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Sustaining language diversity: the role of public libraries.

Linguistic diversity is an essential part of the living heritage of humanity. Libraries have developed within literate cultures and have traditionally promoted linguistic diversity through a wealth of resources and services to diverse communities. The focus for public libraries now is to engage with new and emerging communities from oral cultures. This has led to the libraries in Queensland reevaluating their collections and services to be inclusive of the tangible and intangible cultural heritage for future generations. Edited version of a paper presented at the November 2007 Queensland Multicultural Summit


Of the languages that are spoken in the world, the most significant for our early emotional and cognitive development is that through which we first learn to name our personal universe and by means of which we begin to achieve a common understanding with our parents and the broader community or friends and school. It is the language of childhood, of intimate family experience and of our early social relations ... All languages [should be] given equal recognition, for each is a unique response to the human condition and each is a living heritage we should cherish ... (1)

At least half of the 6,000 or so languages spoken in the world are under threat. Over the past three centuries languages have disappeared at a dramatic and steadily increasing pace, including in Australia. The Pacific region contains more than 2,000 living languages, a third of the world's total.

From an Indigenous perspective, Australia has always been a multilingual country. Yet Australia is considered an area of crisis, with Indigenous languages disappearing the fastest. Aboriginal people were discouraged or forbidden from speaking their 250 or so languages until the 1970s. A large number have disappeared or are in danger. Only about 25 are still commonly spoken, and there is increasing awareness that Indigenous languages in Australia are endangered to the point that all of them may disappear in the next few decades. (2) For example, in Queensland, excluding Creole, only four languages have over 500 speakers and are considered relatively strong. (3)

Despite this grim picture, the reality is that languages and linguistic diversity is an essential part of the living heritage of humanity, and is the mainspring of cultural diversity. It is often called intangible cultural heritage.

Unesco's 2003 Convention for safeguarding intangible cultural heritage, defines this as
 ... the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge,
 skills--as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural
 spaces associated therewith--that communities, groups and, in some
 cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.
 This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to
 generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in
 response to their environment, their interaction with nature and
 their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and
 continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human
 creativity. (4)

The role of public libraries

Languages, oral traditions, music, dance, social practices, rituals and festive events, are among some of the vehicles of intangible cultural heritage. Public libraries play an important role in ensuring they stay alive.

Public libraries offer a range of collections, services and public programs to all members of the community. They also offer the opportunity for specific targeted services promoting linguistic diversity which respond to the needs of ethnic and Indigenous communities. Many of these services safeguard and promote the so called vehicles of intangible cultural heritage for future generations.

Libraries are institutions that have developed within literate cultures and have traditionally promoted linguistic diversity through print collections and electronic print resources. There is, however, a growing need in public libraries to engage with new and emerging communities from oral cultures. This has led to a rethinking of collections and services.

This process has been guided and nurtured by a number of strategies, guidelines and standards. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (Ifla) 2007 draft Multicultural communities: guidelines for library services offers a big picture perspective. Ifla's first goal in its strategic plan is to
 Promote, in our global society, access to a full range of library
 and information services suitable for linguistic, ethnic, and
 cultural minorities. (5)

Ifla recognises the important role libraries play in promoting languages and cultures worldwide. They act as learning centres, cultural centres, and as meeting places. (6)

The Queensland response

Library strategies, policies and guidelines are available throughout many state and public libraries in Australia. Within Queensland, for example, the State Library of Queensland is an advocate and a financial partner of a statewide public library network, which includes over 330 public libraries and 15 Indigenous knowledge centres. It is committed to, and makes readily available to all public library staff and their users, the Multicultural services strategy: embracing diversity. (7)

Its draft Multicultural library standards is currently being reviewed by representatives from public libraries throughout Queensland. The strategy and the draft guidelines all highlight the importance placed on preserving and promoting linguistic diversity in Queensland.

The State Library's 2007-2011 Enriching the lives of Queenslanders strategic plan (8) has as one of its aims the use of new technologies in enhancing delivery of library services and engaging programs for the enrichment and enjoyment of all.

One of three strategic priorities, Queensland memory: today for tomorrow, commits the State Library to

* leading the capture and preservation of Queensland's cultural and documentary heritage

* leading the development of services and programs to improve access to Queensland memory

* partnering with Queensland's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to record Indigenous knowledge, culture and histories

* leading the development of a Queensland digital content strategy.

It is anticipated that oral histories will become an important focus of Queensland memory, recognising that many migrant, refugee and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities record their stories in an oral tradition, including through music and song. Multimedia formats will increasingly be used as part of the focus on digital content.

This paper gives some examples of how the State Library and public libraries throughout Queensland play a role in sustaining language diversity.

Three of the more established statewide services are the Languages other than English (Lote) collection, the multilingual websites, such as Multicultural bridge and MyLanguage, and the Picture Queensland website.

