in joint stewardship.  There
are many opportunities for institutions which hold Native American
knowledge to cooperate with communities of origin.

As Nakata and Langton write, “Indigenous people are at the heart of this
matter.  The development of practice in this complex intersection must have
legitimacy with Indigenous people and communities.”  The lesson to be
gleaned from this text for American librarians and archivists engaged in
collecting, preserving, and making available Indigenous knowledge is to
remain focused on human rights and to embrace the power of conversation,
collaboration, education, and negotiation.

Australian Indigenous Knowledge and Libraries is a well-used component of
my personal library, as the number of coffee stains on the book’s fore-edge
will attest!

Karen J. Underhill is Head, Special Collections and Archives at Northern Arizona University's Cline Library.

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