published quarterly by the university of borås, sweden

vol. 24 no. 3, September, 2019

Proceedings of RAILS - Research Applications, Information and Library Studies, 2018:
Faculty of Information Technology, Monash University, Australia, 28-30 November 2018.

Through indigenous eyes: looking for indigenous services in Australian and New Zealand university libraries

Spencer Lilley

Introduction. This paper reports on how indigenous services, collections and languages are represented on university library Websites in Australia and New Zealand. In an era of increased dependence on technology, it is critical that university libraries ensure that indigenous services, collections and languages are visible on their Website.
Method. Websites of forty-eight university libraries were probed for information about the services, collections and facilities offered to indigenous students. Prior to commencing the search, a tool consisting of six factors was designed to evaluate each Website.
Analysis. Using the tool, each Website was analysed and where matches were found, these were noted and each institution was awarded a score.
Results. There is considerable scope for improvement across the six factors. The Australian libraries scored much lower than their New Zealand counterparts. However, institutions from both countries displayed examples of best practice that would enhance Websites and improve services and resources for indigenous students.
Conclusions. As indigenous student numbers continue to increase at universities in both countries, it is critical that libraries ensure that they have services, collections and facilities in place and easily identifiable on their Websites. Libraries that fail to include such information risk the danger of alienating indigenous students.


There are efforts in both Australia and New Zealand to increase the number of indigenous students enrolling in university level education, and put strategies and support systems in place in order to retain them. Libraries have an important role in providing services and resources that can contribute to a student’s academic success. It is crucial that students understand the scope and purpose of a library’s role and how they will benefit from accessing the services and resources available. This is particularly important for those students who have not been regular library users before commencing their studies. As the literature review in this article reveals, students from indigenous backgrounds are less likely to have frequented or used libraries. It is therefore critical that university libraries think about how they promote themselves to ensure that indigenous students are aware of the services and resources available and how their studies will benefit from using the library. This paper reports on one aspect: how indigenous services, collections and languages are represented on university library Websites in Australia and New Zealand. In an era of increased dependence on technology to access libraries, it is critical that university libraries ensure that the indigenous services, collections and facilities offered by their institutions are visible on their Websites.

Services and resources that focus on the needs of indigenous peoples have developed as an important role of library and information management institutions in Australia and New Zealand over the past three decades. As countries where the indigenous populations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Māori) were colonised by settlers from Great Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there are many similarities (and some distinct differences) in the manner in which they became statistical minorities in their own lands. In Australia, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is 2.8% (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017) and in New Zealand, Māori constitute 15% of the population (Statistics New Zealand, 2014 ). In both countries, the indigenous populations have lower educational success rates than those of their fellow citizens, demonstrated through the low numbers of indigenous students enrolling and attending universities. In Australia, the participation rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is 1.7% of the overall university enrolments (Universities Australia, 2017b) and although the Māori participation rate of 12% (Universities New Zealand, 2018), is relatively high in New Zealand, the rate is still lower than the proportion of Māori in New Zealand’s overall population profile.

The Australian and New Zealand governments have prioritised indigenous student enrolments in their respective higher education institutions. In Australia, this is stated in the indigenous higher education strategy, which identifies initiatives that will lead to academic success of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students (Universities Australia, 2017a). In New Zealand, the Tertiary Education strategy lists ‘Māori succeeding as Māori’ as one of the top five priorities (Tertiary Education Commission, 2014). Although statistics reveal that there has been some success in raising enrolment numbers, there is also clear evidence that the retention and academic success of indigenous students in both countries lags behind the achievements of students from other ethnic backgrounds.

