Information equity for indigenous knowledge, or, how do you find kūmara in the library? Part 1.

How librarians and archivists are making it easier for you to find indigenous information in New Zealand libraries (and how I got involved)

Māku e mihi atu ki a koutou e pānui ana, arā ko ngā kairangahau o tēnei hapori, ko ngā mana whenua o ngā rohe o Aotearoa, o tāwāhi.  Ngā mihi nui ki a Manuhiri i tono mai ki te whakahirahira i tētahi rauemi tino pai hei hono ki ngā mea mātauranga taketake i ngā whare kōrero, ko Ngā Ūpoko Tukutuku, nā ētahi kōrero mō te mahi rangahau o tōku tohu paerua.

Ka nui hoki ōku mihi ki ngā tāngata e tautoko mai ki te mahi rangahau e kōrerotia ana e ahau ki konei.  Ki ngā kaihautū me ngā kaimahi o Ngā Ūpoko Tukutuku, o mua, o tēnei wā tonu – tēnā koutou e ngā rangatira.

Ka huri ōku whakaaro ki ōku tīpuna.  Nō Airana, nō Tiamana, nō ētahi o ngā motu o Peretana te katoa, nō reira he tāngata Tirīti mātou.  Nō Māwhera te whaea, nō Motueka te matua.  I whānau mai au, i tipu au i Ōtautahi, kātahi ka tipu ake au i Ōtepoti.  I ēnei tau, e noho ana māua ko tōku tāne kei Pōneke.

Nō reira, e rere atu ōku kupu mihi ki a koutou.  Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tātou katoa.

Greetings to all you who read this – researchers and members of this IndigenousKIN community, those who are indigenous to Aotearoa New Zealand or elsewhere.  Thanks very much to Manuhiri for inviting me to share some stories from my Masters research about a powerful resource for connecting information seekers to indigenous knowledge in libraries and archives, Ngā Ūpoko Tukutuku / the Māori Subject Headings (MSH).

A lot of people supported, guided and contributed to that research.  Knowledgeable and committed workers were building the MSH years before I ever started University studies, or worked in a library, and that work continues, and at least one of these experts has contributed to this blog.  I acknowledge these people with great respect.

My family is not indigenous to Aotearoa New Zealand.  We all travelled here from various parts of the British Isles and what is now Germany in the 19th century, so if I have a place to stand here, it’s because of the Treaty of Waitangi, an agreement made between some representatives of new settlers and indigenous peoples in 1840.  Many readers can probably tell from the [mistakes which I assume are in the] above greetings that like a lot of us here in Aotearoa, I’m definitely a second-language learner of te reo Māori, the indigenous language of these lands.  But one of the many awesome things about the MSH is that they are contributing to the revival of te reo – we can happily say that this situation is improving!

I live with my fiancee here in the capital city, Wellington, but my parents grew up in the small South Island towns of Motueka and Greymouth, and I grew up in the (also quite small) South Island cities of Christchurch and Dunedin.

Perhaps not everyone reading this blog will know the background to the development of the MSH, so I will quickly explain.  The title of a work (a book, a thesis…) doesn’t always include words which say what it is about – for example, “Mai i te Kākano” (Forth from the Seed), by Hēni Jacob, is about language learning.  So, to allow people to search for works by their subjects, library staff add subject headings to the catalogue records for each work.  And so that people can click on those subject headings to find all the other works in the library on the same subject, we use standard lists of subject headings – in other words, ideally, once you’ve found that first record with “Māori language material” written on it, you don’t also have to search for “language learning”, “language study”, “te reo Māori”, and so on.  But the two most widely used standard sets of subject headings, the Dewey Decimal Classification and the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), were developed many years ago, on the other side of the world, by certain men with certain views, for their own purposes, so they don’t always meet our needs here and now, especially for describing and grouping together indigenous information.  For just a few examples –

  • There is no good match in the LCSH for the concept of mana whenua. Mana whenua differs from Western “land tenure” in many ways – for example, neighbouring groups of people may be linked through mana whenua by overlapping interests in and responsibilities over various resources in an area, rather than being divided by exclusive rights to the use of separate pieces of land.
  • For waka, the LCSH uses “Canoes—Oceania”, thus linking two words which many information seekers in Aotearoa would not think to use, and also probably missing the sense in which “waka” can refer not only to various types of travelling vessels – including sailing catamarans large enough to convey whole migrations of peoples across the enormous Pacific Ocean – but also to the peoples descended from the crews of those waka.
  • One book on poi was assigned an LCSH subject heading with the suffix “antiquities”, a surprising choice to describe an art form and a method of memorising and communicating information which is very much alive today.
  • For kūmara, the LCSH uses “sweet potato”, a term uncommon in both te reo Māori and New Zealand English.

