Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Blog Every Day in June Day 16: ATSILRN protocols and working respectfully with Indigenous Collections. Q & A with Monica Galassi, Mylee Joseph and Kirsten Thorpe, SLNSW.


The State Library of New South Wales has a strong commitment to developing services and collections for Indigenous Australian people and communities. Library staff are actively engaged in conversations about how they can work respectfully with Indigenous content, and staff are openly encouraged to discuss issues around the management of historical collections.

Today’s post is a Q & A about some of these issues.

Why do information and images relating to Aboriginal culture in Australia need to be handled with care when GLAM organisations (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) use it online and in social media channels?  What are the issues to be thinking about?

It is often the case that Indigenous communities are unaware that collections have been created that relate to themselves and/or their families, and often these materials were collected without their informed consent.  Some items in collections may “secret, sacred or sensitive” (ATSILIRN, 2010) Some collections may include items about culture and country that are collectively owned by a family and/or community. For example, some historical images may document places of significance for the community (ceremonial or burial). Some images may be sensitive because they document a particular place like a government or church institution associated with the stolen generations. Without knowing the full historical context and the provenance of these collections, access may cause distress or ongoing trauma for those from whom it relates.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protocols for Libraries, Archives and Information Services (http://atsilirn.aiatsis.gov.au/protocols.php) provide guidance and a framework for library and archives staff to think about best practice in handling these materials.  It is important to consider that there may be a continuity of cultural connections between contemporary people and items in a heritage collection. This may require institutions to make contact with that group and discuss the process of access and use of the material. Relationships are an important part of building trust between institutions and communities in regards to the collections that they hold. It is good practice to know what material can be shared freely, and what material in your collections might be considered to be sensitive.

One of the additional challenges of sharing information on social media channels is the potential that contextual information may be separated from the image. For example, heritage images shared via Instagram are subject to their terms of use and the opportunity to provide context and information is limited to the comments field with no live links to further information. At the State Library of NSW, staff procedures for selecting collection material when using social media tools include guidance based on the ATSILIRN protocols.  Read more about applying the ATSILIRN protocols to the use of social media in Libraries in our paper from the ALIA Online 2015 conference http://information-online.alia.org.au/content/digital-engagement-and-atsilirn-protocols-indigenous-australian-experiences-and-expertise

But, isn’t published information that’s older than 70+ years automatically out of copyright?  Should old published information and photographs depicting Aboriginal culture automatically be in the public domain?  

Australian Indigenous culture is considered to be one of the oldest living cultures in the world. The arrival of the British has had a major impact on the ways in which Indigenous people have been able to practice culture. Collections may  depict many aspects of history and culture ranging from the documenting cultural ceremonies and practices as well as recording other aspects such as word lists and languages.

Although the legal copyright terms associated with historical collections held in GLAM institutions may have expired, the moral rights of communities need to be considered.  This is particularly relevant where historical collections may have been created and acquired without appropriate permissions and consent from the people that are the subject of the collections. Their consent, even if it had been given, may not have been recorded.  These materials are vital for Aboriginal people to reclaim and reconnect with their own history and culture. This provides an opportunity for present and future generations to gain an understanding of the past.

What’s my role as a library professional? What are the best practice guidelines to use in my work?  Who can I ask for advice on consulting with communities?


  • Read Digital engagement and the ATSILIRN protocols: indigenous Australian experiences and expertise guiding the use of social media in libraries by Kirsten Thorpe and Mylee Joseph

Monica Galassi, MyleeJoseph (@myleejoseph) and Kirsten Thorpe (@kirstythorpe)
State Library of New South Wales


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