• The intersection between cultural competence and whiteness in libraries

    December 1, 2015
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    In brief

    The context for this article is Australian libraries and my experience there with cross-cultural provision. However, this article is not about providing library services for any specific group; it’s about cultural competence and whiteness. I begin with my background, so as to make clear how I participate, as a white librarian, in discussions about libraries and how they might be places where people from any cultural group find themselves reflected and where they find information the more easily for that reflection. I also start at that point because cultural competence requires an awareness of your own culture; for me, as a white person, that means thinking about whiteness. I then link experience with reading about cultural competence, and conversations with librarians who are also interested in cross cultural provision. Whiteness in libraries is introduced via these conversations. A brief comparison is drawn between the usefulness of intersectionality and cultural competence in addressing whiteness. The conclusion is that cultural competence embedded in professional approaches, library operations and the library environment can be the means for addressing whiteness, if the understandings of power and privilege outlined in intersectionality are incorporated.


    I am a 56 year old, tertiary-educated, female Anglo-Australian. I am also a librarian. I fit the demographic profile of the Australian library workforce, which is described as highly feminised, professionally educated, ageing, and predominantly Anglo-Saxon (Hallam 2007); or, ‘a largely English-speaking, culturally homogenous group’ (Partridge et al 2012, p. 26). I have worked in the library industry for eight years, coming to the job after an employment history spanning at least four other industries. In these eight years I have developed a professional interest in cultural competence and whiteness in libraries.

    Three factors motivated me to write this article. The first is  the challenges I experienced in my first library job. One set of challenges helped me find my feet as a librarian; another, outlined below, set a strong direction for future work and further study. The second factor is cultural competence, about which I learned in response to those challenges. Thirdly,  the Australian library and information management industry is beginning to address diversity, often through cultural competence. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), the State Library of New South Wales and the State Library of Victoria all include cultural competence or proficiency in key policies and strategies. Charles Sturt University is committed to cultural competence in the context of Indigenous content in curriculum; RMIT University includes it as a topic in the professional experience course in its Master of Information Management. Most other library schools include in their program aims, development of skills for working in a diverse environment.

    My background

    I began work in the library and information industry as Special Collections Manager at Alice Springs Public Library in Central Australia. The special collections were the Alice Springs Collection, documenting the history, geography, economic development, and cultures of Central Australia; and the Akaltye Antheme Collection, a local Indigenous knowledge collection, developed in partnership with the Traditional Owners. ‘Akaltye Antheme’ translates into English as ‘giving knowledge’, the knowledge being a showcase of local culture for Aboriginal and non-Indigenous users of the library.

    In addition to a Graduate Diploma in Information Management, I also brought the accidents of life to that job. By ‘accidents’ I mean those developments which aren’t the product of any particular decision, which just seem to occur as life itself occurs and which coalesce into fundamental themes or directions. One of those accidents is being born white.

    Other accidents include two books, read when I was twenty: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; An Indian History of the American West, and Living black; Blacks talk to Kevin Gilbert. They were my introduction to Indigenous people’s experience of history and colonisation. I had no idea of that reality until then. The ensuing couple of decades included NAIDOC marches, Sorry Day ceremonies, reconciliation activities, and visits to the Tent Embassy. Friends and I mused about whiteness – what it means to be white when being white is the norm. This participation involved some decision-making but I had drifted into that left wing milieu – yes, an accident.

    Another key accident was work as a personal care attendant in a supported accommodation centre for Koories. The health effects of a colonised life of disadvantage and discrimination were glaringly evident: very high incidence of diabetes and corollary conditions, alcohol-related brain damage, staggering male morbidity. Also clearly evident were the strength and resilience of culture, how hard people worked to maintain it and how they worked within it to maintain themselves and their community. The power of being white struck me for the first time: the residents were far more likely to do something when I asked them than when my largely Sri Lankan co-workers did. I attribute this to two things: the residents’ experience, often from very young, of near-complete control of their lives by white people in positions of power; and how, as a white person, I unwittingly used to the power and privilege that redounds to being white, and was able unknowingly but effectively to convey expectations.

