Last night I received a lengthy and interesting email that was distributed to all members of the ALA’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) about the sixth draft of the ALA’s “Librarianship and Traditional Cultural Expressions: Nurturing Understanding and Respect.” (Here’s the site for the project and the draft.) Below is the email in full and a few observations follow.
10 December 2009
Ms Carrie Russell
Director, Program on Public Access to Information
Office for Information Technology Policy
American Library Association
1615 New Hampshire Ave. NW, First Floor
Washington DC 20009-2520
Dear Ms Russell,
I am writing regarding the sixth draft of the “Librarianship and Traditional Cultural Expressions: Nurturing Understanding and Respect.” Our colleagues at the Society of American Archivists (SAA) recently shared with us two documents–a statement from its Working Group on Intellectual Property to the SAA council concerning this document, and a draft letter from Peter Gottlieb, SAA President, to you. On behalf of the ALA ACRL Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS), we would like to share with you our primary concerns with this document and offer our general agreement with SAA’s position.
We recognize the history of the World Intellectual Property Organization’s efforts in protecting traditional cultural expression, and also recognize ALA’s interest in crafting a statement of professional affinity that both supports this process and can allow American librarians to better understand their professional role in working with these collections. We do not, however, believe the document at present adequately defines “traditional cultural expression” and “traditional knowledge” as they may relate to the holdings of American libraries and archives. Indeed, archives, which as administrative units are often under the direct institutional oversight of libraries in this country, are not even mentioned. Furthermore, “traditional” and “culture” are both complex terms that beg to be more fully explained when this document speaks of “traditional cultural expression.” While in America we may think of indigenous peoples’ cultural collections as the primary traditional cultural expressions with which we work, other materials documenting complex and controversial subject areas are in our charge, from documentary evidence of religious, ethnic, and social minorities, to fringe sects and the unpublished writings of terrorists. Can these, too, be considered traditional cultural expressions as presently conceived? Management of these complex collections may also contain inherently incompatible ways of balancing preservation and access to them, which therefore conflict with, not complement, some of ALA’s Core Values.
We are of the opinion that current concerns in the profession over digitization, and its attendant intellectual property issues, seem to be the driving force behind this statement. Digitization efforts are part of a much larger professional commitment that rare book and special collections librarians and archivists have long made to the stewardship of collecting, preserving, and making available for use the cultural heritage objects, sources, and documents in our care. As primary stakeholders whose main professional commitment is in managing these resources, we believe that a larger conversation needs to take place within the profession, especially involving its majority stakeholders, if a statement that speaks broadly for members of the American Library Association is to be promulgated.
We understand, via Janice Pilch’s September 1, 2009 “Issue Brief: Traditional Cultural Expression” located on the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy website, that the OITP convened a meeting in November 2008 “to bring together members of the library and cultural heritage communities to clarify key issues for a statement of principles'” that resulted in the draft document. To the best of our knowledge, no members of RBMS, SAA, or the Committee on Archives, Libraries, and Museums (CALM, a joint ALA-SAA-American Association of Museums committee), all majority stakeholders in managing the bulk of the unpublished cultural heritage materials that are found in our nation’s libraries, special collections, and archives that can be constituted as traditional cultural expressions, were invited to this meeting.
Therefore, in light of significant unanswered elements to both the document and its process of generation, we request that ALA set aside the present draft and appoint a joint RBMS/SAA Task Force to work with OITP to develop a new statement.
Deborah J. Leslie
RBMS Chair 2009-2010
I don’t recall seeing anything from SAA about this issue. A search of the website showed some references to needing to work with the ALA effort in Council minutes, and that as part of their strategic priorities, Council plans on appointing “an individual or group to work with the American Library Association on its Traditional Cultural Expressions initiatives and make recommendations regarding additional tasks that SAA might undertake to advance this outcome” in FY2010. In addition, the new Working Group on Cultural Property seems to have been established in part as a reaction to the ALA document. Given how strongly RBMS is reacting, I will be interested in seeing the SAA documents this letter refers to when they are made available to the membership.
Also, it’s not clear to me if the November 2008 meeting referred to in the letter is the same as the November 2008 conference, “Cultural Heritage and Living Culture: Defining The U.S. Library Position on Access and Protection of Traditional Cultural Expression,” for which information is available online. Probably they were different events, but if you are interested in this topic there is some material available related to the conference.