Literature review

The literature available on Māori engagement with libraries is relatively low. The Te Ara Tika series of reports (MacDonald, 1993; Simpson, 2005; Szekely, 1997) focused on different aspects of library service in New Zealand, with all three of the reports identifying that Māori perceived there to be major barriers to accessing the services and resources of libraries. Despite the age of these reports, many of their findings are relevant to today’s situation, particularly those that relate to recruitment and training of Māori librarians, collection organisation and intellectual access, and the need for libraries to be culturally welcoming to Māori clients. Tuhou (2011) continued this theme when he identified that Māori were reluctant users of university libraries and perceived physical and structural, institutional and user barriers. The latter he identified as consisting of issues related to culture, language use, attitudes and a lack of self-belief on the part of the users. A different approach was undertaken by Lilley and Field (2005), who identified the range of services developed at Massey University Library to help build strong relationships with Māori staff and students which had led to increased usage of the libraries' resources by both groups. A series of articles by Lilley (2013, 2015, 2018) has concentrated on how library and information institutions have engaged with Māori, and how indigenisation has had an impact on these organisations. However, these articles have focused on these issues generally rather than on academic libraries specifically. Lilley (2013) focused on the evaluation of how each public library had responded to inclusion on its Website of content that represented bicultural and Māori perspectives. The study demonstrated that this perspective had been applied inconsistently, with only a handful of library Websites having high evaluation scores and the majority of Websites scoring very lowly on a nine-point evaluation scale

There is also a paucity of literature available on how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders engage with academic libraries. Hare and Abbott (2015) provide data from a research project that explores the support given by university libraries to their indigenous students. Their study included a survey of thirty-nine academic libraries, which showed that there was a high level (84% of the 31 libraries responding) of support in the form of services, resources or facilities. The majority of this support tended to be directed through indigenous education centres rather than being provided through libraries. Specific library-related support included dedicated liaison librarians and the provision of online resources. Their comments regarding the provision of online resources appear to be at odds with the results of this current study.

Reading (2016) provided an overview of services to students from disadvantaged and lower social economic backgrounds at the University of Western Sydney Library, with an emphasis on academic strugglers. Unfortunately, this did not provide any specific information about how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students fitted into her study. Ford, Prior, Coat and Warton (2014) outlined the collaborative efforts of the library and the School of Education at Charles Darwin University, to develop stronger representation of indigenous knowledge resources in their teacher education qualifications. The project demonstrated how strong liaison between libraries and academic units can improve services, knowledge of resources, and the use of the library by indigenous students and staff and others interested in indigenous studies.

Due to the lack of literature about indigenous engagement with academic libraries in both countries, I decided to also analyse literature relating to the first year experience of university students to see if there were any articles that could inform this study.

In Australia, the importance of the first year experience on student retention success was partly addressed in the Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People (Behrendt et al., 2012), which recommended that indigenous culture and knowledge be embedded across the entire university and that this would assist to develop greater cultural change, and that indigenous-specific spaces on campuses needed to be increased and strengthened.

Pechenkina (2017) uses stories to describe the experiences of three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and in doing so demonstrates the absence of any narratives around the role that the university library played in their pathways to academic success. Hagel, Horn, Owen and Currie (2012) do not explicitly consider the needs of indigenous students when looking at the contribution a university library can make to student retention rates, particularly for those from low socio-economic backgrounds. Barney (2016) focuses on efforts at the University of Queensland to ensure indigenous student success and identifies the importance of culturally relevant resources and spaces, but fails to mention whether there is a role for the library in this support structure. Hall (2015) outlines the role that a preparation for tertiary studies course has in enabling future academic success for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, while Andersen, Edwards and Wolfe (2017) outline the success of the Murina programme for indigenous students at the University of Tasmania. However, like the other projects outlined in this literature review, the role of the library is missing from both these studies.

From a New Zealand perspective, Leach (2013) explored how universities engage with ethnically diverse first year students including Māori. Although there is some emphasis on the factors that influence academic success, none of the data or discussion points towards the place that the library has in assisting these outcomes. Another study (Taylor et al., 2017) focused on first year law students, including Māori students. This research indicated that first year students (and by implication Māori students) were low users of university law libraries and the online sources they provided. The study stated that law students did not engage widely beyond the supplied course materials and textbooks.