    Without the activist activities described earlier, I wouldn’t have perceived the effect of whiteness in an ordinary working environment for what it was; without that work experience, my understanding of the effects of a colonised life would be weaker. I outline this to indicate that I came to the Special Collections job beginning to understand my privilege as a white person. This privilege is reflected in the quality of my life; it is a product in part of the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia, and continuing systemic advantage for white people. Why is this important to this article? As I said in a conference presentation with Sylvia Perrurle Neale, the Indigenous Services Officer at Alice Springs Public Library, being a member of the dominant group is the biggest challenge I face in working in partnership with other, minority groups.

    Working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been the main path for my learning about cultural competence and whiteness. However, cultural competence applies far more widely than only working with Indigenous peoples. As Ruby Hamad illustrates, whiteness resounds systemically. I would like to extend Hamad’s sentence, “[if you’re white,] you’re not going to be discriminated against on the basis of the colour of your skin” and suggest that you are also not likely to begin a sentence with the explanatory phrase, “In my/our culture …”, as I have so often heard members of minority groups do. You may never have to think about what your culture is, because as Henry and Tator (2006, cited in Calgary Anti-Racism Educationpoint out, whiteness in social, political and economic arenas is so much the norm, that it represents “neutrality”’. In a system that privileges some and marginalises others, often on the basis of skin colour but also on the basis of group membership, there are many marginalised groups. Jaeger et al. (2011) argue that working with any marginalised group requires cultural competence.

    The challenges in that first job

    In 2006, Alice Springs staff suggested that the Akaltye Antheme Collection be nominated for the Library Stars Award at the Australian Library and Information Association conference. (This happened before I worked there.) It won: delegates judged it the best initiative for its method of establishment, content, popularity with Aboriginal patrons, and the way the library adapted to the changed demand and use of the library that it generated.

    Despite this organisational pride, Akaltye Antheme occupied a kind of limbo. Everything was the Special Collections Manager’s responsibility – to keep it tidy, repair items, endprocess acquisitions, liaise with Aboriginal organisations on a range of library matters, and manage incidents arising among Aboriginal patrons. Similarly focussed collections and target groups weren’t similarly quarantined; for example, the junior fiction and non-fiction collections, and children’s behaviour, weren’t considered the exclusive responsibility of the Children’s Librarian. Akaltye Antheme was considered something for Aboriginal people, not everyone who walked through the door, contrary to the intention of those who established it. Aboriginal people, who could be up to 30% of the library’s patrons, used Akaltye Antheme regardless of this differential staff approach. They would often spend hours every day browsing and reading it. I wondered why Akaltye Antheme retained its special project status long after it was established, particularly when it was such an integral resource to a significant proportion of the library’s clientele and when it was intended for all patrons. I found this frustrating and isolating. I fit the librarian stereotype, I belong to the dominant group; yet the attitude of my (largely white, older, educated, female) colleagues to a collection they didn’t seem to consider core business, affected me. Sylvia Purrurle Neale, an Eastern Arrernte woman, voiced similar frustrations.

    I felt capable of learning to manage the historical collection, partly because my undergraduate degree included an honours in history. I had no idea about how to manage the Indigenous knowledge collection. This lack of educational preparation for working cross-culturally, then the isolation and frustration, echo Mestre’s research into the experience of librarians responsible for services to diverse populations (2010). She reports stress, potential burnout, and isolation of individual professionals. She also identifies opportunity costs to library organisations which rely on individuals for the provision of ‘diversity services’. The costs include loss of experienced staff and of the opportunity for all staff to learn, and benefit from learning, how to work cross-culturally. She argues that embedding culturally competent service within the organisation benefits it and all staff. Other commentators discuss the benefits of cultural competence in all aspects of library operations to organisational performance overall (Kim & Sin 2008, Andrade and Rivera 2011).

    Learning about cultural competence

    My next job was as Community Engagement Librarian with Libraries ACT, focussing on building engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. While in Alice Springs, I had thought that managing Akaltye Antheme could be something on which to build in my career – there probably were not too many librarians in Australia with experience providing services for and with Aboriginal people. I had also thought uneasily about the differential in the benefit that accrues to a white librarian coming to town for a short time and leaving with a marketable skill; and that which accrues to the local community, who would stay in Alice Springs after I had left. I can’t at this point cite any research that verifies this differential. However, if my experience resonates with that of others who have worked with minority groups, research in this area may suggest that greater benefit accrues to those already in a privileged position, in this instance, white librarians.

