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Decolonization and a more inclusive library

At the University Library of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam we are aware of the inherent colonial biases in the ways we collect, describe, and present our materials. This webpage outlines the library’s activities in fostering a more inclusive library, focusing on collection description, acquisition, and presentation.

Last update: 9 April 2024

By sharing examples and acknowledging challenges, we hope to create awareness around decolonization and invite students and staff to share their ideas and concerns with us.

Harmful and/or offensive descriptions in LibSearch
We strive to provide the most reliable and respectful description of library materials. It is important to note that our library catalogue may contain harmful and/or offensive descriptions, such as subject headings. We are committed to ensuring that such metadata are no longer visible, providing alternative descriptions where possible that respect the people and communities who create, use, and are represented in our library materials.

While acknowledging that our library contains harmful and/or offensive content, we will not remove books or other content from our collections to preserve an unaltered historical record. Similarly, harmful and/or offensive language will not be removed from our metadata, and users can still search with those terms for research purposes.

Think along and share your input

Think along and share your input

Your input is valuable. We invite you to let us know if you come across outdated or offensive descriptions within LibSearch, such as subject headings. Your feedback is important in our ongoing efforts to provide a more inclusive and accurate representation of knowledge. So if you have any questions, concerns, or suggestions, please contact us at or via the:

Feedback form (anonymous)


Our collections are biased towards western values and perspectives, lacking important but marginalized voices and containing outdated and offensive metadata. This directly influences students’ first contacts with academia. What do our collections say about what good research is and who can participate in academia? VU Amsterdam has one of the most culturally diverse student populations in The Netherlands. The University Library is committed to ensuring that all students and staff feel represented and at home in our library while searching our online catalogue or browsing our shelves.

Contribution to decolonization
We recognize that our library is part of wider institutional systems of whiteness and realize that without systemic and cultural changes within the university and the academic world, true decolonization remains unattainable. We take inspiration from the case studies in Crilly & Everitt's Narrative Expansions. Interpreting Decolonisation in Academic Libraries (London, 2022), showing that librarians can contribute to decolonization through practical interventions, collaboration with students and staff, and the development of a critical attitude towards their own role in continuing colonial practices. We furthermore aim to help create awareness of (the effects of) colonialism both within the University Library and the wider VU community through talks, discussions, and a decolonization guide for students and staff.

Towards more inclusive descriptions of library materials

Towards more inclusive descriptions of library materials

Replacement of subject headings is necessary, as in the past we have attributed Dutch subject headings (or keywords) to our library materials that are now considered outdated and/or offensive. In 2023 we have identified as many of such outdated subject headings as possible and have replaced them with respectful alternatives where possible. In the dropdown menu below you can find detailed explanatory notes on our approach.

Our collections described

  • Identification of outdated and/or offensive subject headings and selection of alternatives

    For the identification of outdated and/or offensive subject headings we have made use of the word lists published by the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures and Flemish public-service broadcaster VRT. These publications have moreover helped us with choosing respectful alternatives for each term.

    Soon we will upload a list of all subject headings we have replaced so far together with their alternatives (with the important disclaimer that this list contains the original harmful and/or offensive subject headings). Since the (associated) meanings of words change all the time, we strive to frequently update this list. Do not hesitate to contact us if you have questions about the alternatives we selected or if you come across outdated and/or offensive subject headings in LibSearch you feel are missing from our list.

    It is important to note that we consciously refrain from removing outdated and/or offensive subject headings from our metadata and that it is still possible to search for these terms for research purposes. We believe in preserving an unaltered historical record that can inform research and discussion about our colonial past. For the same reason we will never alter the titles of books or other library materials, even if they contain language that might be deemed harmful.

  • An example of a replaced subject heading

    The Dutch term ‘politionele acties’ has been replaced by the term ‘Nederlands-Indonesische oorlogen'. As explained in the Words Matter publication (p. 131), ‘politionele acties’ refers to the extensive military operations by the Dutch army from 1945 to 1949 to stop Indonesia from gaining independence. The Dutch government insisted it wasn't a war but a legitimate way to suppress a rebellion, calling it ‘politionele acties'. Many, including the descendants of victims, find this term misleading. The use of euphemistic language hides the actual violence and harm caused and diminishes the victims to mere rebels. While there is no consensus on alternative terms, in The Netherlands, the more historically correct term 'Dutch-Indonesian Wars’ has been suggested, which we therefore have chosen as alternative.

    If you search in LibSearch for 'politionele acties', you will find books and articles with this term in their title. But you will also find materials that have 'politionele acties’ as subject heading, which will now appear as ‘Nederlands-Indonesische oorlogen'. By clicking on the subject heading, a message will appear saying “This subject heading has been altered by your library. By continuing with your search, the original subject heading will be searched for.” By clicking continue, you will continue searching for materials with the term 'politionele acties'.

  • Information for librarians and metadata specialists from other (University) Libraries

    If your library works with OCLC – like the University Library of VU Amsterdam – and you are looking for ways to replace outdated and/or offensive subject headings, we invite you to reuse our list of subject headings and their alternatives. We have used the OCLC tool that helps to create locally preferred subjects for display and search expansion. You can find more information about this tool on the OCLC website. If you have any questions about using this tool or our subject headings list, please reach out to us; see the contact details at the bottom of this page.

Contents and presentation of our collections

  • Acquisition

    Our subject librarians purchase books and other materials by fulfilling requests from VU staff and students, occasionally acquiring through donations and proactive collecting. Additionally, over 11.000 journals are accessible because they are part of a so-called Big Deal: national agreements that the Association of Universities in the Netherlands has reached with several major publishers.

    While these deals are crucial in offering VU students and staff access to highly ranked journals in their field, we are aware that the major publishers that publish them are chiefly based in Europe and North America and therefore these journals might lack important voices outside of the mainstream.

    We are committed to raising awareness within the library about our own role in the acquisition process, discussing how our choices might reinforce or take apart dominant western and colonial narratives in the academic world, including the publishing industry.

  • Diversify reading lists together with VU staff & students

    We also strive to work together with VU staff and students to de-center whiteness in curricula and diversify reading lists. An online guide with resources and support for students and staff is under construction. In the meantime, we recommend consulting our reading list Decolonizing the University and the Decolonisation Guide by the University of Sussex, UK,

    Are you a teacher looking to diversify your reading list? Or are you a student who needs support with advocating for a more diverse reading list? We are very willing to help you. See the contact details at the bottom of this page.

  • Presentation of our collections

    The collection presented in our study rooms is biased towards western authors and perspectives. We are aware that this sends a certain message to students about what good research is and who can participate in academia. We are committed to diversifying our collections so that they make everyone at VU feel at home and represented in the library.

    To ensure our open collections, which often contain reference works and recent acquisitions, represent the research and teaching carried out at VU in the best possible manner, we need to closely collaborate with researchers and teachers. Please contact us if you want to help us work towards a more inclusive library environment.

    To create more inclusive library spaces we have, among other things, developed and housed the following theme collections: 

    • Theme collection on the occasion of the Dutch Slavery Memorial Year in collaboration with VU staff who do research on the topics of slavery and/or colonialism
    • Theme collection on decolonization at the Decolonization Lab in the University Library, on the 11th floor of the VU Main Building (in collaboration with VU Diversity Office).

Would you like more information or do you have suggestions?

Please reach out to us!

+31 6 2569 4822

University Library
VU Main Building, 1st floor
De Boelelaan 1105
1081 HV Amsterdam


This is a picture of Esther Nijland. She is team member of Digital Services and Infrastructure.