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By improving catalogs and collections, U of T librarians aim to respect Indigenous voices

When Mikayla Redden was studying library and information science at university, she was often shocked to see how Indigenous materials were cataloged.

In a standard system used by many university libraries, many novels, plays and other works by Aboriginal authors fall under the rubric: “History”.

“It makes me feel completely invalidated,” says Redden, who is of Anishinaabe and Scottish descent. “It makes the experiences of my Indigenous friends, who are creators, writers, playwrights [invalidated].

“These things are really here and now – alive – but they are classified as ‘history’.”

Now an information and instructional services librarian at New College at the University of Toronto, Redden is part of a tri-campus movement within U of T libraries, as well as internationally. , to change the harmful language and practices that are still used in libraries and archives around the world. describe elements related to indigenous peoples and other marginalized communities.

At U of T, efforts extend to the area of ​​metadata, where librarians and staff have changed the subject headings used to find and organize books in the catalog. In recent weeks, the University of Toronto Libraries has replaced hurtful and outdated titles, such as “American Indians” and the racial slur, “Eskimo,” with more appropriate language that is used in everyday language.

Jordan Pedersena metadata librarian at U of T, says U of T Libraries has so far removed 10 offensive terms from its catalog, but notes that more changes will be needed.

“In libraries, we create our folders so people can find things. We adhere to international standards, and one of them is the United States Library of Congress – where these terms come from,” she says. “[But] to be respectful, we must violate some of these standards.

A group of librarians, staff and students have been working for over a year to modify subject headings and other metadata. An internal library survey showed that librarians and staff who interact with patrons felt embarrassed and uncomfortable with the old terminology, Pedersen says.

“There are a lot of messy feelings about how to explain this to users,” she says.

The outdated system also threatens to impact research. Indeed, some library users may not be able to find resources if they are organized in a language that is no longer commonly used in Canada.

That’s why the University of Toronto task force is considering finding ways to further improve the catalog, including adding more accurate descriptions like “Mississaugas of the Credit River.”

In making these changes, U of T librarians and staff took inspiration from U.S. libraries that changed the way they catalog items related to undocumented migrants, Pedersen says.

Now, U of T libraries are ready to share information with other libraries looking to follow suit.

“I hope it will be useful for other people as well,” says Pedersen.

At the U of T’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, a parallel effort is underway to reorganize and highlight the works of Indigenous authors, from memoirs of a mid-19th-century Ojibwe chief to a textbook in inuktitut on hunting in the 1970s.

The Life, History and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (George Copway): A Young Indian Chief of the Ojebwa Nation, Memoirs of 1847, will be on display at the Fisher Library on June 21 (photo by Geoffrey Vendeville)

Danielle Van Wagnera Special Collections Librarian, aims to improve descriptions of Aboriginal materials that are both derogatory and overbroad – for example, three boxes that simply read: “Collection of miscellaneous materials relating to the Indians of Canada and the Eskimos”.

For National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21, Van Wagner is hosting a exhibit at the Fisher Library important works from the library’s collection, including a signed and annotated draft of the 1989 play by Tomson Highway, Dry lips should move to Kapuskasing.

“This is the ‘5th’ draft, by no means the final one, it’s a terrible draft and I hope you don’t take it too seriously,” reads a self-deprecating note signed by the author on the cover page.

An illustrated Inuktitut textbook from the 1970s teaches students to hunt (photo by Geoffrey Vendeville)

Personal papers, native newspaper issues will also be on display at Fisher.

Because Indigenous materials aren’t always labeled using respectful, colloquial language, they’re often hard to find in piles, Van Wagner says.

“Part of what’s lost is, number one, the voices you see in this room [at Fisher]but also the teaching and educational opportunities that exist here.

Van Wagner adds that for current Indigenous students, long-standing biases in organizational methods and standard collections send a damaging message.

“It may tell Aboriginal students that this [the library] It’s not a home for them, it’s not a place where their stories live – but, in fact, it is. But it’s something we need to work harder on, to make it a more welcoming and inviting space.

Redden, Information and Educational Services Librarian, leads a tri-campus task force that is in the early stages of adding to the libraries’ collection to improve the representation of underrepresented and racialized authors.

In the longer term, his “dream project” is to ensure that all contemporary Indigenous materials in the vast collection of U of T libraries are not labeled as “historic.”

“Indigenous peoples are not part of the story,” she says. “Today, Indigenous peoples are cultures that are reclaiming, thriving and very proud.”


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