    I began at Libraries ACT determined that there had to be an organisational approach to community engagement, partly to avoid aspects of my experience in Alice Springs but also to achieve organisational aims. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to want to come to their library, they have to find a place where they are comfortable, where they can see themselves or their culture reflected. Partridge et al. (2012) point out that this applies for any cultural group. That is, any groups whose identity incorporates religion, disability, sexual orientation, age, recreation, employment, political beliefs, socio-economic status, educational attainment, and class (Helton 2010, Jaeger et al 2011). Creating such an environment in a system of nine branches, a heritage library, and a central administration clearly could not be done by one person. Advocating an organisational approach and the support of management led to a decision to implement the ATSILIRN Protocols. The Protocols are a set of guidelines for appropriate library, information, and records services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, developed by Aboriginal and non-Indigenous librarians.

    I document this engagement with the ACT Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in a case study (Blackburn, 2014). Findings include that:

    • a small team can achieve a lot with support from colleagues and where the community wants to be engaged;
    • synergy between library objectives and a group’s aims will enhance outcomes;
    • the Protocols are useful in designing and choosing engagement activities; and
    • the community will meet you more than half way in your engagement activities.

    There are still challenges. Where staff responses to Akaltye Antheme included a kind of resistance, a significant proportion of Libraries ACT staff, throughout the staff structure, want to engage with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. The first challenge was to demonstrate that it wasn’t hard; once connections are made and sustained, engagement kind of runs itself. Another challenge relates to staff being able to find the time in a busy service to make connections, including going outside the library, and then maintaining involvement. The next relates to how libraries usually conduct business. Libraries are great on systems and processes; they are essential features of information management. However, if you want to build an engaged community, an insistence on a way of operating that suits internally devised systems is going to bump up rather hard against a community with its own way of organising, which is also given to taking ideas and running with them.

    These are essentially facets of the one challenge. The ‘special project’ status of a resource that should have been embedded in core business; the limitation on time for building and maintaining relationships; and a preference for uniform service delivery rather than flexibility, are each part of the challenge of sustainable cross-cultural provision. This challenge, in the manifestations just outlined, resides in library professionals and in organisations.

    For the first five years of working in libraries, I searched with little success for information about cross-cultural provision, cross-cultural communication, etc. in a library context. Then a speaker who worked in education mentioned ‘cultural competence’ at a Protocols implementation workshop. This was a key moment, albeit another accident. There was nothing in the Australian Library and Information Science (LIS) literature then about cultural competence but there was discussion of it in US library literature.
    Overall (2009) defines cultural competence for library and information professionals 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 (p. 176).

    Other service industries, like health and education, recognise that care or instruction that does not address the cultural context could have serious negative consequences. Failing to acknowledge the inappropriateness of male clinicians providing some procedures for women from particular groups, for example, could result in those women choosing not to access health services. Overall’s definition, which draws on theory from these industries, locates the site of cultural competence development within the professional workforce and library organisations, also the locations where the challenges of cross cultural provision arise. Cultural competence has been incorporated into US library and information science education accreditation standards. Research has supported its role in recruitment and retention, staff development, organisational performance, collection management, and service and program design (Andrade & Rivera 2011, Kim & Sin 2008, Mestre 2010).

    Whether cultural competence has been truly embedded into US library and information science is debated. Case studies document incorporation into library business (e.g., Rivera 2013, Montague 2013); but Berry (1999) and Mehra (2011) assert that only token efforts have been made. Others (Galvan 2015, Honma 2006, Jaeger et al. 2011, Pawley 2005, Swanson et al. 2015) suggest that the issue is broader than development of cultural competence and includes diversity, race, racism, and whiteness. Broadening the debate in this way names the issues – diversity, race, racism and whiteness – which cross-cultural provision should address.

    Cultural competence clearly begins with the professional – and just as clearly should go beyond the individual to be developed within the whole organisation. The following examples demonstrate why culturally competent organisations are required as well as professionals. In 2013, during a Libraries ACT planning day exercise, I noticed that a significant proportion of staff were either born overseas or were children of migrants; and the majority of that group were not Anglo-Saxon. (This reflects the demographic profile of the Australian population: 26% are migrants; nearly three quarters of whom are not Anglo-Saxon.) (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012) Nevertheless the library service remains an organisation based in Western systems. The non-fiction shelves are organised according to Dewey Decimal Classification, which privileges Western or white concepts of knowledge. The bulk of the collection is in English. The songs sung during programs for babies and young children are most often English nursery rhymes. The library service remains a white one; staff from minority groups have adapted to the prevailing structure.

