UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 7 | Jul.
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Today, Xwi7xwa counts more than 12,000 books, videos, historical
documents, art works and artifacts in its collection, all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
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
“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.”