Tag Archives: Australia

The Intersection Between Cultural Competence and Whiteness in Libraries

Reviewed By: Shelley Carr, Kristina Cevallos, Karen Chacon, & Rachel Dunn

Link to article: http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/culturalcompetence/

Article Synopsis

In her article, “The Intersection Between Cultural Competence and Whiteness in Libraries,” Fiona Blackburn (2015) examines her experiences working in Australian libraries and the implementation of cross-cultural provisions as evidence of privilege and the predominance of “white culture” in libraries in Australia. While this article provides examples of services designed for culturally diverse communities, Blackburn focuses on evaluations of her experiences as a white librarian in Australia in regards to personal understanding and development of cultural competence, especially the influence of white privilege, whiteness, and “white culture.” The article acknowledges the predominance of white workers in the LIS field as well as the dominating bias toward Western ways of assessing, accessing, and organizing information. Though considering her personal experiences at multiple information organizations, Blackburn asserts the importance of cultural competence, which is defined by Overall (as cited in Blackburn, 2015, para. 17) as:
the ability to recognise the significance of culture in one’s own life and in the lives of others; to come to know and respect diverse cultural backgrounds and characteristics through interaction with individuals from diverse linguistic, cultural and socioeconomic groups; and to fully integrate the culture of diverse groups into service work, and institutions in order to enhance the lives of both those being serviced by the library profession and those engaged in service.

With this definition of cultural competence in mind, Blackburn examines this topic from the perspective of an Australian librarian, and also refers to supporting literature from U.S. LIS professionals who support the practices of cultural competence. In commenting on the importance of cultural competence in library and information organizations, Blackburn encourages a global awareness of whiteness and privilege in the LIS profession.

Core Research Questions & Methodology

As Blackburn describes her journey through librarianship in Australia and her growth and interest in cultural competence, whiteness, and intersectional librarianship, she seeks to answer a few questions. What is cultural competence in the context of librarianship? What is the connection between intersectionality and cultural competence in addressing whiteness in the library? And, how can librarians and library workers approach cultural competence in a primarily white workforce within a predominantly white industry with awareness of power and privilege? Blackburn explains her reasoning by way of her personal experiences as a librarian in Alice Springs, and elsewhere in Australia, and referencing existing scholarship on cultural competence, intersectionality, and diversity in libraries.

Blackburn uses her own experience as a “56-year-old, tertiary-educated, female Anglo-Australian librarian” (Blackburn, 2015) to seek answers to her questions regarding cultural competence, intersectionality, and whiteness in libraries. She notes that working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been her main source of learning about cultural competence and addressing whiteness in the library, but cultural competence goes far beyond just working with Indigenous peoples. Her awareness of her own culture (her whiteness) is her starting point on the journey to becoming culturally competent. Blackburn links together her personal reflections, professional experiences, research, and conversations with librarians as a method to form her conclusions.

Findings and Conclusions

Blackburn’s experience in Australia showed her that there were only a handful of librarians and libraries providing services specifically for Aboriginal people. For this reason, Blackburn focused on building greater engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Blackburn’s goal was for people to see their culture reflected in the library in order to build stronger connections between patrons and their library. This would require more of Blackburn’s colleagues to step in and help create that culture of support, inclusion, and engagement in all nine branches of the library system in which Blackburn worked. From her own experiences, Blackburn found that members of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities must be actively incorporated in their libraries’ programs and services in order to support library staff working together to create a culture of inclusion in that library. Once patrons are aware that library services and staff are focused on meeting their needs, patrons may attend engagement activities and library programs more frequently. Blackburn mentioned how some library staff resisted these new ideas due to not having enough time to connect with members of the community and not wanting to add any extra tasks to their workload. Blackburn asserts that once those new connections are built, library staff can focus on maintaining the relationship as the library patrons continue to come to the library.

As support for her arguments, Blackburn introduces the concept of intersectional librarianship which, “recognises the interactions between any person or group’s multiple layers of identity and the marginalisation or privilege attendant on each” (Blackburn, 2015, para. 30). Library staff members need to learn to become allies and active participants in change, which cannot be accomplished in a one-day training session. LIS professionals need to recognize their own biases and privilege before they can become allies to any group. Librarians must focus on understanding the challenges patrons may be facing and what necessary steps are required to mitigate these challenges.

Applications in the United States

The United States could stand to learn from Blackburn’s experiences with the Aboriginal populations in Australia and how the library spaces she worked in were able to support and include the voices and experiences of their patrons. By creating spaces where the patrons could see themselves reflected, connect with their culture, and inhabit a neutral space, they were able to foster engagement with the Aboriginal community and increase usage by that group. The United States could stand to improve inclusion and respectful interaction with Native Americans and other underserved populations by creating inclusive reflective spaces and deeply considering how whiteness comes into play within libraries.

