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Decolonisation as a practice has increasingly gained a prominent place in the strategic agenda of academic and research libraries as a way to re-contextualise collections, combat biases and uncover hidden voices. Many RLUK institutions have engaged in decolonisation activities as part of their goals to develop inclusive collections and equitable practices and contribute towards broader decolonisation efforts in their home institutions.

RLUK has published a report documenting the current practices and needs of its member institutions when developing initiatives that aim to make collections more diverse and inclusive. The focus of the report is on decolonisation efforts and the needs of professionals that lead or support them in terms of training and skills development. The motivation for this study was to understand the challenges that research libraries currently face with regards to decolonisation practice with the aim of providing more targeted support for the RLUK community.

Headline findings from the report are:

  • Variety of activity and stages of progress: Most RLUK member libraries were found to actively engage in decolonisation activities or other initiatives that aim to contribute towards tackling biases in collections as well as diversifying them and contributing towards the development of equitable practices. Yet, they all seem to be at different levels of progress with a variety of challenges faced in individual institutions depending on the employed approach.

  • Decolonisation in strategy: Several institutions had some type of working definition, statement, or strategy describing the library’s intentions with regards to decolonisation or, more generally, to making collections more inclusive and representative of its communities. On the other hand, many research libraries have not yet embedded decolonisation or relevant initiatives in their strategic objectives; this was found to result in challenges for staff, from justifying the time allocated to engage in relevant initiatives and training to advocating about the necessity of this work to other library staff and stakeholders.

  • Organising decolonisation in research libraries: Grassroot decolonisation or equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) groups were found to constitute the main forces in leading discussions and developing relevant initiatives in many RLUK member institutions. Also, decolonisation initiatives have been found to be overwhelmingly funded from within the library or home institution. A common problem related to how decolonisation was organised in member institutions was that relevant activities could be scattered. Hence, it was challenging to learn what others were doing and, for this reason, there was a call for a more strategic approach to decolonisation that coordinates efforts.

  • Staff confidence: This study found that a combination of direct involvement in decolonisation activities and participation in relevant groups which enabled the sharing of ideas with colleagues, together with events attendance and consultation of training and other relevant resources produced by the broader cultural heritage sector had a positive impact on confidence levels. On the other hand, allocating decolonisation responsibilities to just one or very few professionals without providing further support was found to negatively affect staff confidence, even if colleagues had an expert skillset.

  • Support and training: Given the lack of formal guidelines for libraries on how to implement decolonisation, library professionals will find different types of support and training helpful, from information on how to get started with reviewing existing collection policies and practices to engaging with stakeholders and contributing to the decolonisation of the curriculum in their home institution. Some of this type of support and training may be better provided by individual institutions (e.g. stakeholder engagement), while other initiatives, such as developing and sharing glossaries or cases of best practice, will need to be developed in collaboration with the community. Prioritising decolonisation in library strategic agendas as well as providing spaces where difficult conversations with colleagues and, potentially, stakeholders can take place were considered valuable for achieving progress in the area and increasing staff confidence.

  • The role of the sector: Sector-wide discussions and conversations with others supporting Higher Education institutions, the sharing of best practice, and the identification of collaborative opportunities were considered essential for advancing decolonisation work and collectively advocating for inclusive collections and equitable practices.