Contributing Editor Interview

Featured Researcher Spotlight On: Nicola Andrews

Librarian Nicola Andrews discusses her research on cultural humility and decolonizing the information profession.

Photo of Nicola AndrewsNicola Andrews is a NCSU Libraries Fellow in Raleigh, NC, assigned to the Learning Spaces and Services department and the Special Collections Resource Center. Previously, she worked as the Online Learning Specialist for the University of Washington Libraries and for the Auckland City Libraries in administration and marketing.

Nicola earned her MLIS degree from the University of Washington in 2017 and holds a BA in Social Sciences from Auckland University of Technology. Nicola has been recognized as an ALA Spectrum Scholar, an ARL Career Enhancement Program Fellow, an ARL Diversity Scholar, and will be participating in the upcoming cohort of the ALA Emerging Leaders program. These are only a selection of the awards and honors that she has already earned throughout her impressive career.

Nicola maintains a robust research agenda and presents her work at both national and international conferences. She has authored the chapter “Reflections on Resistance, Decolonization, and the Historical Trauma of Libraries and Academia” (in The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship, 2018) and co-wrote the article, “Cultural Humility as a Transformative Framework for Librarians, Tutors, and Youth Volunteers,” published in Young Adult Library Services Journal in Winter 2018. She is also an artist and an activist. You can find more information about Nicola and her work on nicolaandrews.net. Find her on Twitter @maraebrarian.


Can you please describe your research interests? Are there any key theories / methodologies / paradigms that guide your research?

My research interests currently centre on how libraries and academic spaces may operate as spaces that reinforce historical trauma and colonialism for Indigenous peoples; and how those spaces can become more actively welcoming for minoritized people.  Among other things, I am a first-generation high school graduate, and my research interests are informed by my lived experience. I’m very fortunate that I now believe in my ability to undertake academic writing and research; but I only want to do so on my own terms, and in a way which attempts to dismantle harmful power structures.  Other things I’m interested in include Indigenous property rights – particularly around how imagery and language are appropriated to create profit for non-Indigenous people. Kaupapa Māori frameworks, autoethnography, and critical feminist pedagogy feature heavily within my work; Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Sara Ahmed are academics whose work inspires me.  So many outsiders have built careers and profited from exoticizing and doing research about Indigenous people, so it’s really important to me that if I do research, it is a collaborative process.

You and your colleague, Sunny Kim, developed a training workshop for library volunteers building upon a framework of cultural humility. What is cultural humility and why is it important for information professionals? How did you use that framework to develop your workshop?

When Sunny and I were finishing our graduate degrees, we teamed up to develop a pilot workshop on cultural humility for The Seattle Public Library and The Seattle Tutoring Coalition.  We recently gave an updated version of the workshop at the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color in September and have been touched and overwhelmed by the response.  It gives me hope that this kind of equity and inclusion work is really something people get excited about and want to share with their colleagues.

Cultural Humility is a framework that was developed by Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia; specifically to improve healthcare for migrants and people of colour.  Tervalon and Murray-Garcia found that medical professionals were getting basic cultural competency training, and then making harmful assumptions about their patients, instead of listening to patient needs or getting to know them.  

“Cultural humility is an ongoing process, which also means practitioners need to reflect on their progress, and know when to admit they need to step up and do better.”

We can define cultural humility as an ongoing process of empathy and understanding.  There are three main concepts within cultural humility – examining and understanding your own background, committing to dismantle and redress power structures, and building relationships.  In practice, this means believing people when they talk about their own experiences or needs – this can be difficult for anyone who feels like they have to be an expert or authority; but this is really important for information professionals who serve researchers and patrons who are their own experts and creators of knowledge!  I know that many library workers endure sexism, or thinly-veiled racism because they are met with stereotypes or assumptions instead of being listened to. Cultural humility is an ongoing process, which also means practitioners need to reflect on their progress, and know when to admit they need to step up and do better.  