White librarians in the United States could benefit from examining their own “whiteness” and white privilege in the context of the LIS profession after reading Blackburn’s article. Through this awareness and understanding, librarians in the United States can build upon their cultural competence and expand on the inclusion of diversity within their library services. Blackburn’s focus on building engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and her work with Libraries ACT lend some insightful findings that would benefit any library. However, the conversations Blackburn notes in her article give interesting perspectives on how libraries are seen as “white places” and are not as culturally inclusive as they could be. These conversations heighten awareness of cultural differences and what should be taken into account when designing services for diverse populations.

For example, often librarians are busy promoting their own services/programming and forget to work in collaboration with their colleagues for the overall success of that library. In addition, library staff should be mindful of cultural inclusion when designing services for groups that are underserved and seek to include those groups across all library programs and services. In some cases, librarians promote Black History Month or LGBTQ only for one month and forget to incorporate the concept for the rest of the year. In order for patrons to feel a sense of belonging to their library, this should be highlighted throughout the year, and included in collection development decisions and program planning.

U.S. libraries could observe the global practices of international information organizations and draw from their experiences in order to better design services for diverse populations. In her article, Blackburn references examples from U.S. LIS literature which support the inclusion of cultural competence in navigating interactions with diverse populations. Not all libraries in the United States practice cultural competence within their community, with whiteness being privileged in library and information spaces, making it especially important that LIS professionals in the country work to better serve the diverse populations of their community and nation. Based on Blackburn’s examples, U.S. libraries could potentially promote similar services to Native Americans, although regional differences would require more contextual adaptation. By practicing cultural competency by way of awareness of whiteness and privilege in ourselves and our libraries, libraries in the United States can better serve their culturally diverse communities beyond the basics.


Blackburn, F. (2015). The Intersection between cultural competence and whiteness in libraries. In the Library with the Lead Pipe, December. Retrieved from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/culturalcompetence/

Overall, P. M. (2009). Cultural competence: a conceptual framework for library and information science professionals. The Library, 79( 2), 175-204.

. Indigenous Australians’ information behavior and internet use in everyday life: An exploratory study.

Reviewed By: Emilee Harrison, Ashleigh Torres, Robin Rogers, Mathew Chase, Ashley Montes

Link to article: http://www.informationr.net/ir/22-1/paper737.html


In “Indigenous Australian’s Information Behaviour and Internet use in Everyday Life: An Exploratory Study,” the authors discuss the beginning stages of an “information behaviour research project undertaken with a rural Indigenous community in South Australia” (Du & Haines, 2017). The study explores the following research questions:
1. What types of information do indigenous people need in their daily lives?
2. How do indigenous people choose information sources?
3. What interactions do indigenous people have with the Internet?
4. How do indigenous people perceive the role of the Internet for the community? (Du & Haines, 2017)

Du and Haines provide a literature review of the relevant literature and previous studies that have been conducted on similar topics (2017). They also provide the research design of their study including how they intended to conduct ethical research, how the data would be collected and how it would be analyzed (Du & Haines, 2017). The results of the study are shown and discussed throughout the latter half of the article. The results are displayed in tables along with each source of information that is within the study carefully described and talked about in detail. The authors also conclude the article and discuss the need for further research (Du & Haines, 2017). In this discussion, Du and Haines include that they were able to conduct this research by “accessing local people and seeking their thoughts and insights” (2017). At the end of this article, the authors include a copy of the survey questions they included on their questionnaire for the audience to see and use in conjunction with the article itself (Du & Haines, 2017).


The authors, as they were not indigenous themselves, sought to achieve an ethical research standard that required trust and respect with the Ngarrindjeri community through regular consultation with the Elders as well as exchanging honorary gifts of print-out copies of research results and weekend computer training. Du and Haines (2017) actively recruited Ngarrindjeri participants through snowball sampling by distributing promotional materials at local community centers, workplaces, and on social media. Recruited participants were asked to recommend people who might be interested in participating in the study. Twenty-one total participants were recruited (10 men; 11 women). Data collection was designed using a dual-method qualitative framework. First, participants answered a questionnaire regarding their everyday information behaviors and Internet interactions. Second, the questionnaire followed up with semi-structured interviews to deepen and clarify understanding of participants’ Internet experiences and attitudes in relation to their community needs. Narrative interviewing was employed as the primary technique to reveal participant insights, which were audio recorded and transcribed for analysis (Du & Haines, 2017). Participants who declined to be audio recorded instead had the researchers take interview notes during the session. As the participants were fluent in both Ngarrindjeri and English, both the questionnaire and the interviews were provided in English. Field observations and notes by researchers through time spent with the community also supplemented the data collection.


