Speaking up About Collection Silences. Who is Reflected in your Local Studies Collection?

Research on local studies collections indicates that few Australian public libraries collect or create recent content for their local studies collections. These collections may be influenced by whom the library staff are connected with, and who knows about the local studies collection, making the process of collecting potentially more about who knows whom than a social justice window on the community.

If a local studies collection does not represent the whole community the library serves, it is collecting and preserving a biased account of a community.

Whose stories are collected can help to show the values of a community.

To explore these ideas I undertook ethnographic research which involved interviews, observation and analysis of documents of a particular public library in Australia in order to:

  • To understand current collecting practices and paradigms and their impact on what is included in these collections.
  • To assess the effectiveness of current practices in terms of addressing current contextual issues and of developing collections that document and reflect local communities.

The findings from the research showed that there can be a tendency to rarely say no to unsolicited local studies donations as a result of weak guidance from plans and strategies, relational decision making and this provides the risk of collecting from cliques. With Australia’s diverse population, it is important that each local studies collection in a public library reflects and represents the heterogeneity of its community, especially if a social justice approach to local studies collections is considered.

The implications of these findings draw on the metaphor of mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors, highlighting how a social justice framework for local studies collecting in public libraries can ensure greater representation, inclusiveness and equity. This metaphor first used in relation to books for children, can help library staff to think about how a local studies collection reflects stories of their community. Such approaches can amplify voices that may have been silenced and help people and themes with little visibility in local studies collections in public libraries to be included.

The implications of the findings are that each library could explore whose voices and stories are not collected and preserved in their local studies collections. This includes considering representative collecting and working with diverse stories to better record what a community is really like. Are many different perspectives available or are a few reflected in many ways? A social justice approach to local studies has the potential to provide a representative record of the community as a wider range of voices and stories included. This would be beneficial to the communities that libraries serve, ensuring greater engagement from and ownership by underrepresented groups as their stories become part of the documentation of the community as library staff work with them to document stories and experiences.

We may not be able to fix collecting practices from the past, but recent and contemporary collecting including content creation can help reflect the current community, so it is well documented for the future.

Ellen Forsyth

Consultant, State Library of NSW

Author Bio

Ellen Forsyth has recently completed a PhD using ethnography as a method to explore contemporary and recent collecting in local studies collections in public libraries. This investigated what practices might need to change to better include recent and current concerns of communities. Ellen is an experienced librarian who has previously presented and co-presented at conferences including moderating panels.