The librarians at UBC library’s Indigenous branch won’t hush you with a “no talking in the library” glare. From decolonial research to digitizing records, X̱wi7x̱wa Library amplifies voices which have historically been silenced.
According to the website, the X̱wi7x̱wa Library (pronounced “whei-wa”) is the only fully-Aboriginal academic library in Canada. If you’re looking for Indigenous research resources on campus, X̱wi7x̱wa is the place to go.
Decolonizing librarianship is an ongoing conversation: which types of knowledge are accessible, and to who? What does it mean to hold sovereignty over not only land, but information?
Answering those questions may fundamentally change how academic libraries approach knowledge, research, and education.
Decolonizing the archives
Academic libraries, while helpful for finding sources, are colonial institutions.
“I think it's fair to say that academia has been misbehaving for a very long time, since it landed on the shores and occupied this Musqueam territory,” said X̱wi7x̱wa Head Librarian Sarah Dupont. “I think that ‘community engagement’ really means trying to do that decolonial advocacy work.”
Dupont started at X̱wi7x̱wa ten years ago, on what began as a temporary position but turned into a calling.
“Where I thought I could really lend some expertise was towards the community engagement piece,” said Dupont. “We're in this space of really trying to bridge the ways of knowing and the ways of doing in Indigenous communities with how academic libraries behave.”
The ways that libraries conventionally preserve and store information may neglect Indigenous knowledge and community needs.
“In libraries, we think about knowledge that's been captured in a way that we can hold on to it,” said Dupont. “I think it's really important that we take a moment to pause and figure out where that knowledge exists, other than books or audio recordings or videos.”
Decolonizing archives can mean prioritizing oral histories and engaging with community elders.
“It's great to have recordings and things, and that's what we do as librarians,” said Dupont, “but that's just not the only way that Indigenous knowledge lives or behaves. It’s dynamic.”
As libraries go digital, X̱wi7x̱wa is pushing to make their vast collection of newspapers, books and archives accessible online. However, “Indigitization” — digitizing Indigenous archives — often raises complex ethical issues.
To make archives open for the public to access, librarians are constantly navigating copyright laws. However, intellectual property fine print often contradicts Indigenous sovereignties.
Some First Nations documents in the archives were recorded or made public without consent. When 19th century white anthropologists photographed and published papers about First Nations cultures, they assumed legal ownership of cultural information that was not theirs to share. Like museums, libraries are reckoning with a history of archival theft.
Some research shouldn’t be pursued to respect Indigenous privacy.
Librarians are meant to assist with research — but decolonial librarianship includes knowing when to suggest that researchers quit or change track.
Decolonial librarians ask questions: how do we rebuild the broken trust between Indigenous communities and colonial archives? How do we gain consent to share information stolen decades ago from deceased individuals, whose descendants might be difficult to reach?
“There isn't really a cookie cutter approach to engaging with Indigenous perspectives and Indigenous people,” said Dupont.
“Yes, we can learn from case studies. But ultimately, we have to do the hard work of relationship building.”
X̱wi7x̱wa is deep in these conversations.
“There's a lot of activism research questions that people are really interested in knowing more about,” said Dupont. “Those are quite challenging because there's not necessarily scholarship written on the kind of thing that's important in the moment.”
Helping people navigate the reputability of digital sources is one of any library’s main jobs. The internet is an amazing resource for education. It can also be a minefield of partisan news and all-caps disinformation.
“There's a lot of that basic information literacy teaching that we do, like how to know if you are engaging with an Indigenous perspective or not,” said Dupont.
“One of one of the things that the library did with its catalog records is to try and identify First Nations authors, and actually embed that in the metadata so people could search and know that they were actually working with an Indigenous perspective.”
Educating the public about Indigenous traumas can be a delicate task. X̱wi7x̱wa librarians often provide emotional, as well as academic, support.
“In many ways, we're counselors,” said Dupont.
“When people encounter triggering information, if people didn't know about the residential school system and they're learning about it for the first time, they [may] just want to talk to another human being about what they are responding to in that moment and their feelings of shock.”
As more violence from residential schools hits the news, responses range from grief, anger, guilt, confusion and disbelief.
“They just want to be encouraged by another human being who can affirm that what they're reading isn't crazy, or isn't false in some way,” said Dupont.
“I don't think that there are going to be a lot of people now who have not heard of residential schools,” said Dupont. “Now, there are people who are looking to learn more about them.”
Op-eds and activists emphasize an important, but often vague, message about supporting Indigenous liberation: educate yourself.
If you don’t know where to start, that’s where the X̱wi7x̱wa Library comes in.
X̱wi7x̱wa Library’s projects in process
The guides are accessible to everyone, and include sources from the UBC library as well as curated content from other sources.
“We’ve written these research guides on every topic imaginable,” said Dupont. “If the guide hasn’t been written, yet we’re either working on it or would love to hear about it.”
“They’re constructed with a lot of love.”
X̱wi7x̱wa’s librarians don’t stereotypically “shush” visitors — even when research requests may be insensitive or off-base.
“We never shame,” said Dupont. “That's really important. People ask inappropriate things at times, [but] we welcome people to ask questions. We do a lot of the heavy lifting around gaps in people's knowledge.”
These gaps stem from widespread erasure of Indigenous issues. Until very recently, most K-12 curriculums glossed over Indigenous histories completely — legacies of genocide, cultural diversity and resilience.
This leaves generations of children – both Indigenous and settler – missing a crucial piece of history to understand persistent injustices of the present.
“We're helping teachers enact that change,” said Dupont, “but there's still going to be generations of students from Canada who don't know what they should know, let alone the students who are from other countries.”
“That's a lot of work for librarians to pick up the slack on.”
The previous photo for this article depicted the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, not the X̱wi7x̱wa Library. The article has been updated to reflect this mistake.