Trigger warning for death, violence.
This week, I talked about building new partnerships and opportunities for libraries at the IFLA President’s Meeting in Barcelona – a global gathering of library leaders.
We looked at ways to identify fresh connections between libraries’ mission and the goals of other institutions and communities, with a special focus on healthcare.
This complex and sensitive topic is one which has potential to bring solace to grieving families – but it must be approached carefully.
An article in The Conversation on the benefits of viewing crime scene photographs also draws attention to growing public interest in forensic images, the preservation of those images as cultural artefacts, and their wider circulation in the digital age.
The Conversation quotes legal scholar Katherine Biber pointing out that “we lack a forum to think about…’the afterlives of evidence.'”
Yet the afterlife of evidence is one of the key fields of librarianship.
The issue raised is precisely the kind to which librarians bring useful expertise, experience, and values.
There are questions of archiving and access; of sensitive work with clients in difficult emotional circumstances; questions, too, about the media and context in which this material is shared.
All of this lies firmly within the territory of today’s librarians and the experience of knowledge workers like my friend and former Auckland Libraries colleague Natasha Barrett. Natasha, in addition to her library work, has held roles with the duty of repatriating Indigenous remains from cultural institutions.
So could librarians be leading this conversation with police, social workers, and representatives of the bereaved?
The Conversation authors also write that:
We need to move away from approaching grief as a medical event subject to diagnosis, and instead turn our attention to the diverse needs of family members as they comprehend the realities of death, and the meanings of that death in their own lives.
This, too, is a wider discussion to which libraries can contribute – as in a 2016 “death literacy” panel discussion which I ran for the State Library of Queensland. That event, recorded as a one-off library podcast, formed part of a “microfestival which explores, challenges, and celebrates our understanding of death, dying, and bereavement”.
These wider public engagements sit alongside the more sensitive work required to deal with individual forensic archives in the context of violent death, and alongside work with health practitioners as well as the general public.
In both broad public engagement and private sharing of forensic media, there is a significant opportunity for brave, principled, and caring knowledge workers to enter this difficult terrain and bring their skills to bear on how families and communities deal with the end of life.