PhD research explores barriers to non-Māori librarians learning about mātauranga Māori

When Kathryn Oxborrow moved to Aotearoa New Zealand from England, she was drawn to learn as much as she could about Māori culture. The PhD graduate soon realised that in her professional field as a librarian, this interest and engagement wasn’t always shared by her non-Māori colleagues.

Girl with long blonde hair pulled back standing in front of a sign with 10 Kelburn Parade written on it
Her PhD in Information Management from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, which she worked on part-time since 2014, looked at how non-Māori librarians make sense of mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge).

“Initially I was thinking about library education, but discussions with professional colleagues within librarianship led me down the path of framing my research around professional development, and pursuing interviews with non-Māori librarians about their engagement with mātauranga Māori,” says Kathryn.

For her research, she interviewed 25 non-Maori librarians. She also ran 3 focus groups with Maori librarians to find out about their experiences of non-Māori colleagues’ engagement with mātauranga Māori.

Most of the 25 interviewees felt they had significant gaps in their knowledge of mātauranga Māori. Barriers to addressing these gaps ranged from a lack of time to fear and embarassment, Kathryn says.

In her focus groups with Māori librarians, she found that even basic requests regarding mātauranga Māori were often passed on to them, and they weren’t always fully recognised by their employers or colleagues for the extra knowledge they held.

Kathryn’s research indicated there was a lack of professional impetus for non-Māori librarians to learn about mātauranga Māori, and that it was possible for librarians to avoid real, meaningful engagement with the Māori world with no impact on their career development.

The Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA) provides mātauranga Māori training for members as part of their Professional Registration scheme. However, latest figures show only a third of librarians belong to LIANZA, limiting the organisation’s reach across the profession, she says.

“There are ways for organisations to emphasise good practice to encourage a culture of engagement with mātauranga Māori and there are ways for individuals to take the initiative to engage,” she says.

“I’d like to see more non-Māori engaging with mātauranga Māori and taking the initiative to do this—recognising their fear of the unknown, as well as their own privilege in this space. I’d also like to see LIANZA having discussions within [its] membership and at [its] conference about professional ethics and the overburdening of Māori librarians.”

Kathryn’s PhD was supervised by Professor Anne Goulding and  Associate Professor Spencer Lilley (Te Ātiawa, Muaūpoko, Ngāpuhi). It was the first study to look closely at the processes of non-Māori librarians learning about and engaging with mātauranga Māori.

“I was so grateful to have Spencer’s supervision, as he was the only academic in Aotearoa with the combination of cultural and professional knowledge and the mana to be able to go on that journey.”

Kathryn plans to run her own series of webinars later this year to explain her research and its outcomes, to help non-Māori librarians overcome barriers to learning about mātauranga Māori.