Academic Librarians on Intellectual Freedom and Change, Part 2: An Interview with Michelle Blake

Sitting on Māori tribal land, the University of Waikato in New Zealand showcases a culturally rich and significant backdrop. In the second segment of our new interview series, Michelle Blake tells us about the university library’s distinctive setting, indigenous programs, initiatives in educating about disinformation, and much more.

This interview is a segment of the 6-part blog series titled “Academic Librarians on Intellectual Freedom and Change.”

Last week, we launched our new series of blog posts on how librarians across the world contribute to free speech and champion diversity. If you haven’t done so yet, check out our first interview with Jeremy Upton, the Director of Library and University Collections at The University of Edinburgh.

In the second part of our series, Annika Bennett of Gold Leaf had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Blake, University Librarian at Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato (the University of Waikato, Aotearoa, New Zealand).

Michelle Blake
Michelle Blake, University Librarian at The University of Waikato

Annika Bennett: Michelle, thank you very much for agreeing to share your insights and intuitions with us. Could you begin by describing your role as a librarian and tell us a bit about the type of institution you work for?

Michelle Blake: Our university has a unique setting, as the land on which the University sits is leased from Waikato-Tainui, because it was part of the Crown settlement with Waikato-Tainui in 1995. Essentially, this means the University is a tenant on Māori tribal land. We are a relatively small university, with approximately 10,000 students; about a third of them are of Māori or Pacific origin. Though we are quite a local university, we do have a very international workforce.

My role as University Librarian is split into three areas that take up equal amounts of my time: the leadership of the Library itself; the position of the Library within the wider University (as a side note I am also an elected staff representative on the University’s governing body); and to engage and work with the wider sector on a local, national and international level. To fulfil this, I am active in various collaborations, such as Open Access Australasia, CONZUL (Council of Aotearoa New Zealand University Libraries), CAUL (Council of Australian University Librarians) and IATUL (International Association of University Libraries).

AB: Could you describe some of your brushes with disinformation and misinformation? Have you implemented specific educational programs or initiatives to help library users critically evaluate information sources and distinguish between reliable and unreliable content?

“Disinformation and misinformation are a real battleground in the pursuit of knowledge.”

MB: Disinformation and misinformation are a real battleground in the pursuit of knowledge. At our institution, we’ve always had an information literacy programme, and that hasn’t changed. We update the contents and current trends that need to feed into this. We utilise the CRAAP test – students learn to recognise currency, reliability/relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose/point of view of information. Teaching this is our bread and butter – it always has been and always will – but the world around it is changing.

AB: Does Waikato have a formal policy about the use of artificial intelligence? Do you yourself have views on how AI should or should not be used?

MB: For me, the key question about artificial intelligence sits with its ethical aspects: just because you can do something, should you? The University has issued AI guidance for staff and asked them to be clear about their expectations of students. We follow a pragmatic, middle-of-the-road approach: we’re not banning AI, but we’re also cautious about how we utilise it. We as the Library see it as our responsibility to equip the students to question who and what is behind the AI and to apply the CRAAP method when using it.

AB: Most universities now encourage the recruitment of students from diverse backgrounds, for example, those from ethnic minorities, first-generation (in their family) undergraduates, mature students, and individuals with disabilities. Has this affected collection development and the types of learning resource you recommend?

MB: Our university attracts mature students, “first in family” and high proportions of Māori and Pacific students; and our collections are constantly being refined to reflect the needs of our diverse user communities. Traditionally, we have taught strong indigenous programmes, so we have built Mātangireia, our library collection of Māori and Pacific resources, to service their teaching and research needs. In the past our university was sought out especially to be the kaitiaki (custodian) of taonga (treasured items), because of the priority we place on relationships with our Māori communities.

“Indigenisation … is a transformative process that aims to make services more representative of and responsive to indigenous education and research needs.”

In line with the University’s strategic priorities, we have focused on indigenisation. Indigenisation in this context is a transformative process that aims to make services more representative of and responsive to indigenous education and research needs. For example, we have been considering ways in which we can integrate mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) into our curriculum; considering the indigenisation of reading lists; and are working on digitising some taonga within our collection to make them more widely available. Some of our resources are Open Access, but these are not always indexed. We’re trying to prioritise finding ways of making these journals more discoverable.

