When Northcote High School librarian Diana Blyton read an article in the Schools Catalogue Information Service (SCIS) magazine last year by Kerry Klimm and Dale Robertson from Albany Hills State School in Queensland, it inspired her to act. It was the story of a parent whose child had brought home a school library book that contained negative, outdated and inaccurate representations of First Nations people. That parent, Kerry Klimm, drew this to the attention of the school librarian, Dale Robertson, and together they decided to undertake a library audit.
Diana immediately recognised that something similar needed to be done at Northcote High, but she knew she would require help and advice to get started. “We needed someone with the knowledge, expertise and experience,” Diana says.
Once she had come up with the parameters of the project, she saw that Deakin University academic Dr Aleryk Fricker had delivered the keynote at the AEU Student Teacher Conference, and got in touch to see if he knew someone who might fit the bill. She was delighted to find out that Al, whose area of expertise is decolonising education systems and structures in Australia, was free to do the audit himself.
“The average age of our books is 18 years.”
When Diana took it to her leadership team, the school prioritised the project, allocating funding to employ Dr Fricker, and this year the John Cain Library at Northcote High has engaged him to assist with a full cultural audit of the school’s entire library book collection. Al and the librarians have been working jointly to evaluate resources and ensure that the library fits the culturally safe model when working with Indigenous content. All items are being evaluated with an eye to accuracy of First Nations history, culture and community information.
It began with Al educating the library staff about what they should be looking for in terms of historical and cultural accuracy. Then, Diana began the deep dive into the archive, going through the non-fiction collection every morning, working from Al’s advice. “The average age of our books is 18 years,” Diana says. “The oldest books date back to the 1940s and 1950s.”
She began by going through the 4,000 nonfiction books and memoirs, and routinely found evidence of racist and outdated, culturally harmful perspectives.
Al has been visiting fortnightly to work through the books Diana and the library team have assessed. Diana says: “I am looking for things like inappropriate language and the representation of First Nations peoples being not positive or appealing. Some of the books I could make a judgement on, others I referred to Al. I pulled them out and waited for his fortnightly visit.”
Some of the books will be archived and recatalogued with a note on file. These are books that, while they might have drawn concern, may still be of some value. For example, an older book by a white Australian who spent time with an Indigenous community and wrote down stories from the Indigenous people in the community. Accounts like this could be seen as appropriated, but if they are the only voices we have about that community they are not without value and, as Al points out, we don’t want to lose those stories.
So far, there are nine books that have been taken out and archived and, at this stage, 170 books have been removed altogether. “It’s about three things. I’m looking at accuracy, authenticity and appropriateness of the language,” Al says.
“Sometimes it’s things such as the descriptions of the First Nations people or colonisers are inappropriate or problematic.”
Dr Al Fricker
Books are removed for a variety of reasons. “Sometimes it’s things such as the descriptions of the First Nations people or colonisers are inappropriate or problematic. For example, Europeans being referred to as ‘settlers’, implying peaceful occupation,” Al adds.
Books with simplified and historically inaccurate rewriting of history have been taken away. These outdated texts await their end on a trolley in the staff area, their excision a sign of a community genuinely committed to its reconciliation journey.
Al is educating and building awareness on these important cultural issues. He makes the point that his engagement has been strategic; he provides examples and helps staff by demonstrating and modelling the process involved, going through book by book, and showing the kinds of issues he is looking for – but Al is at pains to say that it is Diana and the library staff doing the majority of the work.
This touches on the larger issue of First Nations people not having capacity, and not being expected, to do all of the cultural education work themselves. Al talks with positivity about being able to educate and then hand over and oversee the operation.
Diana discusses the project with unbridled enthusiasm. The aim is not just to take away books; these books are being replaced, and information is getting updated and elevated. After removing books, Northcote High is prioritising the purchase of new, up-to-date and more appropriate texts. Al has provided book recommendations, including from Indigenous publishing houses such as Magabala Books, and the library has already taken delivery of 15 new books that better represent Indigenous perspectives and First Nations stories.
After months spent on the project, the nonfiction and biography collections are done. Fiction is the priority next year. This could be trickier, Diana points out, because fiction might be more subjective, and the collection is larger, so it could take more time.
Ultimately, it is not just the Northcote High School community who will benefit from this audit. “We’ve kept lists of everything removed so that we can share the information with other schools,” Diana says.
The staff listened and as a result of this student activism, now every year level studies a different Indigenous text.
She has the list from Albany Hills State School, with whom they have been sharing information and resources. With schools working together and sharing this information across Australia, cultural audits like this become easier to navigate and less time consuming.
Northcote High School takes Indigenous issues seriously. They are a patron-driven library. When students request books, most of the requests are brought in. Two years ago, a group of students approached the staff to explain that they expect to study one Indigenous text every year. The staff listened and as a result of this student activism, now every year level studies a different Indigenous text.
The school also has a Reconciliation Action Plan, developed with guidance from Reconciliation Australia. Staff and students are gathering information on an Indigenous Knowledge page online, tied in with the Victorian curriculum, and have plans for permanent installations to celebrate Indigenous culture and history.
Al explains that the school library should be “a place where First Nations students should be able to come in and feel comfortable opening any book, and non-Indigenous students should be able to become well informed”.
Already, he looks forward to other ways of decolonising libraries, thinking in terms of patriarchal hegemonies, power structures, ableism, a safe LGBTQIA+ space, and more.