A list of universities was sourced from Universities Australia and Universities New Zealand respectively. A cross check was done for the Australian universities, with one further institution being added to the list giving forty in Australia and eight in New Zealand (see appendix one). The Websites of all forty-eight university libraries were accessed in October 2018. The Website for each library was explored for information about the services, collections and library facilities offered to indigenous students. Prior to commencing the search, a tool consisting of six factors was designed to evaluate each library’s web site to ascertain how they would be perceived through an indigenous lens. These six factors were:

  1. Acknowledgment of indigenous population and/or use of indigenous languages on home page and sub-pages

    Because the home page is the main electronic entry point to the library and its services, it could be expected that it would be a logical and strategic place to acknowledge indigenous owners of the land that the university occupies and there be some use of indigenous languages

  2. Strategic documents

    Are indigenous issues evident in plans, policies, annual reports, collection statements, service standards and other documentation for the institution?

  3. Indigenous collections

    This identifies whether the library Website provides evidence that the library has a specialist indigenous collection (other than databases)

  4. Subject and library guides

    Is there an indigenous subject guide that describes the resources and services that the library offers and which have relevance to indigenous students?

  5. Contacts

    Are there contact details for a subject librarian or specialist who is available to meet and assist indigenous students?

  6. Indigenous staff

    Is there evidence that the library has any staff of indigenous descent and if so, what their affiliations are?

Starting from the library’s home page, links were followed to identify references that were of relevance to indigenous students seeking to access the library. This included searching through subject guides, descriptions of collections and corporate documents (strategic plans, collection policies, reports, newsletters, etc.), client services information, and contact details for library staff members. All leads were followed, with every possible part of the Website checked and hyperlinks followed (where appropriate).

The results were entered into a Microsoft Excel worksheet, with notable features added as notes. Although institutions are not identified by name in this study and no ranking was undertaken, each institution’s results were kept separate, so a picture of the overall level of responsiveness to indigenous student needs could be constructed across both countries.


Home page

All investigation commenced from the Library’s home page. This is where you would expect a new user not familiar with what the library has to offer, or a user who does not use the Website often, to navigate to first.

Using the lens of the indigenous student, my aim was to see whether the home page had any indication that it recognised indigenous students were at their institution. In Australia, this would ordinarily involve a welcome to country and/or acknowledgment of the indigenous owners of the land that the institution occupies. In New Zealand, it would normally involve the use of te reo Māori (Māori language) to welcome users of the Website, and Māori artistic imagery.

Acknowledgments of country and the indigenous owners of the land were found on eighteen of the forty (45%) of the Australian libraries’ home pages. In many instances, the home page of the library was determined by a template from the institution’s overall Website.

The results from New Zealand revealed that six of the eight (75%) libraries used te reo Māori on their home page. The nature of this language use varied from a simple welcoming phrase to the use of the institution’s Māori name. Dual language drop down menus were used by three of the libraries for users to navigate the Website. However, this use of dual language was predominantly at the top layer, with pages navigated to from the te reo Māori menus leading to menus in lower layers in the English language only. Three of the libraries had also made obvious use of Māori artistry to illustrate their home page.

Strategic documents

Each institution’s Website was explored to find the documents that related to policies, collection statements, strategic and/or operational plans, annual reports, and client service commitments. Once located, these items were examined for any evidence that indigenous elements were included.

There was a marked contrast between the institutions in the two countries. Only ten (25%) of the Australian universities had any evidence of consideration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander matters in their documents. No single institution amongst those that did include indigenous matters did so in a comprehensive manner. There were mentions of indigenous collections, including references to archival materials, and brief mentions in communication plans, annual reports, operational plans and strategic plans. Three of the libraries also provided links to their parent institution’s reconciliation statements and plans.

All eight of the New Zealand libraries referred to initiatives involving Māori in their documentation. These included specific details about Māori-focused collections and collection development policies; goals related to the Treaty of Waitangi responsibilities, policies on te reo Māori commitments, information about Maori-centred activities, and outputs in annual reports and planning documents. One institution published a bicultural strategy document, which focuses on the library’s contribution to the positive development of Māori staff and students at the university. The level of information varied from institution to institution, with some libraries giving these details more prominence than others. However, any Māori student exploring the Website for evidence of the library’s actions or intentions would easily be able to discover this information.

