Academic Movers Q&A: Shavonn Matsuda on Bringing Hawaiian Language Organization Systems to the Library

Shavonn Matsuda, head librarian at the University of Hawai‘i Maui College Library, was named a 2023 Library Journal Mover & Shaker for her efforts to incorporate traditional Hawaiian languages and cultures into the academic library and cataloging system to guide Hawaiian scholars and community members more efficiently and robustly. LJ recently followed up with her to learn more about her work.

Shavonn Matsuda head shotShavonn Matsuda, head librarian at the University of Hawai‘i Maui College Library, was named a 2023 Library Journal Mover & Shaker for her efforts to incorporate traditional Hawaiian languages and cultures into the academic library and cataloging system to guide Hawaiian scholars and community members more efficiently and robustly. LJ recently followed up with her to learn more about her work.

LJ : What gave you the idea for the Hawaiian Knowledge Organization System?

Shavonn Matsuda: I think lots of people have thought about it. Over time, I was just lucky enough to move it forward. During my undergrad [studies], I recognized the issues with access in these various institutions, things from the Hawai‘i collection to the law collections, libraries, and archival collections. There are many issues with access here, including that we have many islands. So there’s a geographic limitation to accessing, which some have sought to answer with digitization. But if we’re just recreating the existing structures of the brick-and-mortar library when digitizing, it doesn’t extend access in the ways we would like it to.

One of the limitations I recognized and was drawn to was the limitations in bibliographic or descriptive metadata. Upon further investigating that in my master’s program, I talked with professionals at local repositories, researchers, faculty, and academics in our university system, and landed on “There’s got to be a better way.” Those conversations drove me to realize it’s not just me, it’s not just a matter of learning the system—the system itself is the problem. If we don’t address the root of the issue, the issue will persist. I gathered some folks to see what we could do in terms of what a Hawaiian language organization system would like like, or for us to walk into a library organized in ways that are readily understandable by Hawaiians. I find it ironic that some of our libraries have special interest or special collections for Hawaiian knowledge and yet don’t make that knowledge readily available to the communities they come from. And by ironic, I do mean ironic, but I also mean infuriating.

How did the Hawaiian Knowledge Organization System come into being?

Thankfully, while I was in the MLIS program, I built a network of Hawaiians entering library science. Early in their professional careers, they were able to support me. When I found I was getting the grant, I was able to bring them in to actually help build it.

Was developing metadata in Native Hawaiian languages the focus?

Honestly, I thought it was just a metadata issue. But the more we dig, the more we realize: Oh, this is connected, and so is this. It’s a language issue. For example, if I went to the library as an undergraduate, I asked my reference question for my research, which was the place where my family’s from. It’s not widely known, but it’s a place name. I thought it had entered into the vocabulary of that time, the popular vocabularies, but it hadn’t.

If the language doesn’t work, you can’t move forward on any aspect of anything you’re researching or trying to build. And in the state of Hawai‘i, Hawaiian is a state language. So English and Hawaiian should be at parity here. I saw all the Library of Congress subject headings and all the ways this information was being described, and I found it not useful. Not helpful in the first place, but also inappropriate, and sometimes downright offensive. From there, I tried to learn more about the system and where it came from. It’s the language, but it’s also the perspective from which the collections are described. If you get to be the namer of names, you’re going to name it in ways that are natural to you.

What other problems did you identify during your research?

[Hawaiiians] are a minority here in general, as well as within the profession. How do we increase the pathways for Hawaiians to be part of these professions? How do we make these professions livable careers in Hawai‘i, where the price of living is skyrocketing and Hawaiians continue to have to move away or be displaced?

But also, for those already holding these positions, what professional development opportunities are provided? And how are we assessed upon those learnings? If we merely provide workshops, I’ve learned that the folks that need them are not the ones attending them. How do we provide awareness, provide interest, and change attitudes and behaviors in ways that serve the community? I know these individuals want to serve the community. We’re in librarianship. That’s our hope.

I’m starting to recognize some of the areas where people are either uncomfortable or unwilling to change. When it comes down to serious conversations about what we need to change in order to become more user friendly, people are not always excited to be part of that. If they’re unable to see the problem because the system is built for them, why would they attempt to fix it? As far as they can see, the problem doesn’t exist.

How do you overcome that?

Many ways. It’s not just myself in this. We hold one-on-one conversations with folks, including the directors and heads of libraries. We have a Library Council at the University of Hawai‘i that I now get to be a part of, so I help push conversations in those circles, which I think has been impactful. We hold professional development opportunities, including free community workshops not limited to library professionals. In Hawai‘i, as I’m sure elsewhere, it’s not just librarians and archivists doing this work. There are language experts and cultural practitioners that are doing the work, and they don’t have the library training. So we bring that training to those who aren’t interested in pursuing an MLIS degree. But for some, that training gives them the impetus to pursue the degree.

We also symposiums targeting library professionals and also the larger online community. Part of that is sharing and spotlighting the work going on in our community, new trending topics or technologies. But it’s also an opportunity for these two populations to intermingle and have conversations.

You and your colleagues have been working on this for years. What are some of the outcomes you’re beginning to see?

For one, we’ve increased the number of Hawaiians entering the library science profession. Many are attending [San José State University] and others that provide distance learning. That’s really great, because we have multiple islands, and if we can train and serve those individuals in their home communities without having to leave. I applaud those universities that allow those opportunities.

It’s been almost 10 years since my cohort graduated and entered the profession. I can’t take credit for the things that they’re doing. But I see the differences that they’re making in terms of tangible outcomes. Programming, outreach, research guides, instruction, language of instruction. Some of them provide information literacy instruction in Hawaiian language, which we need because we have Hawaiian language immersion schools.

They’re doing wonders. But they’re also starting to have a say about some of the systemic issues within the institution itself, the institution of libraries as well as higher education. They’re moving up in their positions and are no longer the newbie on the staff. I see them changing libraries from the inside. But it can be very lonely if you’re the only one, so it’s important to be able to find allies who are willing to cover your reference shift so you can go out and do the outreach, or allies willing to dedicate 10 percent of their time to help research how to create or web archive, or create social media archives. We’ve recognized that there’s obviously not enough of us in this profession. But there are friends who are willing to help. We don’t have all the expertise we need to do everything we want to do, so those partners become even more important.

These are difficult conversations, and they can’t be entered into just to be introducing the idea. It takes relationships. Once we set those relationships, and we have a better understanding of all parties involved, we can start from a shared space we can move forward from. If we can establish that, the rest will come.

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