The author’s found that the Ngarrindjeri rely on multiple sources (Du & Haines, 2017) to find information relevant to their daily lives such as weather, news, and work related information (Du & Haines, 2017). Researchers organized the resources used by the community into four main categories: internet, interpersonal, mass media, and physical organizations (Du & Haines, 2017). Although Internet and Interpersonal are the most common, researchers found that participants tended to rely on multiple sources for information (Du & Haines, 2017). Participants consider interpersonal resources more reliable because the information is local (Du & Haines, 2017). Particular value is placed on information from Elders and from friends and family (Du & Haines, 2017).
Many participants said they would try interpersonal resources first, and use the internet if that did not work (Du & Haines, 2017). Reliance on social activities for information is consistent with the community’s tradition of sharing indigenous knowledge through basket weaving led by the Elders (Du & Haines, 2017). When they use the internet, non-home internet access accounts for more than half the participants’ internet usage (Du & Haines, 2017). Desktops and mobile phones are the most commonly used devices (Du & Haines, 2017). The “main barriers” to internet usage are “low computer literacy, costs, and the slowness of internet access” (Du & Haines, 2017). The authors found that participants regardless of age tended to believe the internet could be a valuable tool to “communicate local knowledge to a broad community, [and] to encourage cultural sharing” but were concerned about “inappropriate online dissemination” (Du & Haines, 2017).

Unanswered Questions and Future Research

The study conducted by Du and Haines brought to light some interesting unanswered questions and areas of future research as well. Some future areas of research can include if certain members within the indigenous tribe thinks about having some of their knowledge that they are willing to share available in online platforms. Similarly, other indigenous peoples in Australia and New Zealand have developed online platforms that makes certain types of information available to those within the tribe and the public, such as photos or recordings (State Library of Queensland, “Indigenous Knowledge Centres,” 2016). While some Elders in the study did mention this possibility and were hesitant about this aspect of certain types traditional knowledge being accessed to the larger public, it would be interesting to see what other Elders and people in the community would have to say about this aspect, especially in terms of knowledge/information they would like to share. Also, the study itself did not tackle the issue concerning traditional indigenous knowledge either, so there are many types of unanswered questions relating to traditional knowledge, technology, and culture as well.
This study also had some unanswered questions. Some unanswered questions from this study include if any type of solutions were given to the community concerning information gaps, such as a lack of knowledge on how to use certain types of technology, as well as there being few service providers in the community. Also, it was mentioned that about 11% of people in the study use physical organizations, including libraries (Du & Haines, 2017). Since library use was not widely accessed by people in the study, it would be interesting to note any reasons why this may be the case, especially if the library offers the use of their internet/computer resources and other resources as well. Is it the distance, the lack of trust in the institution, the lack of resources pertaining to indigenous needs, or any other factors that may influence their lack of use, especially since people in rural and remote areas tend to use the library to their advantage? This is not only an unanswered question pertaining to the study, but a possible area for future research as well.


There are a number of unanswered questions in this study, primarily pertaining to what barriers are preventing indigenous persons from taking advantage of library resources and what attempts at outreach and restructuring of library systems have been done in order to better meet the needs of these potential patrons.
Given that 21% of indigenous Australians report living in remote or very remote locations it is reasonable to suspect that distance may provide them with a barrier when it comes to accessing information resources through the countries library networks. While the National Library of Australia does have a subsection which focuses on Indigenous culture, that does not mean that it is necessarily accessible to the indigenous communities through the country as it is located in Canberra (National Library of Australia, 2017).
It should also be noted that the sample size for this study was very small, at only 21 people, which means that when the study indicates that 11% of responses reported using library services that amounts to fewer than three participants. The indigenous population of Australia is estimated to be about 669,881 or 3% of the country’s total population, which indicates that further research would be beneficial in order to gain a more thorough understanding of usage practices and community needs (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011).


Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2011). Estimates of aboriginal and torres strait islander Australians. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/3238.0.55.001

Du, J. T., and Haines, J. (2017). Indigenous Australians’ information behavior and internet use in everyday life: An exploratory study. Information Research, 22(1). Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/22-1/paper737.html

National Library of Australia. (2017). Collections: Indigenous. Retrieved from https://www.nla.gov.au/what-we-collect/indigenous

State Library of Queensland. (2016). Indigenous Knowledge Centres. Retrieved from