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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

Biculturalism and Librarianship in New Zealand: A More Fundamental Change than Information Technology

Rowena Cullen
Department of Library and Information Studies
Victoria University of Wellington,
New Zealand


Bicultural policies in New Zealand/Aotearoa focus on the recognition of different cultural values and the sharing of power between two peoples—the indigenous Maori, and the immigrant Europeans. The paper discusses the different cultural attitudes to knowledge and information of the Maori and looks at some of the implications of biculturalism for library practice. The challenges biculturalism offers library education are explored.



This paper is about a change in the way we think about and use information that may be as significant in the long run as recent developments in Information Technology. It is about a fundamental change in New Zealand society that has precipitated a change in New Zealand library practice, and which in turn is necessitating a change in education for librarianship in our country. It is a change which recognises that the rights of indigenous peoples extend beyond the political domain to the fundamental ways in which information in society is created, owned, stored and disseminated. Different cultures treat information in different ways. Those of us with a Western heritage are only beginning to recognise the extent of these differences, and the extent to which international library practice is based on Western concepts.

The history of Aotearoa/New Zealand offers an almost classic example of cultural dominance during which the indigenous culture of the Maori was suppressed and marginalized by western colonialism. However, several factors combined to save the Maori culture from extinction. Amongst these may be counted the inherent strength of tribal affiliations, which have survived to the present day even among m ost urbanised Maori, and the Treaty of Waitangi which was signed in 1840 between a number of Maori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown. This treaty which provided for shared sovereignty (kawanatanga) between Maori and Pakeha, was reverenced by the Maori but largely ignored by the colonialists as they strengthened their grip over land, fishing and other economic resources.The Treaty of Waitangi has, in the latter part of the 20th century, become the foundation of New Zealand society as serious attempts are made to redress some of the wrongs of the past.

Essentially, the country is experiencing a difficult rebirth as the habits and assumptions of a British colonialist past are challenged. Procedures for the return of illegally confiscated Maori land have been set in place, and economic resources redistributed. Most significant, for our purposes, is an acknowledgment of the profound significance and necessity of Maori culture in the future of New Zealand/Aotearoa.Official investigations into some of the more notorious land claims have led to the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal to hear Maori grievances, and to investigate breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. Government departments and public institutions are required to recognise the "principles" of the Treaty in their policies and activities and to promote biculturalism.

University and public libraries are no exception. What is not entirely clear to many (both amongst those who welcome these developments and those opposing them) is what exactly are the principles of the Treaty and what bicultural policies might be. Many individuals and many public institutions have therefore needed to try to define biculturalism. Richard Mulgan, a political scientist, defines it as “a public policy giving official recognition to two peoples, Maori and [European], and their cultures within the public institutions of a multi-cultural society”. Moana Jackson, a Maori activist, argues that biculturalism implies the sharing of power, resources, and responsibility, to the extent of separate, but parallel politic al, legal and social institutions for both races. Which of these two definitions is appropriate to libraries? The first is easily embraced. The second requires something of a social revolution, or at least some revolutionary professional thinking.

The fundamental problem of sovereignty remains the unspoken challenge behind every bicultural initiative. The question persists: can any real change be achieved without the transfer of some significant constitutional power being passed to the "first nation" people of New Zealand, in the late 20th century a community of mixed heritage and class, who make up less than 15% of the population? What is a legitimate share of power in national affairs, what is a fair share of New Zealand’s resources, and how should such matters be resolved within any professional group or enterprise? New Zealand librarians, and our department as the only graduate-level LIS programme in New Zealand, have had to grapple with this problem, and in doing so have contributed to the process of fundamental social chang e which engages our country.


Despite the conflict in formal definitions, biculturalism to most New Zealanders implies a formal recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi as a founding document of New Zealand nationhood, and of Maori as the first inhabitants of New Zealand and original owners of the land. Biculturalism, for most, also involves acknowledging the injustices of the past, and the need to find ways of living in partnership and sharing power. If it is to work, it must be more than just incorporating picturesque Maori customs into public ceremonies, more than just the use of Maori names for government departments and libraries and the incorporation of Maori words into everyday New Zealand English.It must embrace different cultural values, and different ways of thinking. For information professionals, it must involve different attitudes to knowledge and information.; for managers, it must involve different ways of managing organisations. Librarians must do both.