    Wong et al. (2003) suggest that minority groups not only adapt to prevailing structures, they also adopt the underlying values. Wong et al., Canadian health practitioners of Asian descent, found their heritage did not guarantee that they would deliver mental health care appropriately to members of their own groups. They instead adopted the racialised approaches to power embedded in the Western health system in which they worked. Why would libraries be any different, particularly as they run on complex, long established systems, systems which can be adapted without changing embedded values? Dewey Decimal Classification, for example, is an ethnocentric arrangement of knowledge which has been modified to accommodate new and emerging areas of knowledge without changing the fundamental privileging of original concepts.

    The diversity envisaged in US discussions about cultural competence “encompasses race, gender, ethnicity, language, literacy, disability, age, socio-economic status, educational attainment, technology access and skill” (2012 Symposium on Diversity and Library and Information Science Education, cited in Jaeger, Bertot & Subramaniam 2013). If culture is defined as “the shared daily activities of groups and individuals” (Rosaldo 1989, cited in Montiel-Overall, 2009, p 3) then religion, political beliefs and affiliation, and recreational activities are also part of diversity and should also influence cross-cultural provision. Helton (2010) and Jaeger et al. (2011) acknowledge the usefulness of cultural competence for providing library services for all groups in diverse populations, not only those whose identity is defined by race or ethnicity.

    A fundamental aspect of cultural competence is that the process of achieving it never stops. Press and Diggs-Hobson (2005) point out that the professional is of necessity constantly learning about cultures in a service population: knowing everything about all the cultures in a population, before encountering them, is not possible. Ongoing interaction and actively seeking out knowledge (Garrison 2013) are integral components of developing cultural competence. The knowledge I brought to that first job in Alice Springs has continued to expand, through work and study. Most recently, during a short-term transfer to AIATSIS, I had cause to think a lot about colonisation and its ongoing effects in a post-colonial world.

    Whiteness in libraries

    In a recent conversation, a woman described how, when her family migrated from Egypt to the United States and then to Australia, her parents took her and her siblings to the library precisely so that they would learn how to fit in. Relating this as an adult, she said her parents chose the library “because it was a white place.” When I mentioned this to other librarians interested in cross-cultural provision and social inclusion, responses included:

    You know I am really going to have to think this through. The whiteness of a library as a place to learn how to fit in. I never considered it that. I loved to read and that is the place to find books. At the same time, one learns English – to read and write – which is part of education and educating in the ‘white’ way which is at the foundation of libraries.(personal communication with an Indigenous librarian, 16th September 2015);


    I find it curious how they intentionally used it in their acculturation to the dominant Australian culture … the literature that I have seen generally shows that immigrants trust the library and librarians. In that sense, libraries are welcoming and friendly spaces. However, that does not mean that libraries are culturally neutral zones and/or are as inclusive as one would like to think. I don’t think that this is all bad. It sounds like newcomers can benefit from it as they transition into the new society, however, long term this may cause them to feel excluded and/or that their cultures are less valued. Likewise, this would clearly be exclusionary to minority groups, such as indigenous [sic] peoples, who are not trying adapt to the dominant culture, but are nations within their own right. (personal communication with PhD candidate researching inclusion in libraries, 20th September 2015)

    These communications, and the following discussion, indicate that the need for cultural competence is not reduced by the uses people from minority groups can make of white spaces. If anything they underline the need for it, and for dexterity in its deployment. A 2003 evaluation of the project to establish Akaltye Antheme included comments that Aboriginal people came to the library because it was a “neutral space”. They meant that it was a whitefella space free from the tensions of blackfella life; it was also a space where whitefella and blackfella clashes, common elsewhere in town, weren’t going to occur, where they could relax for a while and also make use of library services. In 2008, Aboriginal people were observed using the library to do online banking, socialise, organise or inform others of community events like funerals, read hard copy and digital Akaltye Antheme resources, watch videos, draw, or browse the other collections (Kral, unpublished report for council, 2008). Aboriginal people used the Alice Springs library before the establishment of the Akaltye Antheme Collection; however its popularity and changes in library use following its establishment suggest that the changed environment, while not making the library any less a white place, was valuable to Aboriginal patrons.