Using a framework that was developed in the medical field has been a useful way to begin conversations about power and privilege in an accessible way.  However, cultural humility was introduced twenty years ago, and although it is a useful tool, we cannot pretend it has cured the world of bias, microaggressions, or racism; which continue to cause problems within medicine.  We know that in Western society, women’s knowledge about their bodies is consistently dismissed by male healthcare providers; and that people of colour are even more likely to be denied autonomy or authority when advocating for themselves.  We have a lot of work left to do.

A common theme throughout your work is decolonizing the information profession, including our work, spaces, and LIS education. How can we decolonize the research process? What are some ways that you and others that you work with actively disrupt research and other colonial processes within academia?

When I consider the Indigenization or ReMāorification of research, I first think of consent and relationality.  Whether you subscribe to an Indigenous worldview or not, when you ask someone to participate in your research, you are entering into a collaboration with them.  In the case of most Western research, it’s very transactional – someone fills out a survey or gives an interview, and then that information becomes the intellectual property of a researcher or an institution.  In Kaupapa Māori research, informed consent means consulting with iwi and elders among the community you wish to collaborate with – and you need to take the time to establish a connection before even asking about research.  You need to be very clear about what the purpose of the research is, how the research will be stored, and how it will benefit Māori. One of the things that is most exciting to me about Māori research is how family-centred it is – asking people if they want family members present during interviews, conducting interviews in people’s homes, or thanking people with a koha after you’ve gotten to know them.  Building relationships is very intentional and it takes time, which rarely conforms to a Western academic schedule.

“I think vulnerability and openness is a big part of Indigenizing research; but so is self-determination.”

Considering my day-to-day work, I try to empower students to think of themselves as researchers, and to believe that they can create knowledge and impactful projects in a number of mediums.  Knowledge production can include art, storytelling, and dance; impactful academic writing isn’t always stuffed with jargon or big words. I think vulnerability and openness is a big part of Indigenizing research; but so is self-determination. When I was a graduate student, I would happily help a fellow researcher – especially one doing diversity work –  even if the questions I was answering left me feeling poorly afterwards. I’m much less likely now to agree to answer research questions about microaggressions, burnout, or employee morale –  partially because my conditions have improved so much since I was a student, but also because I don’t want to give my experiences to somebody else to anonymize and shape for their own benefit.

What are ways that non-indigenous allies can recognize and incorporate indigenous knowledge into their research in a respectful way?

Two ways that Settlers can show their respect for Indigenous peoples are to do their own research (by which I mean not burdening people with emotional labour or basic questions), and to listen to the experiences of Indigenous people without defensiveness.  Not all Indigenous people are the same – I am Indigenous, but in this country I am a Settler. Some people are happy to share their knowledge and values, but others may be loathe to lend their expertise; and both of those decisions should be respected. There is a lot of talk about “Indigenizing the academy” and performing land acknowledgements, with no actual benefit to Indigenous people.  I don’t think that non-Indigenous people should be incorporating Indigenous protocol and knowledge systems into their research; but they can be an ally by supporting Indigenous people bringing those things into their own projects. And we can all work to cultivate supportive and positive relationships with those we interact with.

What’s next for you? What are you working on in your current role as a NCSU Libraries Fellow?

The next year is off to an exciting start for me – I’ve been invited to give a talk in late January for the University of Michigan Libraries Emergent Research Series (thank you to Anne Cong-Huyen), from there I’m heading to Seattle to participate in the 2019 cohort of ALA Emerging Leaders (with my NCSU colleague Kim Henze), and then flying home to Tāmaki Makaurau to present at the International Indigenous Librarians Forum (with talented folks such as Spencer Lilley, Sandy Littletree, and Camille Callison).  I’m very fortunate in that I’ll be able to connect with and learn from many kind and talented people along the way, so I’m looking forward to it although it’s also a daunting trip!

In the meantime, I’m busy collaborating with my NCSU Libraries colleagues to plan programming and outreach options for the spring – my work will include recording and processing videos for the Wolf Tales oral history programme, curating video games, and thinking of more ways the Libraries can support student wellness and success.


Featured image [CC0], via Pexels


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