Lote collection

All Queensland public libraries have access to the State Library's Lote collection, which has over 100,000 titles in more than 60 languages. This is a free service. In recent years multimedia formats have been added to this collection as a means of recognising and promoting multiple literacies. English as a Second Language (ESL) materials, learning kits in many languages, and Auslan learning materials for the deaf community are other examples of collections promoting linguistic diversity and available to all Queenslanders.

Multilanguage websites

The second service that is available statewide through public libraries is a range of multilingual websites. The State Library has the Multicultural bridge (9) website in 19 languages, and also promotes the MyLanguage (10) website of approximately 60 languages, which is a national initiative between Australia's state libraries to increase access to online information for diverse communities. Both websites act as gateways to sites with many more languages.

The Picture Queensland

The third service is one that celebrates the unique cultural heritage of Queensland's diverse communities, the Picture Queensland website. (11)

Many of Queensland's public libraries contribute to Picture Queensland which itself is a contributor to the National Library of Australia's Picture Australia database of over two million Australian images.

Newer statewide initiatives

The Indigenous languages project

The first initiative described is the State Library's Indigenous languages project. This supports the preservation and maintenance of Queensland Indigenous languages through partnerships with language centres, people who work with languages, speakers, linguists, publishers, Aboriginal and Tortes Strait Islander broadcasters, cultural corporations, pubic libraries and local councils. It is guided by those partners in devising strategies to support languages and in developing appropriate services.

This project is in response to the findings of the 2005 National Indigenous languages survey report about languages at risk of disappearing. (12) Currently five community based language centres are involved, centred in and around Cairns, Hervey Bay, Mitchell, Cardwell, and Beenleigh.

Among the great gains the project has led to are

* digitisation of many valuable resources that were in danger of being lost forever

* some communities now feel that it is safe to use the State Library as a depository for valuable resources

* distribution of language books and cds within the communities

* videos, interviews with language speakers and workers, and virtual bilingual picture books now able to be accessed by all Queenslanders from both the intranet located at the State Library's Indigenous knowledge centre, kuril dhagun, and the State Library's website.

The Butchulla and Gudjal language virtual bilingual picture books are just two examples within this project of how important the work is. According to the ABS census statistics, there are only seven people in Queensland who can speak Butchulla. The Gudjal language is not even listed, and is considered near extinction. (13) There are now five Butchella teaching books in the language as virtual bilingual picture books, and three Gudjal virtual bilingual picture books. (14)

The Queensland stories program

The second initiative is the State Library's statewide Queensland stories program. These are digital stories, or 3-4 minute minimovies, that document memories. They are providing a growing record of Queensland's contemporary history, and are available via the world wide web at the State Library's website. (15) They are created using State Library grants and other funding sources; digital story training workshops; State Library targeted community and collection projects; partnership projects; and stories which are submitted by the general public.

Queensland stories has been in operation for almost three years and during that time over 200 digital stories have been created. In October 2006 the program was awarded the 2006/2007 national Vala new technology award. (16)

The program promotes the State Library, public libraries and Indigenous knowledge centres (IKCs) as places of creativity and learning, and provides opportunities for community engagement projects as well as the creation of collection content.

The role online services such as digital stories can play in promoting linguistic diversity and intangible cultural heritage has been recognised for some time. In 2002 the Istanbul Declaration was endorsed at the third round table of ministers of culture in Turkey. The declaration notes that
 The process of globalisation, while presenting serious threats of
 uniformisation on intangible cultural heritage, may facilitate its
 dissemination, mainly through new information and communication
 technologies, thereby creating a digital heritage also worthy of
 safeguarding. Globalisation can therefore facilitate the emergence
 of a set of references common to all humankind and thus promote
 values of solidarity and tolerance resulting in a better
 understanding of others and respect for diversity. (17)

Many of the stories on this website act as a bridge in understanding and accepting cultural differences, and encouraging tolerance. Currently there are stories representing individuals from Queensland Indigenous communities, African, Albanian, Cook Islander, Ethiopian, Filipino, Hmong, Macedonian, Pacific Islander and Vietnamese communities.

The Queensland stories program takes a community engagement approach

* facilitating the sharing and preserving of stories

* the gaining of new digital media skills

* providing opportunities for visitors to the website to give feedback on the digital stories.

It offers important opportunities for the stories to become a part of larger projects, such as exhibitions, and as a means of promoting to Queensland's ethnic communities the longterm benefits of multicultural collecting as a means of sustaining language diversity, and cultural heritage.

The power of the stories: examples

The Living treasures: stories from the Queensland Vietnamese community project features five digital stories that were created in response to the 2005 milestone celebration--the 30th anniversary of refugee settlement for this community.