    The Indigenous librarian quoted before, further commented about the affirmation members of her tribe find in their own libraries. Her comment reveals the value to individuals of places that reflect their identity:

    on the other side, you have tribal libraries where Indigenous people go to learn not just reading and writing, but cultural aspects and language in the comfort of their created environment. My co-worker, she finds a reconnection to herself at the place we work. (personal communication 16th September 2015)

    The potential alienation of libraries built on whiteness, mentioned by the PhD candidate, can be inferred from this comment.

    Ettarh (2014) suggests “intersectional librarianship” as a means for working effectively with diverse populations. Intersectionality recognises the interactions between any person or group’s multiple layers of identity and the marginalisation or privilege attendant on each. No single identity is in play at any one time; and outcomes and experiences vary correspondingly. Multiple layers of identity result in multiple interactions between privilege and discrimination or marginalisation. The differing outcomes and responses arising from that interplay are evident in by the Egyptian migrants’ use of the library for their children’s acculturation; and in the use of the public library and the Akaltye Antheme Collection by Aboriginal people in Alice Springs.

    An intersectional perspective can be developed by “learning to become allies … not just learning about the issues that affect the underrepresented but also learning how our own biases and privileges make it difficult for us to build alliances” (Ettarh (2014). Cultural competence requires virtually the same strategy for modifying personal and organisational practice.

    Intersectional librarianship, however, discusses power and privilege, an omission in cultural competence theory that I have read. Intersectional librarianship “involves challenging and deconstructing privilege and considering how race, gender, class, disability, etc., affect patrons’ information needs” (Ettarh 2013). Wong et al. (2003) argue that understanding power must be central to understanding culture and to negotiating its multiple layers and interactions. Ettarh identifies as a queer person of color and talks of the challenges “we” librarians as a diverse group face in a diverse environment. Her use of the first person plural pronoun, to include all librarians, accords with the effect of structurally embedded racialised power on all health staff, that Wong et al. describe.

    Cultural competence, as defined by Overall (2009), does address the framework in which library operations occur: the professional development of the individual practitioner, the interactions between colleagues and between practitioners and patrons, and the effect of the environment, inside and outside the library. Privilege, while not explicitly referenced in cultural competence theory, is implicit in how culture works; whiteness, again not explicitly referenced in cultural competence theory, is central in Western library structures and operations, in the environment in which libraries are located. If the starting point of cultural competence is an understanding of the role of culture in your life (including your workplace), and in the lives of others, then you will also become aware of the interactions and interplay of privilege and marginalisation described by Ettarh (2014). It should be possible to incorporate awareness of privilege and whiteness as another starting point for culturally competent practice.

    Achieving inclusive services in the diverse Australian population when the Australian library workforce is culturally homogenous therefore poses a test. Individual Australian libraries are providing services to particular groups but how these initiatives are sustained is unclear, meaning that the risk remains for individuals responsible for ‘diversity services’ to struggle with the lack of support and isolation identified by Mestre (2010). Yarra Valley Regional Library obtained grant funding to develop programs with the hearing impaired community, children and adults with low literacy, and children with autism autism (Mackenzie 2014) – which makes me wonder whether the organisational challenge, of incorporating initiatives for minority groups into ongoing core business, might also remain. Without education in cultural competence, practitioners do not have the opportunity to discuss and evaluate their cross-cultural initiatives within a theoretical framework.


    In a workforce that is predominantly Anglo-Saxon, in an industry that is firmly based on Western concepts of knowledge and systems giving prominence to those concepts, but which provides services to a diverse population, a cultural competence that includes awareness of whiteness, of privilege and the mechanisms that make it available to some and not others, is essential. Cultural competence can make the information at the heart of a library’s existence genuinely accessible. It can help create “low intensity meeting places” where different groups can interact – or not (Audunson 2004); where people can seek answers to culturally shaped questions in culturally mediated ways (Abdullahi 2008).

    I have appreciated the open-review process, particularly being able to choose one of the reviewers. It has felt more collaborative than the peer-review processes of other publications. Thanks to Sue Reynolds and Ellie Collier for picking their way through the two drafts of this article, correcting grammar and asking questions that spurred me to clarify and extend what I was writing about. Thanks also to Hugh Rundle, publishing editor. It’s been a cross-cultural exercise of itself and I particularly appreciate Ellie’s contribution in that respect.


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