Maori culture is based on strong family ties and tribal affiliations which in themselves involve ties to the land. The Maori view of life is inherently spiritual, and based on the continuation of the generations. Each takes strength and mana from those who go before: “in our blood flow our ancestors, we are here in our present while the seeds of the future are in all of us”

The Maori view of knowledge differs from European concepts. Knowledge is owned by the group, the tribe or sub-tribe. It is for the benefit of the group, and individuals are not expected to profit from it. Maori knowledge may be tapu (sacred knowledge, healing and religious knowledge) or noa (common or everyday knowledge, crafts, and hunting or fishing skills). The transmission of tapu knowledge is subject to constraints; even ordinary knowledge is communally owned, and may not be passed to another tribe.

Much Maori manuscript material, which derives from the early days of European settlement, originates in a much older oral tradition. The literary forms which it employs, include cosmogonic myths, genealogy, songs, poems, proverbs and heroic tales; the literary devices which it employs, rhyme, repetition and alliteration, appear in other great products of oral tradition such as the Odyssey, and the Bible. The growing recognition of it as 'literature' is a significant change from the earlier denigrating attitude to ‘Maori myths and legends as folk-lore and/or anthropological data. Maori art and literature are acquiring ‘mana’ - true respect and standing - in European as well as in Maori society.

As this understanding percolates through New Zealand libraries, librarians are becoming sensitive to the way in which Maori material is stored, accessed and made available. We are learning to ask our Maori clients about their views as to how material should be handled rather than assuming that ours is the only relevant expertise . We have learned that “tapu” material may not be stored with “noa”. Portraits must be treated with respect, and the spiritual value of much library material must be acknowledged. Simple changes which reflect these values can make libraries better places, more welcoming to Maori and more effective in meeting their needs. For example, Maori library users approaching “tapu” material should be able to find washing facilities at hand (it would be crass to offer only toilet facilities) so that the “noa” of every day may be removed before the material is encountered, and the “tapu” removed before leaving. Private group study rooms, readily provided in university and college settings, can be made available in research libraries so that prayers may be chanted, and groups can examine tribal material together.

These changes, once made, seem now like simple courtesies to another culture, once scorned in its own country. A far more fundamental change is involved in coming to terms with the very different Maori view of intellectual property. Since knowledge in Maori society is communally and tribally owned many tribal groups will insist that documents may not be exploited by a single researcher hoping to publish research for their own scholarly or pecuniary benefit. Some information is simply not for common access. Some tribes may also wish to restrict access to their material to those from the same or closely related tribes. These constraints exist for all time, rather than the limited embargoes permitted in western society.

Such restrictions raise two issues. Firstly, throughout western society some knowledge has been withheld from the general population, beginning with religious knowledge in the Middle Ages to knowledge which is regarded as crucial to national security in the twentieth century. What is new is the willingness to extend this understanding and consideration to knowledge of another culture which has previously been treated as inferior and as a subset of ‘Western” knowledge’, i.e. as anthropological social science. This changed understanding alone, has enormous implications for the way in which material in libraries is handled, and the kinds of access that may be provided.

A second problem lies in the fact that western libraries have in the past two or three centuries believed themselves to be the owners of the material they hold, especially when that material has been published and purchased. But Maori tribal groups are becoming more assertive in insisting on their ownership of the tribal information held in libraries, and on having some say in conditions of access. Where such material is not published and takes the form of private or archival papers previously lodged with the library or even purchased by it, such requests may readily be acceded to. We are accustomed to restrictions being placed on archival collections. Published material presents more difficulties. A Maori viewpoint would tend to support the idea that ownership of intellectual property is not contiguous with the print or manuscript artefact, but remains in perpetuity vested in the original owners. This is a more difficult issue. A recent workshop on the topic sponsored by the National Library of New Zealand featured an expert panel including a librarian experienced in dealing with Maori material, Maori intellectuals, a lawyer specialising in Maori intellectual property, and an expert in patents!

The need for information to support land claims, increasing knowledge of their heritage, and a growing awareness of the cultural treasures lying unused in New Zealand libraries, has prompted Maori to make greater use of these resources in recent years. Meeting these needs has required further change. Very evident has been the need for a higher level of training amongst Maori in library research skills. Over the past five years several major libraries with significant collections of Maori material have established positions for Maori liaison staff. These are professional Maori librarians who have the language and cultural knowledge to interact with Maori researchers, implement training programmes, and encourage further library use. Publications and workshops, both in the library and out on in the community have been used to develop the necessary library research skills. This has been a major investment for libraries .