Indigenous collections

Information about whether libraries had a specialist indigenous collection was not obvious on the majority of the Australian Websites, with only seven (17.5%) showing any evidence that they had Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections. It is possible that other libraries also have such collections, but if they do, they are not visible on their Websites.

In contrast, seven (87.5%) of the New Zealand university libraries had the existence of Māori collections visible on their Websites. Like the other five factors being evaluated in this study, the level of detail and visibility of this information was variable. Not every institution had a collection development policy available for users to view, but for those that did, there also tended to be more specific information in subject level statements, including explanations of how the collections were formed, what they include, where they are located; in some instances information about those responsible for the management of the collections was provided.

Subject guides and library guides

Libraries provide subject guides and library guides to assist users to find resources and services in a subject or academic disciplinary area. As such, they provide users with a quick point of access to collection information, the databases and e-books that are available, reference resources, links to internal and external Websites, and, in some instances, contact information for staff responsible for this subject/disciplinary area. The results for this area are very strong across both Australia and New Zealand. In Australia 29 (72.5%) of the library Websites had a link to at least one guide to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services and resources. A few of the libraries had more than one subject guide, including an indigenous focus on a subject discipline, such as law or education.

All of the New Zealand libraries had guides to assist their users to access Māori resources, with five (62.5%) having two or more guides. Like the Australian libraries, which had multiple guides, the additional guides reflected how Māori resources were applied in specific disciplines.

Contact information

As new users to a library, it is quite daunting at times to know where to seek help and from whom. The ability to direct an enquiry either electronically or in person to a named contact would increase an indigenous student’s confidence to make an approach for further assistance.

Only half of the Australian libraries (50%) had contact details available for staff who provided assistance for indigenous students or in the area of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies. All but one of the New Zealand libraries (87.5%) provided information on who to contact for assistance with Māori-related enquiries.

Identifiable indigenous staff members

In addition to, or instead of, having specific contact details (as in the previous category), it is conceivable that an indigenous student might wish to see whether there are any staff of the library who are identifiably indigenous. This type of identification might not always be based on appearance, as many of the indigenous peoples in Australia and New Zealand do not necessarily look indigenous. Other means of identification might include the name of the mob (Australia) or the iwi (New Zealand) with which they are affiliated.

The results for the Australian libraries are very low, with only four libraries (10%) having staff that are identifiably indigenous. That is not to say that the other thirty-six libraries don’t have indigenous staff, they just don’t have them identified on their Website.

In comparison, six (75%) of the New Zealand libraries had staff that were identifiably Māori. Like the Australian situation, it is possible that Māori are part of staff at the other two institutions but not featured on their Website. Of the six libraries with Māori staff, only two had iwi affiliations provided, but even this was not consistent across all Māori staff members in those libraries, with some staff providing these and others not.


The library and its services and resources are amongst the critical agents that give students the opportunity to achieve academic success in their university studies. It is essential that library services and resources are seen as accessible to all their potential users. As the Internet has developed, university libraries have utilised it to deliver services and resources. This means that the first encounter with the library no longer needs to be a physical and in-person experience. As such the library’s Website needs to be inclusive of all its users. As indicated in the literature review section, the experiences that the indigenous peoples of Australia and New Zealand have had with libraries have not always been positive in nature. As Szekely (1997) and Tuhou (2011) have identified in their studies, libraries were perceived as places for Pākehā (those of European descent) and not containing anything of relevance to Māori. Given the documented and anecdotal evidence that most indigenous librarians can share regarding the attitudes to libraries, it would come as no surprise if there was a reluctance by indigenous students to engage with library services. Accessing and exploring the Website of a library is a relatively harmless way of detecting whether that library would be receptive to them and a helpful resource for their academic studies. Consequently, the focus of this paper is not on the structure, content and overall usability of the Website of each library, but on whether these Websites have incorporated indigenous elements into their design in a manner which demonstrates to indigenous students that their needs will be catered for, and that the library will welcome their presence. This is particularly important for indigenous students who are first-time users of the library and its Website.

