Input of archivists in “Librarianship and Traditional Cultural Expressions: Nurturing Understanding and Respect”?

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.

Yours sincerely,

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.

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7 thoughts on “Input of archivists in “Librarianship and Traditional Cultural Expressions: Nurturing Understanding and Respect”?”

  1. Hello, I think the access to culture must always be free unless you have a business benefit. The librarian must always try to preserve the folk culture of their area because they do not have much commercial interest runs the risk of being lost. Addition it should promote its spread outside the community. I think that knowing the peculiarities of each society will get a better cooperation in other respects.

  2. Dear Kate,

    Not a full answer, but you may find it interesting that in the lead-up to this draft ALA held a conference on the topic in Washington, D.C. with various invited speakers, and the video of that conference is mostly online:

    As the panel topics suggest, at least some of the individuals involved are aware that this issue is broader than librarianship (or archives for that matter).

    Especially of note are
    “WIPO, Traditional Cultural Expressions, and the Role of Libraries and Archives,” Michael Taft – Head of the Archive, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

    Panel #4 – Challenges to Libraries and Archives in the Management of Works of Indigenous Communities (Video) (moderated by Janice Pilch)

    * “Access and Accountability: Collaborative Management of Indigenous Materials,” (Slideshare) Kimberly A. Christen, Ph.D. – Associate Professor, Washington State University
    * “Managing Indigenous Collections of Ethnographic Materials at the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center,” Michael Taft, Ph.D. – Head of the Archive, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
    * “Some Ethical Issues in the Archival Management of Intangible Cultural Heritage,” Robert Leopold, Ph.D. – Director, National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives, Smithsonian Institution; Co-chair, Council for the Preservation of Anthropological Records

  3. Hi Noah,

    Yes, that’s the conference I referred to the last paragraph, I think. And there certainly were archivists on some of those panels. I hadn’t seen that the video was online–thanks for sharing that!


  4. I am gratified that the ALA document and the RBMS response to it is of interest. I want to jump in quickly to say that I erred in the first paragraph when I mention a draft letter from SAA president Peter Gottleib to Ms Russell. It has been made clear to me that in fact, the letter was prepared *for* his consideration only and was never meant for circulation. I believe that Mr Gottleib is or soon will be in the process of collecting comments from the SAA membership. My apologies for this inadvertent kerfuffle!

  5. I am thrilled to see a discussion of this important and little understood issue in the library and archives community. As a librarian/aspiring archivist in Indian Country, I have learned how much the American traditions of information management support colonial follies. To me, the bottom line is that indigenous people need to have control over their own cultural information and how it is managed. As American archivists and librarians, doing the right thing often means surrendering our own cultural ideals relating to information in relation to these kinds of materials. There are many ways in which tribal cultural information is different than other sources, as it was often gathered unethically without proper permission or copyright protection of the true indigenous informants and authors (e.g. ethnographic works). I believe that tribal cultural information also has an important relationship to place, and that much is lost when it is far from the place and the people it is about. I would love to see our professional community actively support tribes in building their capacity to care for their own cultural information and in managing it how they want to. There are some excellent examples in the library literature of how some institutions have treated tribal cultural materials with better ethical sensibilities. Some sources I have learned a lot from are:
    1) Anderson, Jane. (2005). Indigenous knowledge, intellectual property, libraries and archives: Crises of access, control and future utility. Australian Academic & Research Libraries 36(2), 85-97. 2) Cedar Face, Mary Jane & Hollens, Deborah. (2004). A digital library to serve a region: The Bioregion and First Nations collections of the Southern Oregon Digital Archives. Reference and User Services Quarterly 44(2), 116-121. 3) Gray, Judith. (1997). Returning music to the makers: The Library of Congress, American Indians, and the Federal Cylinder Project. Cultural Survival Quarterly 20(4). Retrieved from 4) Grose, Teresa Olwick. (1996). Reading the bones: Information content, value, and ownership issues raised by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 47(8), 624-631. 5) Powers, Willow Roberts. (1996). Images across boundaries: History, use, and ethics of photographs of American Indians. American Indian Culture and Research Journal 20(3), 129-136. 6) Rasmus, Michelle S. (2002). Repatriating words: Local knowledge in a global context. American Indian Quarterly 26(2), 286-307. 7) Seadle, Michael. (2002). Whose rules? Intellectual property, culture, and indigenous communities. D-Lib Magazine 8(3). Retrieved from

  6. As one of the committee members who worked on the ALA draft statement, this conversation is very welcome. As a member of the U.S. Delegation to the WIPO Intergovernmental Committee on “Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Cultural Expressions (Expressions of Folklore)” I am especially concerned that librarians, archivists, museum curators and other custodians of culture need to be aware of the international treaty discussions happening in Geneva right now. The SAA, the AMA, ALA, and many professional and scholarly societies need to bring their voices to the table. The deliberations at WIPO will effect all of us, and both tradition-bearers and cultural specialists are needed to advise the patent and copyright lawyers who are the majority members of national delegations.

    I commend Carrie Russell for getting off the dime and tackling this issue for ALA. The American Folklore Society is also active and has developed a position. It’s time for SAA, AMA and others to tackle this issue and join the debate.

    Peggy A. Bulger, Director
    American Folklife Center
    Library of Congress

  7. I know that the Diversity Committee provided information to Peter to be considered in SAA’s formal response to the ALA draft TCE’s. I also believe that LACCHA and NAAR are also providing comments as SAA subgroups. This is in addition to general membership comments. There is quite a bit of interest in this document from archivists who have been interacting with the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials. The TCE and SAA’s Working Group on Cultural Property are looking to provide a broader look than the protocols, I think. There are a number of complexities related to cultural heritage and its management blurs professional boundaries. What we really need is an umbrella group that could help mold coordinated hertiage professional policy around the various laws (NAGPRA) and guidelines (protocols & TCE) swirling around.

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