Decolonial practice for library collections, part 1

University library collections support the teaching and research demands placed by the organisation in which they are embedded.  Not only are resources in collections dominated by thought and knowledge creation of the global north, but several library practices contribute to this colonial bias. The nature of library collections has traditionally been seen as the control and classification of resources, leading to a Western commodification of knowledge. Cataloguing conventions often convey a bias to the global north.  In addition to the unfamiliar language of library catalogues, readers face colonial bias when searching for resources. New technologies enable unprecedented access to collections but tend to inherit the search hierarchies and language bias of the classification schemes which provide the browsing structures for subject-based information gateways.

In 2019 the Library carried out a review of its collections to gauge the extent of colonial bias.  Developments in Collections since 2019 meant significantly more print and online content was available.  Another review was carried out in March 2021.  Data was collected from Alma (the Library’s LSP – Library Services Platform) incl. publication/distribution information (MARC 260 field) and classification details, e-content package and publisher/supplier information, and internal data sources.  Records analysed: 19k print books, 10.6k pamphlets, 700 eBooks, 6k eJournals, 900 print journals.

  • All physical and online collections (books, journals, pamphlets) heavily dominated by material published in the global north
  • Significant percentage of print resources published before the ‘end of Empire’.  Can surmise that the legacy of colonialism would be found throughout print collections.
  • Europe and North America had done majority of publishing about their own continent and about other continents
  • Africa and Asia had mainly been written about
  • Minimal holdings on (or by) Eurasia, Oceania and South America
  • Recent acquisitions (print and online) still mainly published in the global north, with this dominance often increasing

The results detailed above led to questions being asked about reading list content.  A review was carried out in August 2020, and another in February 2021.  Analysis was limited by the underlying metadata available in Alma, but 11.6k citations were looked at from 193 active reading lists.  Books with the most citations were published in the UK and the USA, and journals with the most citations were published in the USA, the UK, and the Netherlands.  59% citations were for journal content, with 22% of them published by Elsevier.  BMJ Publishing, Elsevier, Oxford University Press, and Wiley had >500 citations each.  10% of all citations were for The Lancet (Elsevier) and BMJ (BMJ Publishing).  As with print books and pamphlets, citations appeared to show Africa and Asia being published about, and only a small percentage of content focusing on Eurasia, Oceania and South America. 

To conclude, discovering that older resources in the collections were dominated by publishers based in the global north was not surprising.  However, finding that recent print acquisitions and electronic resources not only continued this Western control over the production of knowledge and access to it, but had actually increased this dominance, was concerning and thought-provoking.