ATSILIRN Protocol 2: Content and perspectives

The second ATSILIRN protocol is about ensuring that the collection materials we hold by and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are comprehensive, inclusive and reflect all perspectives. It’s about building collections that tell the whole story.

Much of the material in our collections relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was produced from a non-Indigenous perspective, for example: colonists’ diaries and letters, anthropologists’ field notes, historians’ interview and research notes, and social commentaries. As a result, in general, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities’ perceptions of collecting institutions are not positive. Institutions such as libraries and museums are historically viewed as places where items were ‘taken’ without permission, and remain hidden from their traditional owners. Many records and manuscripts held in institutions are viewed as ‘sorry business’, meaning they are distressing and sensitive. Examples of sorry business in our collections include accounts of massacres of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, government removal registers and materials relating to the Stolen Generations.

Protocol two stresses the need for a balance of perspectives, to ensure that the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities are equally represented. For some libraries, achieving this balance will involve a focus on acquiring material by as well as about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

Along with considering the content of our collections, libraries need to engage in continuing, appropriate consultation with relevant communities to develop and manage our collections. As we learned in the AIATSIS Core training, engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is about building productive relationships, and respecting the knowledge and experience they bring to the table.

Raising awareness of different perspectives also involves promoting the existence and availability of collections, and of any conditions governing their access. In some libraries this may be achieved by providing a specific space, such as kuril dhagun at the State Library of Queensland, while others may use particular descriptors in catalogue records, or place stickers on books which illustrate Indigenous experiences or views. We’ll learn more about description and classification of records, and about secret, sacred or sensitive materials and cultural permissions in Protocols 5 and 6.

In the video below, Marika Duczynski talks more about what libraries can do to ensure their collections cover a range of perspectives and to increase the visibility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander materials.

> A different perspective on history: collaborating with a remote community
State Library of Queensland partnered with the Palm Island community and other collecting institutions to create an exhibition telling the community’s side of the island’s history.
> A toolkit for inclusive library spaces
The ‘Indigenous Spaces in Library Places’ toolkit was developed by the State Library of NSW to provide practical guidance to public libraries about making culturally safe and welcoming spaces for Aboriginal peoples and communities, and building inclusive collections and services.
> Consulting with Elders to improve collection information and management
The National Library of Australia learned many valuable lessons from working with Pitjantjatjara Elders to find out more about heritage photographs in the library’s collection.
> Creating a process for cultural permissions
State Library Victoria’s Cultural Permission Program was developed to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities whose ancestral material is held in the library’s heritage collections the authority to decide how that material may be used by others.
> Galiwin’ku community library classification system
The Northern Territory Library partnered with East Arnhem Regional Council to re-imagine a new and different classification system for Galiwin’ku Community Library, reforming collection classification from a traditional Western library-orientated structure to a culturally relevant user-orientated structure and layout.
> Indigenous soldier portraits
Since 2014, State Library of Queensland has been profiling Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who volunteered to serve in WW1, acknowledging these soldiers’ contribution, and reconnecting their stories with families and descendants.
Policies and guidelines

Position statement: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections and services in NSLA libraries – NSLA (2021)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections commitments – State Library of Queensland (2019)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Protocols – University of Sydney Library (2021)

Tandanya: Adelaide declaration – International Council on Archives (PDF, 2019)

Our way: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander protocols – National Archives of Australia (2021)

Indigenous Strategy 2020-23 – National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (2020)

Articles and presentations

Transformative praxis: building spaces for Indigenous self-determination in libraries and archives – Kirstin Thorpe (In the Library with the Lead Pipe, 2019)
“This article explores questions regarding the development and support of Indigenous priorities and self-determination in Australian libraries and archives…The author explores questions of Indigenous cultural safety, opportunities for increasing Indigenous voice and representation and the implementation of Indigenous Protocols to enable truth-telling and activism around Indigenous community priorities.”

How living museums are ‘waking up’ sleeping artefacts – Myles Russell Cook (The Conversation, 2016)
“Historically, many Aboriginal people have had their cultural material exploited by museums but things are changing rapidly. Most museums are helping provide opportunities for Aboriginal people to connect to their artefacts in a real and practical way.”

The violent collectors who gathered Indigenous artefacts for the Queensland Museum – Gemima Burden (The Conversation, 2018)
“While repatriation is important, what often goes unrecognised is the crucial part that collectors played in the violent dispossession of First Nations people.”

My ancestors are in our memory institutions, but their voices are missing – Nathan Sentance for IndigenousX (The Guardian, 2018)
“Galleries, libraries, archives and museums are considered sites of memory, spaces to engage with history and identity, but for me these places are sites of forgetting, erasure and distortion…My ancestors are in these memory institutions, but their voices are missing from the words written, the art created and the cultural objects taken. “

Gaps in the descriptive metadata of our national memory: digital engagement with colonial photographs of Indigenous Australians – Kathryn Ross (2016)
“This conference paper discusses the value, relevance and role of historical images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, along with the descriptive metadata that was recorded at the time of capture.”

Deciphering Arrernte archives: The intermingling of textual and living knowledge – Jason Gibson, Shaun Angeles, Joel Liddle (Univerity of Hawai’i Press, 2019)
Exploring some of the issues Arrernte peoples confront as they work through archives, including the limitations of conventional cataloguing requirements and the importance of reading archival texts in a way that sees them emplaced and tested against the knowledge of Elders, and the role of digital technologies in the future dissemination of cultural materials.

Audio and video

Connecting collections: old TI and the Right Wrongs referendum campaign – John Morseu and Yanti Ropeyarn (audio, AIATSIS, 2017)
“As National Library of Australia Indigenous graduates, John and Yanti’s projects aimed to make Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander material in the library accessible to communities far distant from the national capital. Online research guides they created highlight unique collections on ‘Old TI’ (Thursday Island, in the Torres Strait) and the Right Wrongs referendum campaign of 1967, important constitutional reform for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. This presentation highlighted outcomes from the creation of the research guides; how they have increased awareness and exposure of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection materials. More so, strategies to increase digital exposure of National Library collections and how this contributes to the continuing cultural survival of Cape York and Torres Strait Islander communities in the contemporary age.”

Embedding Indigenous voices at the State Library of New South Wales: Transforming practice through community engagement – Monica Galassi and Kirsten Thorpe (audio, AIATSIS, 2017)
“The State Library of New South Wales holds vast collections of material relating to the experiences of Indigenous people in Australia. In 2014, the library made a renewed focussed effort to review and increase the library services dedicated to the Indigenous population through the creation of the Indigenous Services Branch.”

Case studies

Curating Eight Days in Kamay – Damien Webb (State Library of News South Wales, 2020)
“Countless myths and exaggerations surround the eight days the Endeavour spent in Kamay in 1770. The untarnished ideal of Cook as an explorer and skilled navigator has long been a seductive one, but for many he symbolises one of the darkest and most brutal parts of Australia’s history. The Library’s exhibition Eight Days in Kamay explores these conflicting views, and invites you to consider the cultural, social and political context of the Endeavour’s visit from the perspective of the Gweagal people.”

Community and Cook in 2020 at the Australian Museum – Mariko Smith (IndigenousX, 2019)
“The 2020 Project is a First Nations-led response to the 250th anniversary. It will include an exhibition to be held at the Australian Museum… To be a genuine right of reply, the AM’s First Nations curatorial team wanted to first ask Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples directly what they wanted to cover (and also not cover), in terms of exhibition objectives, themes, and topics.”
See also: Australian Museum: 2020 Project Report (Australian Museum, 2019)