ATSILIRN Protocol 6: Secret or sacred materials, or sensitive

Protocol 6 is about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection materials that are sensitive in nature, or have traditional restrictions or protocols around who can access them. Examples of secret or sacred materials are photographs of artefacts or descriptions of ceremonies that may only be viewed by initiated members of the community to which they belong, or that are considered ‘women’s business’. These include both published and archival materials recorded by researchers with permission, because the individuals or communities involved did not know that the material would be published or made public in an institutional collection.

Sensitive materials include items that recall traumatic events and practices experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, such ledgers from missions or records relating to the stolen generation. There are also cultural sensitivities about using the names or photographs of people who have died.

Protocol 6 stresses the need to consult with appropriate representatives from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities involved to ensure that secret, sacred or sensitive collection materials are identified, and that suitable storage and viewing facilities are provided where necessary.

There’s an emphasis on staff understanding any access conditions and ensuring they are observed, including restrictions on who can view or handle materials. This extends to the digital environment. For example, digitised images may need to be preceded by a sensitivity notice warning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander users of their content, or may be omitted from the online catalogue record.

This protocol also suggests that libraries establish reference groups of senior library and collections staff and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives, and appoint at least one designated Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander liaison officer as a point of contact between their library and relevant communities and reference groups.

In the video below, Damien Webb explains the importance of library staff being aware of known or potential secret or sacred collection materials, and how these should be identified, stored and made accessible.