Therefore, the MSH were created to “provide a structured path to subjects that Māori customers can…use to find material in libraries” by providing “subject access…using terms familiar to Māori and arranged in a hierarchy that reflects the Māori view of the world”.  So, if your library is using MSH terms to describe books in its (your!) collection, or even just copying the MSH terms which the National Library uses to describe some books, then it will be easier for you to use your library catalogue to search for Māori information in te reo Māori.  Those of you who are affiliated with Auckland University are lucky enough to have some real experts on hand, as some of your librarians are members of the team developing the MSH.

The story of the MSH is often said to begin in 1989, when Irwin & Katene noted in their classic paper that under existing classification systems, “to find knowledge in a library you [had] to think Anglo-American . . .”.  A thesaurus named He Puna Kupu Māori, or “Kupu”, was released in 1994 after four years of preparation, and was primarily used for indexing within the National Library.  (This name could be translated as “a source, or wellspring, of Māori words”.)  Certain other libraries also developed their own in-house vocabularies to enhance subject access.  After Szekely & NZLIA confirmed the need for broader nationwide use of Māori subject headings in 1997, Te Rōpū Whakahau (“the leading national body that represents Māori engaged in culture, knowledge, information, communication and systems technology in Aotearoa New Zealand”) and LIANZA (the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa) began to scope and plan a new thesaurus.  The National Library of New Zealand added its strength to the project in 2003, and Simpson’s 2005 report was instrumental in framing the actual construction of the resource.  Then at last, the newborn Ngā Ūpoko Tukutuku / Māori Subject Headings thesaurus was presented in a “soft launch” in 2005, with an official launch in 2006.

The MSH increase the mana of libraries as well as library users.  Participation in the project has provided opportunities for the National Library to take steps towards fulfilling its legislative mandate to support mātauranga Māori/indigenous knowledge systems.  As the Waitangi Tribunal pointed out in its 2011 report “Ko Aotearoa Tēnei”, all publicly owned agencies (including information organisations and memory institutions) have a responsibility to uphold the use of te reo Māori / the Māori language in their public-facing systems.

Fundamentally, there is a need for a mindset shift away from the pervasive assumption that the Crown is Pākehā, English-speaking, and distinct from Māori rather than representative of them. . . . Māori should be able to use their own language, given its official status, in as many of their dealings with the New Zealand State as practicable – particularly since the public face of the Crown will often be a Māori one. 

The Māori population and the number of Māori people in higher education are increasing, so the numbers of information seekers whose default search language and conceptual framework are Māori will also rise.  Even an information seeker who is fluent and highly educated in two languages and world views can struggle to switch into one while deeply engrossed in research endeavours in another, so it is more important than ever that Māori researchers can research Māori matters in the Māori language.

The MSH benefit not only speakers of te reo Māori, but also New Zealand English speakers who may be unfamiliar with terms used in subject heading systems developed overseas.  Also, excellent information literacy for all information seekers must include an understanding of indigenous information issues, so the Māori subject headings offer practical benefits for everyone.

International literature praises the MSH as a example to guide librarians in other countries struggling with subject headings which hide or disrespect indigenous knowledge through “marginalisation; historicisation; omission; lack of specificity; failure to organise materials in effective ways; lack of relevance; and lack of recognition of . . . sovereignty.”

But I hadn’t found much local literature documenting the uptake of this outstanding resource here in Aotearoa, so I became curious.  With the kind permission and support of Te Whakakaokao / the Māori Subject Headings Working Group and the Māori Subject Headings Governance Group, I set out to explore how some research libraries are applying the MSH and offering the MSH to their users.

As I was planning our research, I analysed search terms entered into one library’s most popular free-text search interfaces over two months.  This analysis revealed that many searchers used terms which are included in the MSH but not in the LCSH, indicating that this library’s application of MSH terms must have significantly improved the success of those searches.  These terms included words which do not have direct translations into English and/or are shared by te reo Māori and New Zealand English, such as “korowai”, “hongi”, “tauparapara”, “Matariki”, “kawakawa” and, yes, “kūmara”.  These results were really exciting to me, because they showed me that not only do library users expect to be able to search using Māori words – even after all these years of colonialism – but that the indefatigable workers who develop the MSH are picking the most useful words, in sympathy with these expectations.

Energised by this discovery, I went out to talk with local library staff to hear about their experiences with the MSH.

To find out the results, tune in next blog post – or you can sneak a peek at the super-summary in this handy poster (which you’re welcome to reuse), read the full research report, or contact the MSH team and access the MSH thesaurus.

Whāia te mātauranga hei oranga mō tātou.

Seek after learning for the wellbeing of all of us.


(Image of a handful of delicious kūmara by Cuyahoga Jco, cropped and reused here by CC-BY 2.0 licence.)

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