The six factors used to evaluate the Websites have demonstrated that university libraries, particularly those in Australia, have not provided a strong indigenous flavour to their Websites. If an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student was assessing whether their institution was welcoming and catered for the needs of its indigenous students, they would be in many instances be very disappointed. The Websites of the New Zealand university libraries are definitely stronger in this regard, but by no means are they perfect, as they all have areas upon which they can improve on.

First impressions can be indicative of trends (good and bad) in other parts of the Website and the physical entity that is the library itself. In many instances, the absence of any indigenous-specific information or the non-use of indigenous languages could be seen as unwelcoming and off-putting to indigenous students. This could mean they choose either not to follow up their initial foray into the Website with a physical visit, or if they do visit, they could do so with greater trepidation than other first time users. Of the Australian libraries, no library fulfilled every factor being evaluated, with the highest score being four, which was recorded by four libraries (10% of the total evaluated). The New Zealand libraries fared much better, with four (50%) of the libraries meeting all six of the evaluation points.

It is obvious from these results that there is considerable scope for improvement, particularly in Australian university libraries. There are some relatively straightforward changes that can be made to improve the visibility of indigenous elements. In Australia, this would mean that the libraries that do not already have a welcome to country statement on their Website would be advised to consult with and within the wider indigenous community to identify a statement that is respectful and representative of the traditional owners of the land that the university occupies. The importance of such a statement is presented by Green (2011), who says,

The processes of “welcome to country’ and "acknowledgement of country” recognise the unique position of Indigenous Australian people in Australian culture and history.
“Welcome to country” acknowledges the significant Indigenous nations and recognises the ancestral spirits who created the boundaries and lands, which allows safe passage to visitors.

In New Zealand, a welcome to country statement or an acknowledgment of the original owners is normally part of the ceremonial rituals of encounter experienced in a formal setting. It is not typically a feature of Websites. More common is the use of te reo Māori to welcome visitors to the library’s Website. As seen in the results section, the amount of te reo Māori used on the home page of the eight New Zealand libraries varied. Of the two libraries that did not use any te reo greeting, one did include a Māori name for their university, and a deeper exploration did locate a Māori name for their library too. However, the other library did neither of these things. Although this does not automatically dismiss their ability or willingness to welcome Māori students, it does not create a good first impression.

The strong availability of subject guides for indigenous issues was not unexpected as the universities in both Australia and New Zealand are highly inclusive of indigenous studies as academic subjects within their curricula. However, the existence of such guides is not always overly indicative of a library’s responsiveness to the needs of its indigenous students, because it is customary for academic libraries to have subject guides for all discipline areas taught in their institution. Since not all indigenous students will be undertaking qualifications that are focused on indigenous languages and culture, the existence of subject guides in these areas will not be relevant to their studies. Instead they would more usefully be served by having a section of the library’s Website that provided information about specific services and contact people with whom they could engage with. This includes having key contact people and tailoring the services on offer to meet their needs. This was one of the more noticeable differences between the Australian and New Zealand libraries: New Zealand libraries were more likely to have dedicated Māori reference and liaison staff available to assist Māori students across all subject disciplinary areas. Australian university libraries have not yet adopted this approach.

Furthermore, the strategic documents on the New Zealand Websites provided a very clear indication of the role that Māori-focused staff have in providing services and resources, and the additional activities they organised. These activities covered orientation and library induction sessions, information literacy classes (at all levels of study), research consultation services, and Māori-focused events and promotions, with some services available to individuals as well as to groups. In some libraries these services were available in te reo Māori.

