Library responses to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action: my little contribution

This was my third year presenting at the TRY+ Conference, after presenting the (to be resurrected!) Toronto Film Map and my thoughts on using linked open data in map classification in 2015 and 2016, respectively. This year, Jane and I finally got to share our Little Free Libraries® research to our colleagues together, which was the only thing I was planning on participating in, but I’m thankful that UofT librarian Sara McDowell urged me to reconsider. I gave a short talk on one of two panels dedicated to library responses (page 115) to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. Here, I suggest how map cataloguers can better acknowledge Indigenous lands in our collections – a crucial duty for those of us working in libraries dedicated to territory – without placing additional burdens on our Indigenous colleagues. (I was so surprised to meet another map cataloguer right before I presented it, which made it extra important!)

If you work in an academic library and are reading this, please check out co-panelist Jamie Lee Morin’s incredible writing and research guides for Indigenous students at Ryerson University. THIS is what universities need to do – hire brilliant young Indigenous minds and fund their work to develop resources like these and keep them around.

It is not that the historian can avoid emphasis of some facts and not of others. This is as natural to him as to the mapmaker, who, in order to produce a usable drawing for practical purposes, must first flatten and distort the shape of the earth, then choose out of the bewildering mass of geographic information those things needed for the purpose of this or that particular map.

My argument cannot be against selection, simplification, emphasis, which are inevitable for cartographers and historians. But the mapmaker’s distortion is a technical necessity for a common purpose shared by all people who need maps. The historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a word of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.

Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States

In this passage, Zinn correctly identifies that the process of mapmaking inevitably distorts the “truth” of the land being mapped, both through the map projection process, which distorts the shapes and sizes of land masses, but also through the decisions of cartographers to include or exclude certain features on the ground, whether human, animal, natural, or constructed. This process of thematic inclusion or exclusion tends to erase social histories from maps, including histories of colonialism, violence, and resistance – of course, maps were and continue to be instruments of violence in ongoing struggles over land. Map libraries may be unique in that all of our collections deal with territory, and as a map cataloguer, I feel an ethical responsibility to make these histories visible in our collection, which is organized according to internationally recognized political and administrative subdivisions, and further subdivided by the theme of maps – so all geological maps of a given area are grouped together, all election maps of a given place go together, etc. This system renders territories that may straddle these arbitrary boundaries as “out of place”. I’ve started looking into adding additional geographic subject headings, such as those in the First Nations House of Learning subject vocabulary, to map records – but how would I, as a guest on this land, be sure that I was making an appropriate call? As a first, small step, I imagined that I could follow the university’s land acknowledgement to at least acknowledge the territories of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe nations and the treaties that govern them on our maps of Toronto – which represents about 20% of our publicly-accessible map collection. Even a TTC map, which might be assigned “Toronto—Public transit—Maps”, is still a representation of both the ancestral and contemporary homelands of these Indigenous communities. It’s a small step, but I hope that this kind of cataloguing can work to represent the peoples whose stories are not told by cartographers.