Liberate our Library! Decolonisation and discovery

Marilyn Clarke on the Liberate our Library campaign that's working to give a voice to marginalised and underrepresented students at Goldsmiths University of London.

Why is decolonisation such a hot topic in the UK higher education sector? And what has it got to do with libraries?  

For the past three years, students around the world have been calling on universities to decolonise across all their structures; from statues, buildings and staff to reading lists and curricula, academia has been asking itself many difficult questions. The critical lens is firmly focused on dismantling structural racism and practices which continue to marginalise underrepresented groups, and deny a voice both physically in the classroom and in the form of scholastic communication to BAME communities, scholars from the Global South, and teachings which challenge the dominant norm.

At Goldsmiths Library, we decided to set up a working group to look at how the library could engage with social justice and the National Union of Students’ (NUS) call to 'liberate our degrees'.  'Liberate our degrees' is the first objective in the Goldsmiths Learning, Teaching and Assessment Strategy (LTAS), and its inclusion was instigated by the Goldsmiths Students’ Union.  As a library we too have to engage with this strategic objective as providers of learning and teaching resources, as well as through pedagogical support - from search strategies to citation practices.  The call for change points up the dominance of White, Western, mostly male, heteronormative and ableist content, organised in ways that can alienate as well as offend our users who come from a broad range of social and ethnic backgrounds.  

The Library has a dedicated webpage under the name of Liberate our Library, clearly mirroring the students' campaign.  This is a campaign to highlight discriminating practices and to give voice to students who feel marginalised and unrepresented.  There are several strands to the work:

  • liberatemydegree book suggestions,
  • academic skills workshops - such as resistance referencing that teaches inclusive citation practice,
  • decolonising research methods workshops that teach students how to think more critically about how Western research practices are tied to colonialism, and how this effects their own practice.

I will highlight the books suggestions strand further.  

A small portion of the resources budget is dedicated to buying book suggestions as part of 'liberate our degrees'.  Students are asked to make resource suggestions that they feel represent themselves and their identity which are missing from the shelves because of the epistemological bias towards the Global North that dominates teaching resources deemed to be the canon.  Anything that does not fit is disregarded and viewed as insubstantive.

Once a student makes a suggestion to counter this lack, the Library buys the book and its bibliographic record has a note field marking it as 'liberatemydegree'.  All such purchases are then discoverable because of this marker, and the collection (to-date about 18 months in existence) has close to 190 resources; mainly books.  Most pleasingly, some 20% of these books are now on reading lists.  So the impact is real - the student voice has been heard and it contributes to diversifying the library collection, as well as reading lists.  Our liberation work is part of our business as usual; not an equalities tick box exercise.

Marilyn Clarke is the Head of Discovery Services at Goldsmiths University of London.