The dangerous myth about biculturalism in New Zealand libraries

As an indigenous person, when was the last time you walked into a library and felt a sense of belonging? In New Zealand, these repositories of knowledge have attempted to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for their Māori communities predominantly through a bicultural lens.

At the 2017 LIANZA Conference in Christchurch, New Zealand – a conference devoted to information workers in libraries, museums, archives and galleries – keynote speaker Laurinda Thomas courageously invited an elephant into a room filled with people from the information management industry by stating that, “I think we’ve become a bit too lazy about biculturalism”. I thought to myself at the time, that’s a big-as elephant, and following on from that theme I’ve invited in an elephant of my own.

I not only think as an industry we have become lazy. I think that our current state of biculturalism is holding us back.

Why are we trying to use a 90’s framework to realise our bicultural partnership objectives in a 21st-century context? I believe that if we persist in pursuing these same recommendations, we will only take incremental steps towards reaching our goals. We may even damage or reverse any progress that has already been made.

Honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi has always carried with it a responsibility to serve the needs of our Māori communities better. The Te Ara Tika studies raised awareness within the Library industry at a time when commitment was high and gave us the ideas and the tools to make considerable changes. And then it lost momentum.

It’s reasonable to assume resource constraints and making difficult decisions regarding strategic priorities have made it more challenging to invest further into bicultural initiatives. But I believe there’s an even bigger issue at play. I think that in this contemporary context of uncertainty, ambiguity, and insecurity, the noble ideal of meeting the needs of Māori is just not a bold or audacious enough goal anymore. When considering what the future might hold, there is an even greater need to think bigger and bolder.

With that in mind, here is a mash-up of recent experiences that are influencing my current thinking.

One influence came from a comment made by another LIANZA keynote, Vinh Giang:

“We don’t innovate by looking at what other people are doing in our industry. Because if we copy what everybody else in our industry is doing, we’re just forever moving towards industry norms.”

This is what biculturalism feels like at the moment to me, an industry moving towards a state of “biculturalism is the norm”. To be fair, that would be a great achievement and well worth celebrating. On the other hand, is doing what is the norm going to set us up adequately for an uncertain future?

Another influence is Daniel Pink’s right-brain thinking or R-thinking. Organisations have traditionally favoured left-brain skillsets, to think logically, sequentially, and analytically. Pink asserts that these skills are still needed, but are no longer going to be enough to meet the future needs of the workplace. The future belongs to right-brain thinkers.

What skills are needed to think with the right brain? Human-centred design, storytelling, empathy, constructive play and laughter, and meaningful work. These are skill sets that Māori and other indigenous peoples have in abundance, practices that were dismissed and rejected in favour of the analytical and logical L-thinking that dominates decision-making in organisations today.

Which leads me to ask then, are we being a bit too left-brain with biculturalism? By that I mean, do you think that if we complete a set of step-by-step recommendations, we will be better biculturally? Or would adopting R-thinking into the mix propel us towards a better bicultural future?

The final influencer I have is Mike Taitoko, a Director for a number of social and commercial enterprises. He spoke as part of the Dean of Engineering lecture series at the University of Auckland on the heightened awareness of Mātauranga Māori in our research and social ecosystem and how this is beneficial in our continuous journey to seek creative and innovative solutions.

Essentially, what I took away from his presentation is that innovation and creativity in the future will come from the incorporation of indigenous values into business practice.

What does this mean for the library profession? Biculturalism, as it has been applied, is seen as a way to develop the capability to meet the needs of Māori. What Mike Taitoko is saying is that adopting Māori values will better position organisations to innovate for the future. I’m going to take that a step further by saying that Māori values and a Māori mindset are the next evolutionary step in organisational change. A much bolder proposition.

Ultimately, what this all boils down to is that we are limiting our development in biculturalism by thinking only in terms of industry norms, by thinking only with the left brain, and thinking only of how this benefits Māori, rather than using what Māori know and do to benefit all. This is why I think biculturalism is holding us back. But it doesn’t have to.

Change our thinking and we change our future.


Giang, V. (2017). Open your mind. [Conference Presentation]. Open17, Addington Raceway, Christchurch. Retrieved from

MacDonald, T. (1993). Te Ara Tika: Māori and libraries: a research report. New Zealand Library & Information Association.

Pink, D. H. (2006). A whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future. Penguin.

Szekely, C. (1997). Te ara tika= Guiding voices: Maori opinion on libraries and information needs. New Zealand Library and Information Association, Te Rau Herenga o Aotearoa and Te Ropu Whakahau, Maori Library and Information Workers’ Association.

Taitoko, M. (2017). Māori and the innovation system. [Presentation] Deans Lecture Series, Faculty of Engineering, University of Auckland.

Thomas, L. (2017). The dangerous myth about librarians [Conference Presentation]. Open17, Addington Raceway, Christchurch. Retrieved from

*This post originally featured as an article in the Library Life, Issue 462, November 2017

One Comment

  1. Abigail McClutchie

    You have raised some interesting questions here Manuhiri. I’ve never been convinced by biculturalism however I have a lot of belief in Daniel Pink’s Right brain theories in a Whole New Mind based on a life with Meaning; Symphony; Play; Design; Story; and Empathy.


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