Saturday, April 24, 2021

Making Non-Western Knowledge Digitally Accessible through Community Engagement

Karim Tharani's Shifting Established Mindsets and Praxis in Libraries: Five Insights for Making Non-Western Knowledge Digitally Accessible through Community Engagement in the Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship is an interesting piece of scholarship about library engagement.   Tharani is the IT Librarian at the University of Saskatchewan who helped develop the Ginan Central digital collection.   As an initiative to digitally curate an oral tradition, the project shows how librarians can improve discoverability of non-Western knowledge materials in libraries.  In the context of the Ismaili Muslim community, the term ginan is used for the community’s collection of oral tradition of gnostic and devotional hymns.
Canada, as in most Western societies, the primary medium to codify knowledge continues to be written text, whether in print or electronic format.  Consequently, bibliographic standards and practices in academic libraries have evolved to be very efficient in managing textual knowledge materials and making them accessible.  This specialized operational efficiency, however, comes at the cost of marginalizing non-textual, and by extension non-Western, knowledge carriers, including oral traditions.  
1. Value Relationships Over Tasks - Establishing trust with community elders, leaders, and youth is vital in uncovering and understanding the needs and challenges of the community.   As this may be counter to the efficient workflows and tasks of academic institutions used to one-off projects that have predetermined timelines, librarians need to sustain relationships that are forged as part of these projects.

2.  Accept Community Engagement as a Continuum - Communities are like families and consists of individuals with different personalities, experiences, and perspectives.  Though a community may share a common history, their opinions, preferences, decisions, are not monolithic.   Librarians need to be appreciative and sensitive to these varying sentiments in order to be productive and successful in their work with communities.  

3.  Learn to Appreciate Rather than Appropriate Materials - The history of colonization is embedded in appropriation, including the practice of physically relocating materials for processing which can be a culturally traumatic process.   Librarians need to demonstrate an appreciative mindset by exercising flexibility in processing community collections, which again counters a typical operational workflow of libraries in which materials are selected, acquired, and described before being made available through discovery systems and catalogues.    For true collaboration to happen, librarians need to shift their mindset from physically gathering collections in libraries to one that prioritizes work to happen off-campus locations in the community.  

4.  Consider Oral Sources to Be As Important as Textual Ones - Libraries are used to working with tangible, text-based knowledge carriers grounded in physical convenience that is contrary to the value of orality of knowledge based on traditions that are alive and current.   Librarians need to shift their thinking that Indigenous knowledge as 'static' to one that is as continuing.  

5.  Accept Community Materials as Credible Knowledge Resources -  As Western scholarship tends to reduce oral traditions to textual renditions for research, such as prioritizing ancient manuscripts, this questionable practice is inconsistent with how communities prefer to render oral traditions to text and other media to complement rather than replace their traditional ways of transmitting oral knowledge.  Librarians need to be cognizant and respectful of these traditions when working with their communities and integrating these communal materials into scholarly discourses.

I value Karim Tharani's contribution to this area of scholarship and appreciate the best practices he's laid out when working with communities.  As I move into the deep and enriching work of library engagement with our diverse communities in British Columbia and Canada, this will be a strong reminder of the continuing evolution of programs and services and how they fit in the paradigm of community engagement.   "Outreach" is an outdated terminology that activates and transmits knowledge in a very surface-level contact with a community, community engagement continues to evolve not as a   'model' so much as by a framework of guiding principles, strategies, and approaches, one based on principles that respect the right of all community members to be informed, consulted, involved and empowered.   Things move quickly; certainly, my research and scholarship in this area has changed so much that many of my earlier thoughts as a librarian need to be updated.