The evidence of its success lies in the number of successful land claims supported by extensive library research carried out by claimants with little education and no previous library experience. But even at this point, the changes necessitated by biculturalism can be accommodated within a Eurocentric framework which merely makes concessions to the demands of a particular group of clients. The harder changes are yet to come; they require greater levels of understanding and willingness to change. They involve changing the actual institutions themselves - institutions in which Maori materials are held, which serve Maori clients, and which seek to employ Maori staff, but which continue to reward members of a minority culture to the extent that they embrace the majority culture. Institutional changes of this magnitude are the changes that impact most on library educators and which concern us today.


Bicultural issues were first, and perhaps a little reluctantly addressed by my Department in 1987 when a group of Maori students protested vigorously about the absence of any mention of Maori issues in a routine university review of the Department . Since then we have been rethinking our student selection policies, our teaching practices and our curriculum. The Department has developed a set of bicultural objectives, which are published in our Prospectus. They focus on learning outcomes for students in the programme, and cover a basic understanding of some of the elements of Maori culture and knowledge as outlined above, pronunciation of the language and the treatment of Maori materials and clients within libraries. They are met by a compulsory (but not formally assessed) short course for all students, an elective course on Maori resources, and by ensuring that all courses have some bicultural component.

Significant elements of our programme address bicultural issues. We discuss how we can make libraries more welcoming to the Maori library user by employing Maori signage and art work, identifying Maori materials with Maori emblems supplementing spine labels, promoting Maori language story time for the growing number of bilingual children. In management courses we discuss Maori management structures; in reference courses we examine cross-cultural communication and European and Maori ways of accessing indigenous information sources; in IT courses we look at issues surrounding Maori resources on the Web, we explore these resources and examine Maori indexes in electronic form. We try to ensure that our students have some knowledge of major archives of Maori material in our main heritage collections, and the new indexes being prepared for these. The Maori librarians network, Te Roopu Whakahau, have an ex officio position on our Advisory Committee. We are negotiating for a Maori name for our department (in addition to the Maori name for the University) and seek to recruit staff with Maori heritage to help us continue to develop and meet our bicultural objectives.

But there are more fundamental issues which are harder to address within the confines of traditional library science. Working within western paradigms of knowledge, instruction, learning, research, and management, can we really hope to resolve the dichotomy which underlies the conflict between Maori and Western concepts of knowledge? How do we answer Maori students who challenge traditional classification structures, and suggest that different ways of classifying Maori material may be found which fit better with the structure of Maori knowledge - the noa and the tapu, for example - rather than the nineteenth century knowledge structures of Dewey et al, which reflect a Eurocentric nineteenth century world order.

Undoubtedly there is a role here for the Department of Library and Information Studies at Victoria University, as the only academic and research institution in New Zealand focused on the discipline of LIS, not just to teach the safe curriculum, but to explore the radical solution; to promote and foster research not just in familiar territory but to develop new research methodologies that will help us understand different structures of knowledge and ways of accessing them.

I venture to suggest that this may be the next major shift in LIS thinking, far more fundamental then the so-called IT revolution which still continues to embrace a fundamentally Western view of knowledge. Rather, we will see a philosophy of information science which will encompass new cultural paradigms, and new ways of approaching knowledge, as indigenous peoples, 'first nation' peoples, and other major world cultures begin to assert the validity of their own knowledge structures. In other words, the next revolution will be towards a more eclectic library and information science, and towards a greater variety of paradigms of information creation, organisation and dissemination. This is the future which library educators must embrace..

  1. Mulgan, Richard. Maori, Pakeha and Democracy. (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1989), 10..

  2. Jackson, Moana. The Maori and the Criminal Justice System: He Whaipaanga Hou—a New Perspective. Part II. (Wellington: Policy and Research Division, Department of Justice, 1988), 209..

  3. Maori proverb, unsourced.

  4. McRae, Jane. “Maori Literature: a Survey “in Sturm, Terry (ed). Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English. (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1987), 1-24.

  5. See Williams, Lyn. “Adopting a Bicultural Stance over Reference Services in New Zealand Libraries” New Zealand Libraries 46 no 11 (Sept 1991), 21-26, and Sullivan, Robert. “Nga Taonga Tuku Iho kei roto i Nga Whare Matauranga o Aotearoa: Collection Management in the Field of Traditional Maori Knowledge” New Zealand Libraries 48 no 1 (March 1995), 5-10.

  6. These can be seen on our Home page: http://www.vuw.ac.nz/dlis/bicult.html