An initial exploration of the history of Australian libraries and collections as forces of social control and whiteness: A presentation for the 2022 American Library History Round Table research seminar

By Holly Randell-Moon, Mary Carroll and Louise Curham

At 5 AM Thursday the 16th of June Australian Eastern Standard Time (3 PM EDT Wednesday 15th June) Mary Carroll, Louise Curham (School of Information and Communication Studies) and Holly Randell-Moon (School of Indigenous Australian Studies) presented an online paper to an international audience as part of the American Library History Round Table (LHRT) research seminar. The paper, Whiteness and goodness: an initial exploration of the history of Australian libraries and collections as forces of social control, was a great example of the strength a collaborative interdisciplinary approach can bring to library and information studies and historical research. Using their various areas of expertise Mary, Louise and Holly discussed the idea of the library as a whole text. That is, they considered libraries in the context of the history of settler colonisation, whiteness, and social control as influencing the construction, location, collection, use and perception of libraries.

Linking  themes discussed in previous Library Research Group blog posts the library building was placed under the spotlight with the State Library of New South Wales (SLNSW) and the State Library of Victoria (SLV) receiving particular attention. These libraries exemplify how the  nineteenth century and early twentieth century  Australian library buildings were used to promote community aspirations, nationalist agendas, and the emerging independence and wealth of the Australian colonies. Through the expansive porticos held up by external Corinthian columns the new public libraries (as seen for example in photograph 1) were overflowing with references to classical culture, marble statues, church-like windows and inspirational and uplifting quotes. Through their space and decorations these buildings literally embodied  the social and cultural aspirations of the British communities and connection to Empire, agendas further manifest in their collections and systems. Arguing that the links between colonisation, racialisation, and social control are often obscured by the historical and contemporary presenting of libraries as serving a public good, the presenters asked attendees to consider that whiteness is not incidental to notions of ‘goodness’ and libraries have benefited from this racialised association. This is reinforced by the association between knowledge institutions such as libraries and archives, which work to construct Australia as ‘empty’ of knowledge and therefore reproduces the negation of First Nations sovereignties.

As part  of the presentation Mary, Louise, and Holly used the example of the buildings of the  SLV and SLNS. In particular participants were asked to consider the two doors from the SLNSW building. These were the ‘Explorer’ Doors (photograph 2) and the ‘Aboriginal’ Doors (photograph 3) with Holly arguing that the depiction of knowledge is quite different. The European ‘explorers’ are disembodied floating heads where their knowledge is universal. First Nations by contrast are presented as ‘pre-modern’ and ‘stuck’ in their embodied relationship to culture. In concluding, Louise argued that understanding the historical formation of libraries within settler colonisation and forces of social control enables the profession to do better at recognising the diverse communities, cultures, and knowledges it is connected to.

Photograph 1: Melbourne Public Library (1880). Melbourne Public Library, Victoria, ca. 1880. State Library of Victoria picture collection
Photograph 2:  Hood, Sam, 1872-1953 (1942).  Exterior, Public Library of NSW, showing the bronze entrance doors embossed with heads of explorers. State Library of New South picture collection
Photograph 3: Public Library of New South Wales. The eastern ‘Aboriginal doors’ sculptured by Daphne Mayo

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