Traditional Cultural Expression Conference, Fourth Panel

November 16, 2008

“Challenges to Libraries and Archives in the Management of Works of Indigenous Communities” was the theme of the fourth panel at the Traditional Cultural Expression Conference in Washington, D.C. Kimberly A. Christen, associate professor at Washington State University, explained access parameters in tagging for databases, to illustrate collaborative management of indigenous materials, that is, matching access to user profiles that honors indigenous people’s wishes.  Communities can do this now, without the law, she said, citing examples from Australia, where there is a strong movement afoot to preserve and collect indigenous knowledge. She also talked about "reciprocal curation" and announced that a Plateau Peoples Web Portal is launching in 2009, containing stories from the Coeur d’Alene, Umatilla, and Yakama peoples. We are "moving toward models that work in a more balanced way," she said. The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress began in 1928, said Michael Taft, head of the archive, and it started by attempting to collect all American folk music. All the material is openly accessible and no one has objected in 80 years, he said, adding that he did not expect that to last. He noted that no one can copy material without going through protocol, and LC views itself not as copyright owner but rather custodian. The Center has in some instances tried to repatriate recordings to tribal owners. Taft talked about the Zuni storytelling collection, which was deteriorating by the 1990s. The Zuni community blessed turning the collection over to LC in 1996, and the library is planning to make it entirely available to the Zuni community while preserving it at the Library of Congress. Yet, there remains the question of who the tribe deems eligible to access the tapes, he added. "There has probably never been a more interesting time to be an archivist," said Robert Leopold, director of the National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives at the Smithsonian Institution. Speaking about ethical issues surrounding the acquisition and curation of indigenous materials, he talked about the slippery slope of restricted access when donor language specifies, for example, only "genuine scholars" need apply, which requires "archival clairvoyance," Leopold quipped. He said that protecting traditional cultural expression requires "strengthening trust in what are already some of the most trusted institutions in America." Christen observed that a lot of people object when they hear that certain things are only for women, only for men, but these restrictions consitutue, in library lingo, a knowledge management system.