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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 7 | Jul. 8, 2004

Library a Gem in Aboriginal Scholarship

By Brian Lin

Nestled between a driftwood waterfall and the First Nations Long House’s Sty-Wet-Tan Great Hall is a gem of Aboriginal knowledge that has glistened despite its humble beginning.

The Xwi7xwa Library (pronounced whei-wha), named after the Squamish word “echo” with the blessing of Squamish Chief Simon Baker, began as a small collection in a mobile home in the ’70s. For decades, it housed material selected by the B.C. Native Indian Teachers’ Association and UBC’s Native Indian Teacher Education Program until, in 1993, the Xwi7xwa Library was officially named and became part of the Longhouse.

Today, Xwi7xwa counts more than 12,000 books, videos, historical documents, art works and artifacts in its collection, all catalogued and available online to scholars worldwide.

“The size, scope and location of the Xwi7xwa Library makes it a unique Mecca for researchers in Aboriginal studies,” says Acting Head Ann Doyle. “It is one of the only places in Canada you can find this amount of exclusively First Nations material -- all in one distinct location -- open to the public, and globally accessible on the web.”

But it’s the perspective from which the collection is managed that sets Xwi7xwa apart from the 41 other First Nations collections listed in the Canadian Directory of First Nations, Metis and Inuit Collections. It is catalogued using a First Nations classification system, which includes terminology for First Nations concepts such as self-government, and uses First Nations names rather than the European ones assigned by anthropologists.

In addition, Doyle and her predecessor, Xwi7xwa founder Gene Joseph, have painstakingly created subject headings for the entire collection that remedy gaps in the Library of Congress vocabulary for dealing with Aboriginal issues.

“The Xwi7xwa headings and classification allow the user to quickly and accurately narrow in on a subject matter and provide a range of related material that is not only retrievable through the online catalogue, but visible from where it is physically located on the shelf,” says Doyle.

“For example, books on Tsimshian, a nation located along the Nass and Skeena Rivers in the Northern coast of B.C., are organized next to Nisga’a, its neighbour to the north, rather than its alphabetical successor Tubatulabal, a people in the southern Sierra Nevada.”

Such pioneering work in Aboriginal scholarship has attracted visiting researchers from the U.S., Europe and New Zealand to use its unique collection and learn how it is managed.

So it comes as no surprise that Xwi7xwa has also become a hotbed for training Aboriginal library students and non-Aboriginal librarians who deal with First Nations collections at UBC and elsewhere.

“There are currently three Aboriginal graduate students in the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies who will be spreading their wings in the next year,” says Doyle. “The knowledge and skills they’ve obtained from both the School and the Library will allow them to play a vital role in the preservation of First Nations cultural heritage and help foster mutual respect among the academic, Aboriginal and mainstream communities."

With such a stellar record of achievements, Doyle says the challenge is keeping up with the amazing growth -- circulation has increased by 270 per cent in the past five years -- in a fiscal environment that has not improved since Xwi7xwa opened its doors in 1998.

“Most people are shocked to learn that we actually don’t have a collections budget,” says Doyle. “Everything housed in Xwi7xwa comes from community donations, bequests and supportive students and faculty members.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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