Despite all of these activities and services being available, it would take an overly inquisitive student to discover them. Rather than hiding their existence in strategic documents, it would make much better sense for them to be organised and visible on dedicated spaces on the Website. This would provide an easily accessible range of resources, and announcements about forthcoming activities, as well as an archival repository of past events. To reap maximum advantage from this, it would be sensible to also bring together all the information about critical contacts for different disciplines, including any details about indigenous staff available to assist students. This would enable the library to capitalise on the organisation of events, activities and to promote new resources and services. Developing a portal such as this would mean that not only would it be available 24/7, but easily linked to by other parts of the university that are involved in providing support and services to indigenous students. The existence of the portal would not preclude the library from including information for indigenous students in other parts of the Website. There would ideally be links between these pages and the indigenous portal so that all the loops are connected. The creation of the portal would also provide the university library with demonstrable evidence that it is actively contributing to the retention and academic success of the university’s indigenous students. Overall responsibility for this success does not rest with the library, however, their contribution helps to ensure that the students have the opportunities to succeed.

Issues identified in the course of this particular project also raise challenges for university libraries to consider. These challenges include: how libraries attract and actively retain staff from indigenous backgrounds, particularly those with library and information management qualifications; what the physical environment of the library is like, including whether it is culturally welcoming and include artefacts and artistic features that are representative of indigenous peoples (particularly local groups); how it presents its indigenous approach (e.g. indigenous specific policies, plans and event promotions); and cultural awareness training for non-indigenous staff members (so they are attuned to particular needs (academically and culturally) of indigenous students using the library’s services and resources). Regular cultural self-audits should be undertaken to evaluate the library’s services, communication style and awareness of indigenous values and needs. Seeking input from indigenous groups on-campus would help to enhance the library’s relationships with these groups and enable a process of continuous improvement in the development of appropriate services and resources.


As efforts to increase indigenous student numbers continue at universities in both New Zealand and Australia, it is critical that the libraries at these institutions ensure that they have services, resources and facilities in place and easily identifiable on their Websites. Libraries that do not offer such services or that fail to include such information risk the danger of alienating indigenous students who may see this lack of content as a message that the library does not have anything of relevance to them. This could ultimately affect their ability to produce assignments that have adequate evidence to support the arguments that they are making.

The results of the current project indicate that there is a need for significant improvements to be made to ensure that indigenous students become engaged with the services and resources available in their university library. Libraries need to ensure that they are undertaking regular evaluations of their services, including their Websites, to assess whether they are meeting the needs of all their client groups, with a special emphasis on the groups who are traditionally shown to be non-users. Improving the visibility on the Website of the library’s commitment to providing services to indigenous students and staff is a first step, and an excellent way to encourage them to use the library in person

About the author

Dr Spencer Lilley is a Senior Lecturer in Te Pūtahi a Toi, the School of Māori Knowledge at Massey University in New Zealand. His tribal affiliations are to Te Atiawa, Muaūpoko and Ngāpuhi. His research interests focus on indigenous information behaviour, Māori information literacy issues and professional and cultural development issues for Māori library and information management staff. He formerly held leadership positions in the university and special library sectors, specialising in the development and delivery of library and information services to Māori clients. Dr Lilley is an Honorary Life Member of Te Rōpū Whakahau (Māori in libraries and information management) and is a Fellow and former President of the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA). He can be contacted at S.C.Lilley@massey.ac.nz


How to cite this paper

Lilley, S. (2019). Through indigenous eyes: looking for indigenous services in Australian and New Zealand university libraries. In Proceedings of RAILS - Research Applications Information and Library Studies, 2018, Faculty of Information Technology, Monash University, 28-30 November 2018. Information Research, 24(3), paper rails1806. Retrieved from http://InformationR.net/ir/24-3/rails/rails1806.html (Archived by the Internet Archive at https://web.archive.org/web/20190818104220/http://informationr.net/ir/24-3/rails/rails1806.html)


List of Australian universities

Australian Catholic University
Australian National University
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Charles Darwin University
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Curtin University
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Federation University
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University of Technology Sydney
University of the Sunshine Coast
University of Western Australia
University of Wollongong
Victoria University
Western Sydney University

List of New Zealand universities

AUT University
Lincoln University
Massey University
University of Auckland
University of Canterbury
University of Otago
University of Waikato
Victoria University of Wellington

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