Unsettling the Future by Uncovering the Past: Decolonizing Academic Libraries and Librarianship

Reviewed By: Joshua Bennett, Dakota Greenwich, Andrew Hutchinson, Desiree Johnson, Megan Moreno

Link to article: https://doi.org/10.21083/partnership.v14i1.5161


This exploratory study examines the effect that residential schools had (and still have) on Indigenous peoples in Canada and how the findings of the Canadian government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be used to support decolonization efforts in academic libraries.

Article synopsis and description of how this article represents an international perspective:

The 1894 amendment to the Indian Act made it mandatory for Indigenous children (aged seven to at least fifteen) to attend residential boarding schools. The amendment’s primary purpose was to offer Indigenous peoples the opportunity for enfranchisement, which “involved in giving up one’s status as an Indian,” and essentially renounce all their Indigenous heritage and cultural practices in the eyes of the Canadian government (Edwards, 2019; p. 4). It was in these residential boarding schools where Indigenous children were forced to learn English and adopt Christianity, and where their native languages and spiritual practices were banned from practice. This forcible removal resulted in the irreversible breakdown of families and communities, and indigenous children left school feeling neither a part of their home communities nor a part of the culture in which they had been forcibly immersed. This act remained in effect for ninety years, subjecting several generations to this trauma, and communities were devastated by the aftermath. The result, as described by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC], was “cultural genocide” (Edwards, 2019; p. 5). One of the results of this generational trauma was a fundamental distrust of the government and of educational institutions in particular. The distrust of educational institutions has also affected how Indigenous people view libraries in general and academic libraries in particular.
In its final report in 2015, the TRC proposed 94 Calls to Action to begin the process of “decolonization.” Edwards describes decolonization as a two-part process of (1) allowing Indigenous people to reclaim the language, history, community, traditions, and culture that were stolen, and (2) “requiring non-Indigenous peoples to learn and accept how colonization has affected Indigenous communities” (p. 5-6). Though the TRC report did not specifically address library services, Edwards notes that academic libraries are beginning to take cues from the Education Calls to Action (p. 2). She states that the process of decolonizing libraries means that “services, collections, and classification systems need to be examined for instances of colonial oppression” (p. 8).
Edwards also looks at the field of Indigenous librarianship in Canada, noting that: (1) there are only two MLIS programs to date that offer any courses in serving Indigenous populations, (2) only 1% of librarians in Canada identify as Indigenous, and (3) there are often significant barriers (finances, location, employment opportunities, etc.) for Indigenous students looking to enter the MLIS field. With so few Indigenous librarians and virtually no training for non-Indigenous librarians, the LIS field faces an uphill battle in the effort to decolonize itself.

Core research question(s):

This article discusses the question of how the Indian Act and its 1894 amendment affected Indigenous education, and the role academic institutions played in the forced assimilation of Indigenous populations. Furthermore, the article considers the recommendations offered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of 2015, and questions how can academic libraries use those recommendations to contribute to the decolonization of their libraries.

Methods used to answer the research question(s):

Edwards first takes the time to establish herself into the context of her paper by utilizing Shawn Wilson’s (2008) Indigenous paradigm of relational accountability: “In essence this means that the methodology needs to be based in a community context (be relational) and has to demonstrate respect, reciprocity and responsibility (be accountable as it is put into action)” (p. 99). To do this she shares her personal connection to her work: she describes herself as “settler-Metis” (and gives a brief account of her family’s relationship with their Indigenous heritage and the types of racism they have faced) and explains that she is a student in a MLIS program with a background in adult education (Edwards, pp. 2-3). She also diligently identifies any Indigenous affiliations that the authors she cites may have.
It is clear, then, that Edwards designed her study to be exploratory and descriptive in order to provide ample context for readers. Sage Research (Stebbins, 2008) defines exploratory research as a “broad-ranging, intentional, systematic data collection designed to maximize discovery of generalizations based on description and direct understanding of an area of social or psychological life” (p. 2). As an exploratory descriptive case study, the author primarily draws from previous research concerning the history of the relationship between the Canadian Government and Indigenous peoples, particularly through the lens of the education requirements created by the Indian Act of 1876 and its amendments through the twentieth century. She also draws from works related to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of 2015 that examine its recommendations for decolonization efforts. Edwards uses a wide variety of sources for her research, including academic journal articles, books, government reports, blogs, and even a podcast.

Findings and conclusions:

Edwards’ findings consist of a series of recommendations. These focus on ways in which academic libraries can both recognize the historical role libraries have played in past enfranchisement of Indigenous people and also work to improve relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Edwards frames her recommendations as “ways library professionals can work towards decolonization and reconciliation” (p. 6). That is, ways to help Indigenous people reclaim aspects of their culture that have been marginalized and ways to help non-indigenous people learn about the history of colonialism and apply that new understanding to providing better services in Indigenous communities.
Edwards explains that decolonization and reconciliation must be a priority for libraries. She writes: “This process is best undertaken in all aspects of the library profession: education, information literacy instruction, providing public service at the reference and circulation desks, and in how resources are catalogued and classified” (p. 6). The author addresses each of these aspects in her paper, providing firmly stated recommendations for Canadian LIS professionals. Edwards focuses on three specifically: education and recruitment of LIS professionals, integration of Indigenous culture in library services, and public acknowledgement of Indigenous oral traditions and territories.

What can American libraries learn from global practice about designing services for diverse populations?

The process of decolonization and, more specifically, the effort to educate non-Indigenous people about how colonization has affected the Indigenous peoples of the country, is something that American libraries need to intentionally focus on. This is a crucial first step in working towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. It is highly important for communities that still have Indigenous communities nearby, and is equally important for communities that have no local Indigenous presence. Libraries and their programs may be the only place where non-Indigenous people encounter the issue of decolonization and reconciliation, and are encouraged to understand and accept the realities of colonization and its effects on Indigenous peoples.
Edwards offers several suggestions that American libraries would be wise to take. Firstly, libraries need to address how resources by and about Indigenous peoples are classified. The existing classification systems utilized by U.S. libraries are inaccurate and discriminatory in their handling of Indigenous topics, and their design does not make it possible to properly incorporate Indigenous concepts of knowledge and learning. Secondly, libraries need to create programs that increase public understanding about colonization and its effects on Indigenous peoples, highlight Indigenous culture, and encourage respectful and collaborative relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. An Indigenous ‘Storyteller-in-Residence’ Program is one exceptional way to highlight the importance of storytelling and oral tradition. Thirdly, libraries and MLIS programs need to incorporate training on serving Indigenous populations, and MLIS programs need to work to remove barriers that prevent Indigenous students from pursuing a career in MLIS fields.


In her exploration of the TRC, residential schools, and decolonization, Edwards highlights just a few of the ways that the trauma of forced attendance at residential boarding schools has affected generation after generation of Indigenous families in Canada. Her insights into the process of decolonization provide a call to action that libraries around the world would be wise to take heed.


Edwards, A. (2019). Unsettling the future by uncovering the past: Decolonizing academic libraries and librarianship. Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, 14(1). DOI: https://doi.org/10.21083/partnership.v14i1.5161

Wilson, S. (2008). Relational Accountability. In Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods (pp. 97–125). Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing.

Stebbins, R. (2008). Exploratory research. In L. Givens (ed.) The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing. DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412963909