During the project State Library staff worked with a voluntary working group comprising representatives from the Vietnamese community. A statewide expression of interest invited people to participate in the project. The final five stories were chosen by a selection process overseen by the working group.

Themes explored in the stories include the journey to, and settlement in, Queensland; cultural heritage and identity; and regional perspectives. Transcriptions of the stories are provided on the website in Vietnamese and English.

When the stories appeared on the website, they received good online feedback from a variety of individuals and organisations, including viewers from Vietnam who were able to read the transcripts in Vietnamese. During the duration of this project over 40 images of the Queensland Vietnamese community were added to the Picture Queensland website, and a number of donations made to the collections.

The five digital stories went on to feature in the State Library's Water, trees, and roots: stories from the Queensland Vietnamese community exhibition in The Studio gallery in May-July 2007.

The title of the exhibition comes from an old Vietnamese proverb
 Water has sources. Trees have trunks. Human beings have ancestors
 (roots) ...

The exhibition was presented in a number of formats to appeal to an audience with multiple literacies, including printed didactic panels in Vietnamese and English, digital stories on a television, oral recordings, an SBS television documentary, photographs, and drawings.

Throughout the duration of the exhibition, a number of tours were conducted, and these attracted many schools and colleges offering English as a second language programs. Many elements of the exhibition raised thought-provoking dialogues and sharing of stories amongst tour participants, reflecting common issues faced by many of Queensland's new migrants and refugees.

Digital stories can also be used as an effective visual and verbal tool in promoting the longterm benefits of collecting. A number of new digital stories entitled Stories from the collection bring to life unique material from the State Library's collections. Digital story makers engage with State Library staff, researchers and donors to produce high quality digital stories. By offering personal memories or providing an historical context, the storytellers provide unique insight into the material.

The potential to direct stories to Queensland's culturally and linguistically diverse communities is powerful. It is an opportunity to promote the benefits of a library's role in collecting as a means of sustaining cultural, and language, diversity.

One of the stories features the Queensland artist, Jonathan Tse. It is a story that promotes collecting as a means of providing an historical context to political and social debates on migration.

Jonathan and his family migrated to Australia in 1975 from Hong Kong. References to this period, in the form of text from the artist's school books and family photos, are reproduced in Portrait of an Australian, an artist's book held in the John Oxley Library collection pf the State Library. This book is in the form of an Australian passport with a reworked, personalised coat of arms on the front cover.

Portrait of an Australian was printed at the time of Pauline Hanson's right wing One Nation Party's political ascendency in Queensland. Although it was not printed as a direct response to these events, it explores what it means to be an Australian, and explores the immigration policy of that time, which sparked controversial debate in the public arena. This intimate document of one family's story has great historical significance in that it comments on the politics of the day. (18)


Many libraries throughout Queensland offer public programs promoting lifelong learning and inclusive of the needs and interests of diverse communities. Many allow the opportunity to explore the treasures to be found within cultural and linguistic diversity. They can range from the simple but effective outreach programs, to elaborate programs with longterm benefits to communities.

There is a wealth of resources and services available to them to engage with culturally and linguistically diverse communities to ensure that Queensland's memory is indeed today for tomorrow ...


(1) Unesco Director-General Koichiro Matsuura, International Mother Language Day message 2002 dg_message.shtml

(2) National Indigenous languages survey report Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Canberra 2005

(3) 2006 ABS census Indigenous speaker numbers table

(4) Unesco Convention for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage 2003 02

(5) International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions Multicultural communities: guidelines for library services 3rd ed revised 2007 p1

(6) ibid pp5-6

(7) State Library of Queensland Multicultural services strategy 2005-08: embracing diversity, /57727/multicultural_brochure_final_web.pdf

(8) State Library of Queensland Strategic plan 2007-11 pdf_file/0020/70445/SLQ_Strategic_Plan_2007 -11.pdf

(9) State Library of Queensland Multicultural bridge

(10) Mylanguage

(11) State Library of Queensland Picture Queensland home

(12) National Indigenous languages survey report op cit

(13) 2006 ABS census Indigenous speaker numbers table

(14) State Library of Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' virtual books

(15) State Library of Queensland Queensland stories

(16) Vala Libraries, technology and the future Inc awards

(17) Istanbul Declaration Third round table of ministers of culture, Turkey September 2002 _SECTION=201.html

(18) Jonathan Tse

Debra Cooper BA GradDipLibSc is the multicultural program officer for the State Library of Queensland, and has worked in university and public libraries for 27 years. Seventeen of these years have been with public libraries in Queensland and the UK. Whilst working for the State Library, Debra's focus and passion has been for services and issues affecting culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Address: Public Library Services State Library of Queensland PO Box 3488 South Brisbane Qld 4101 email
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Author:Cooper, Debra
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 1, 2008
Previous Article:Building community as a library in a 3D environment.
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