AB: Can you share any specific instances in 2023 where the deployment of unusual or unorthodox learning resources and/or the freedom to read was celebrated in your library?

MB: We have digitised a lot of content, including theses written in te reo Māori. To celebrate diversity, we support a range of language weeks across the year. These feature publications in many different languages, including Chinese, te reo Māori (Māori language) and the Pacific languages.

Our approach to Open Access in Aotearoa is bibliodiverse – “open to have all colours” – as we make use of Read and Publish deals, introduce an Open Access Equity Fund, start to better support our diamond journals, and review our repository infrastructure. We have created a recreational reading corner and because we have a large teaching resources library, we also stock a variety of children’s books – including those in te reo – which is great for beginner learners of this language, such as myself! This year we also trialled our first Living Library. We had a number of people who could be “borrowed” to talk about their experiences, focusing particularly on mental health and breaking down the stigma associated with this.

AB: There has been considerable recent publicity about how new graduates have not been taught to think for themselves or are not ready after graduation to join the workforce. How does your institution and library support student success, foster future confidence and happiness in the working environment, and prepare students for their post-graduate appointments?

MB: Many of our learners have other responsibilities in their lives, so we understand that they may need different kinds of support. The University has adopted a work-integrated learning model across all disciplines and there is an expectation that students will participate. We also have an impact lab (which recently won a national award), where teams come up with solutions for questions from businesses. We also have a range of summer interns and other practical programmes. Sometimes, these are paid positions; sometimes the students are rewarded with credits for their degrees. As part of our learning success programme, we have study advisers who support the students one-to-one. Some of the library staff are currently being trained to become study advisers, too.

AB: Building on Barack Obama’s message about the power of books, can you share examples of how literature has influenced leadership or personal development within your academic community?

MB: One of our Professors of Leadership has published a book about wayfinding leadership that has made an impact on many staff across the university, including myself. We run a leadership development programme for women called Waikato Women in Leadership which also references it. Within the Library we have interwoven into our leadership strategy Māori principles taken from the university’s Te Tiriti Statement: our founding document as Aotearoa, which details the obligations we have to each other. Within the Library we have a co-governance model and our Pou Ārahi (Māori cultural leader) to improve our cultural proficiencies.

AB: The modern teaching and research landscape is both complex and dynamic. Particularly since the Covid lockdowns, librarians seem increasingly to have led from the front. Could you describe your role and the role of the library as an agent for change?

MB: I started my job at the University of York in the UK during the Covid pandemic. The Library was first to let students back in after the lockdowns.

“Our new strategy focuses more on making things open by default and working collaboratively across all university libraries and beyond, within Aotearoa.”

Moving back to Aotearoa and starting at Waikato in September 2021, I came into a leadership role within a library that had great potential. Our new strategy focuses more on making things open by default and working collaboratively across all university libraries and beyond, within Aotearoa. The great mahi (work) that’s been undertaken across HE libraries in Aotearoa has enabled us to influence on a national level when it comes to Open Research. We have collaboratively created a 101 toolkit for Open Access and – I am most proud of this – is that this was a genuinely collaborative project across all 8 HE institutions in New Zealand, for the benefit for all.

Other aspects on which we as a library have led is the indigenisation of collections and services and pro-active work on anti-racism across the campus.

AB: Looking ahead to 2024, what initiatives or goals do you have for your library in promoting intellectual freedom and the love of reading?

MB: We’re hoping to set up a “leadership lounge”; we have been donated a leadership book collection, which we would like to put into this lounge – it is essentially a space to enable students, staff, and communities to have “fireside chats” about leadership.

While we have a library-focused anti-racism reading channel, we’d like to expand this further, maybe with a dedicated anti-racism book club. Overall, our aim is for the Library to be the place to keep conversations about learning and development going.

AB: Michelle, huge thanks for this. Your unique contributions at Waikato are fascinating and I know will be of great interest to readers around the world.

[Title image by Stephen Barker, 10 July 2023]

Michelle Blake

Michelle Blake is the University Librarian at Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato (the University of Waikato, Aotearoa, New Zealand).

Annika Bennett

Annika Bennett is a partner at Gold Leaf, a consulting firm that provides business development and market research for publishers and the publishing community.

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