Diverse communities: Fiona Blackburn on cultural competence and how it can help librarians

Photographer: Andrew Babbington, AIATSIS.

Photographer: Andrew Babbington, AIATSIS.

Today’s post comes from Fiona Blackburn, a member of our ILN community.  Fiona works at the ACT Heritage Library but at the time of writing was the Senior Collections Officer at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra, the Australian capital.

The simplest description of cultural competence I have found is ‘the ability to understand the needs and norms of groups different from one’s own’. In practice, this means knowing how culture ‘works’, in your own life, including work – your biases, beliefs, assumptions and ways of doing things; seeing how it works in the lives of others; and amending or adapting the way you and your organisation operate so diverse groups want to use your service.

Most Australian libraries operate in diverse communities: twenty-six percent of the population was born in Europe, Asia, the Pacific and ‘elsewhere’ (technical term borrowed from the Australian Census Bureau). In 2011, census respondents identified 300 ethnicities or ancestries with which they most identified; most second generation Australians claimed dual ancestry. Ethnic ancestry, however, is a limited view of diversity as it omits class, religion, gender, ability and social, recreational, economic and work cultures. With the movement of people around the world, for work or freedom from persecution, for adventure (including love) or chain migration, it is likely that most communities will become increasingly diverse.

By contrast, the Australian library workforce is fairly homogenous – it’s primarily white, middle class, educated, female and middle aged. (Imagine me taking a bow here – I fit.) Also, libraries have established, even entrenched, very particular systems and operations – so working cross-culturally can be a challenge. However, it is worth learning that the cultural norms of each group of users affect how they interact with available information services – and the professional and organisational culture they encounter in the library affects that interaction.

The following example of the usefulness of cultural competence in Australian libraries comes from a conversation I had recently with an Aboriginal woman. The conversation is related on the understanding that neither she nor the library service are identified. Key factors in the interaction are the way in which Australian Aboriginal communities impart cultural knowledge, which entails proscription, prohibition and consequences for individuals breaking those norms; and the principles guiding the library service’s operations.

Members of the Aboriginal community had approached their library service about the open display of culturally sensitive materials and the problems this caused for local Aboriginal people. The library’s response was that they could not restrict access to the material as their mission statement included a commitment to freedom of access to information. This appears a technically correct response. It had the unfortunate effect, however, of chilling the group’s attitude and inhibiting the way Aboriginal people could use the library.

A more culturally competent response would have been to identify the community process at work; identify similar processes in mainstream culture; and seek solutions from that standpoint. The community process was the management of information, particularly access to knowledge. Equivalent processes in mainstream culture abound:

  • the thirty year embargo on government cabinet papers
  • records management in government archives
  • the concept of commercial-in-confidence
  • classification of pornography
  • graduated teaching of complex subjects, e.g. mathematics and languages
  • access conditions to material in library collections which is rare, fragile or valuable.

Each of these mainstream circumstances has a method for making information available, although it will be redacted in some instances and some of it will never be freely accessible. Having identified similarly restrictive processes of information management within Western culture, the library service could then have asked the group, “How would you like to make it available?”

Alice Springs Public Library has done this successfully. The historical collection there holds anthropological items which would cause significant trouble or distress if certain individuals were to find it while browsing. In 2002, Arrernte Traditional Owners identified material which should not be on open display. This is now kept in a locked cabinet, available to anyone who asks for it while enabling safe browsing of the open shelves. The library and local Aboriginal people have gone further and established the Akaltye Antheme collection. This collection showcases culture which Aboriginal people want the rest of the town and visitors to know about – ‘Akaltye Antheme’ is Arrernte for ‘giving knowledge’.

It’s clear from these examples that cultural competence requires modifying practice and working with the community to create services. It should not be inferred from these examples that cultural competence only has application to services for ethnic groups. Yarra Plenty Regional Libraries has modified programs to build engagement with a number of marginalised groups within their community, including people with health issues, hearing impairment and low literacy due to a number of factors.

I am really interested in how libraries around the world adapt to their local community and the cultures within it. How have ways of providing information changed? Do you take your library outside its walls? How much input do community groups have in the way your library runs?

Posted in Discussion topics, Guest post, Round 2015B and tagged , , , , , .


  1. Cultural tolerance is the key to success! To serve our clients better whom mostly are a people of different ethnicity, social status and nationalities; we need to start mixing our work force by employing people of different races, ethnicity etc.It would then be much more easier to interact with our different clients with a positive mental attitude toward them.It is also easier to learn more about other races or ethnicities through our colleagues.In addition to this; professional exchange programmes are essential in this regard.

    • Hello Khumbo. I would be interested to hear of your experience with the professional exchange programmes that you mention. How did they help? Were they of use to your colleagues as well as you? How were they designed? What was their particular purpose? Thanks Fiona

  2. Please do not use the phrase cultural tolerance or tolerance at any time, for tolerance implies putting up with something you would rather not have anything to do with. The term used in the above article ‘cultural competence’ is an excellent term, emphasising the need to education, understanding and the ability to think outside the ‘freedom to read’ and we will not censor our collection mantra. This issue with Aboriginal collections has been an issue for many a year, and the WASP attitude (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) of Australian librarians has enabled it to leach into other cultural collections.

    • Hello. While cultural competence has relevance across all aspects of library operations and shouldn’t be limited to services for and with any particular group, I found it while working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people so I would be interested to hear about the experience you allude to, in greater detail. If you want to do this but would prefer a direct exchange, let me know or ask the ILN coordinators for my direct email. Looking forward to the dialogue. Fiona

  3. One of the difficulties we have encountered in running a global community is that words and expressions have different implications and significance across different cultures and communities. This discussion is a robust example of this – thank you both for your contributions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *