[Update: a revised version of this post was published as “Librarians and Traditional Cultural Expressions.” Journal of Religious & Theological Information 9 (2010), 47–54.
In the context of a project I’m working on about libraries and Enlightenment, I was asked what I thought about “Librarianship and Traditional Cultural Expressions: Nurturing Understanding and Respect.” (The latest draft I could find is here.) I’d read a little about it, but my only impression was that most of it seemed fine while some of it seemed to conflict with academic and library values. The basic thesis of the document is that librarians should be sensitive to the desires of indigenous communities regarding library collections of “traditional cultural expressions,” i.e. objects, documents, etc. created by members of those communities.
In a general sense, this seems a reasonable and ethical position, and upon further analysis, I realized I supported many of the document’s claims, but not at all for the reasons given by the document. A very small portion of the TCE document does indeed conflict with core values of libraries and universities, but a lot of the rationale does. It took me a while to parse out which parts I thought were in conflict with library values and which not, and also to figure out why I supported most of the document despite the flawed rationale. I’m still working through the labor of the notion, as Hegel might say, and the result is below. I think this is supposed to be debated by ALA Council. My opinion is that the Council should probably support a revised version of the document, but that the document as it stands is unsatisfactory.
Librarians can object to bits and pieces of this document, and those are the bits and pieces which should be revised. First, we can simply analyze the document to see if the statements all make sense. The portion on “Meaning and Social Context” is the most problematic from this perspective, and the least necessary for the document as a whole. In that section it is claimed, for example, that “Traditional cultural expressions do not exist separately from the living cultures they reflect. Tradition-bearers are the living repositories of cultural heritage.” Quite frankly, the first statement isn’t true. If it was true, then there would be no need for such a document as this, because libraries wouldn’t own any of these “expressions.” They obviously do exist separately from their cultures, as all expressions do. And yet, this statement is somehow supposed to justify the claims being made. The position of the writers is that there aren’t objects in libraries, but “expressions,” and an expression must have an expresser. But “expressions” as such don’t exist as “expressions.” They exist as objects or texts or whatever. Calling them “expressions” is presenting an interpretation of those objects preferred by the writers of the document, but difficult to support if you don’t share their assumptions.
It’s definitely true that these objects or texts are meaningful in their cultural context, and such a context is the best way to try to determine their original meaning. Objects and texts out of their appropriate context can be interpreted many ways, though, and their meanings can never be restricted or contained by any one context. If there is any value to poststructuralist arguments about texts and interpretation–and I think this is the most valuable part of the poststructuralist enterprise–I’m not even sure how anyone would begin to prove that an “expression” doesn’t exist beyond its expresser.
The second sentence, that tradition-bearers are the living repositories of cultural heritage, makes much more sense, but it’s not clear how it’s related to the first sentence, or how it is related to an argument about how librarians should treat objects and texts in their care. If the tradition-bearers are indeed the repositories of their cultural heritage, then once again there’s no need to worry about other repositories like libraries. If “expressions” can’t exist without the expressers, and if the expressers are the repositories, then what could there possibly be in libraries? What are those things librarians collect? Statements such as this do little to support the main claims of the document. The rest of the statements in that section might be true, but aren’t necessarily relevant to an argument about what librarians should do with TCEs.
The document claims that “the special sensitivity and care TCEs require are supported by the fundamental tenets of librarianship. These principles serve as a reminder of core library values and our mission to safeguard and provide access to materials without sacrificing individual liberty or respect for cultural differences.” I don’t think this is correct, and it’s certainly not proven in the document, which references librarians’ core values but doesn’t analyze the claims regarding TCEs according to those values. Here’s the list of ALA “core values”:
- Education and Lifelong Learning
- Intellectual Freedom
- The Public Good
- Social Responsibility
We could take them in turn. Access requires that librarians strive to make collections as freely available as possible to all comers. In addition to the commendable statement that libraries should help indigenous peoples preserve and even digitize their cultural “expressions,” we also have this statement: “Libraries should be sensitive to the possibility that digitizing traditional cultural expressions could expose the content to a world beyond the boundaries of the library, making it potentially more vulnerable to misuse.” I’ll address “misuse” in a moment, but even without that this is an odd statement. First of all, there’s not just the possibility that digitization would expose the content beyond the bounds of the library; that’s the entire purpose of digitization. We want to make our collections more accessible. That’s why we digitize.
Confidentiality/Privacy could conflict with this statement: “Libraries strive to provide the necessary social and cultural context in connection with use of indigenous materials in their collections, and make every effort to ensure appropriate use of materials.” It might not conflict, but it all depends on what one means by ensuring appropriate use. To make sure someone isn’t going to destroy or deface an object? Definitely. But what if the object or text is used as a source for a research project? Should librarians inquire about how the object will be used, and not allow access to those who aren’t “using” the objects “appropriately”? This relates to the worry over “misuse.” What would it mean to “misuse” a digital collection? To interpret it badly? To use it to mock or criticize a culture? These are certainly possibilities, but they are “misuses” that must be allowed for educational and intellectual purposes. If someone interprets something wrongly, they should be refuted, not prevented. This is the essence of democratic debate and education. The language here isn’t very clear, and doesn’t explain what appropriate use might be. That alone should be reason enough to require revision.
Democracy would also possibly conflict with the claims that indigenous peoples somehow control the meanings of objects in libraries. Democratic values protect, but don’t privilege minority groups. It also conflicts with the claims about misu
se. Democracy requires open inquiry and debate, that requires access to information and the freedom to debate it. These are core library values that we disregard at our peril.
Diversity is a contested term, but would probably be one of the most relevant values to support the parts of the document worthy of support. Because libraries have diverse collections in a diverse society, it’s important to make the effort to understand that diversity and to be sensitive to the needs and desires of diverse communities. This would lend support to the more reasonable and defensible claims in the document, such as, “Librarians have a responsibility to develop an understanding appreciation of the traditions and cultures associated with materials held in their collections.” Absolutely, they do.
The next two values–Education and Intellectual Freedom–are perhaps the most crucial to academic libraries, and the values that have the best claim to provide the foundations for libraries in the first place. If we consider these values absolute and universal, they undoubtedly trump some of the claims being made in the document about sacred knowledge or (potentially) restricted access. The modern research university is a product of the Enlightenment, for better or worse, and its values are that anything can be considered an object of investigation, and that in most circumstances the importance of the production and dissemination of knowledge takes precedent over other concerns. We study and investigate peoples, texts, objects, nature, etc. because knowledge is both good for its own sake and useful for the progress of society. Together with other Enlightenment values such as democracy, freedom of speech and publication, and toleration of dissent in a marketplace of ideas, these provide the rationale for the research universities and their libraries.
Here also is where possible difficulties lie. Some parts of this document are utterly incompatible with such values. In the discussion, the other librarian posed the problem as possibly one of colonialist versus indigenous people’s values. This is the cultural relativist perspective. But the Enlightenment perspective would pose it as a problem of universal versus local values. Who’s correct here? Your position on this will probably determine your position on some of the more mystical portions of the document.
The tempting position to defend is that the values of the indigenous peoples should take precedent because they were both the victims of aggression and the creators of the “expressions.” I’m tempted by this argument. However, one can be sensitive to the suffering of indigenous peoples without sacrificing universal values.
Think of what happens in other, more fraught contexts when universal Enlightenment values that underlie librarianship are considered merely the relative values of European colonialist oppressors. Do we consider it morally acceptable to stone homosexuals to death? To perform forced clitorectomies on women? To keep girls away from educational institutions and throw acid in the faces of little girls who dare go to school? To forcibly marry preteen girls to older men? These are all practices among some cultures. What should our position be on them? If all values are relative to particular cultures, and Enlightenment values of liberty, democracy, and racial and sexual equality are merely the local values of Western cultures, then we can’t criticize them. What librarians would be willing to stand up and defend such a position?
There are times when librarians must respond like General Sir Charles Napier
in India. ““You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.” You say it is your custom to venerate certain objects. It is our custom to study them.
But if we can’t defend such practices, or at least refrain from criticizing them, it’s because we believe that values such as liberty and equality are necessary and universal human values, and that humans who don’t believe this are wrong, and in extreme cases evil. Isaiah Berlin makes the rather existential argument in “Two Concepts of Liberty” that values pluralism, the belief that there are many ultimate but irreconcilable human values, is what makes the liberty to choose absolutely essential to the human condition. Liberty, equality, security, order–they are all ultimate and necessary for humans to thrive. Because there are many such values, we have to choose among them, and because this choice is essential to the human condition, then it cannot be justly restricted.
For librarians, this supports the value of intellectual freedom. Intellectual freedom isn’t an ultimate value because we like the sound of it. It’s an ultimate value because educating ourselves about options and choosing among them are a necessary part of being human. It is a universal value. If we believe it is a universal value, then we believe in universal human values. And if we believe that, then we also believe that local values that conflict with universal values must lose in competition. We don’t restrict access to materials based on cultural or religious grounds for the same reason we don’t believe homosexuals should be stoned to death. We make objects and texts from other cultures available for study because we think educating ourselves about everything–including other cultures–is important.
Let’s skip to social responsibility because the other values are less clearly relevant, and because I’ve gone on long enough. According to the “core values” statement, “The broad social responsibilities of the American Library Association are defined in terms of the contribution that librarianship can make in ameliorating or solving the critical problems of society; support for efforts to help inform and educate the people of the United States on these problems and to encourage them to examine the many views on and the facts regarding each problem; and the willingness of ALA to take a position on current critical issues with the relationship to libraries and library service set forth in the position statement.” [Note to ALA: that sentence could definitely use some editing.]
Supporting efforts to inform and educate Americans about critical problems would support all of the statements in the TCE document that want librarians to educate themselves and others about the “expressions” of indigenous peoples and those peoples themselves. But that education is concomitant with the fullest and freest access to the texts and objects the library possesses. We can do our best to present such objects in their most relevant context, but ultimately “misuse” or misinterpretation is beyond our control.To use the objects and texts to try to educate the public about what they really mean and about their relationship to indigenous cultures is part of the universal values of education and intellectual freedom as well as social responsibility. We do this because of our universal values, not because of our cultural relativism, which is the same reason we would digitize collections or make them available to library users.
This is also why we might return items. “Indigenous communities understand that some traditional cultural expressions are private or sacred knowledge and share this insight with libraries that may have these works in their collections. Libraries that hold private or sacred knowledge should consider returning those materials to the indigenous communities or
to institutions in which such restrictions are appropriate.” From the relativist perspective of the document, libraries would return sacred objects because they are sacred, but libraries don’t recognize the value of sanctity. An object or text is there to study. We may find it interesting and relevant that some groups consider this object or text sacred. The Bible is sacred to Christians and the Koran to Muslims. But from a more universal and academic perspective, that is but one fact about these texts. It doesn’t change the nature of the texts for the researcher; it only adds a relevant and important fact about their context. The same is true of objects from indigenous cultures. If I am from that culture, I might consider an object sacred. But I’m not. And even if I was, the values of education and intellectual freedom would still trump the supposed sanctity of objects.
Reasons to Support a Revised Document
At this point you might think I disagree with the general idea of the TCE document, but I don’t. What I disagree with are its reasons for making the claims that it does. The values of one group in a society don’t trump the universal values of education and intellectual freedom, nor do they trump library values of access or privacy. But the most important desiderata of the document can be defended in terms relevant to library values, even though that isn’t done in the document as written. Education and intellectual freedom and access means we make objects and texts as available as possible, but it also means we do all we can to understand these objects and texts and the people that produced them, and also do our best to pass that understanding on to library users.
Returning some collections is also completely justifiable, but from the universal perspective of justice, not the local perspective of sanctity. Justice trumps even education and intellectual freedom. The important question is, how did these collections come to exist? Were they stolen? Purchased? Traded for? Acquired as gifts? The prominent libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick based his philosophy of distributive justice on the principles of justice in acquisition and justice in transfer. In other words, if property was initially acquired justly (via the Lockean proviso that enough and as good is left for others), and transferred justly, then whoever owns it in the end is the just owner. If we find at the end of the line that ownership isn’t just, the principle of rectification requires us to reallocate resources in a just manner if possible.
Casual libertarianism is usually the political philosophy of people who can only hold one idea in their heads at a time (freedom!), but Nozick’s principles don’t support his libertarianism very well, because if we go back far enough, little was ever acquired justly. The history of acquisitions of property can probably be traced back to force or trickery or exploitation. He also supports a principle of restitution of property, if it can be shown that ownership didn’t follow the two principles of justice. Jeremy Waldron analyzes Nozick’s principles from this perspective in his essay “Superceding Historical Injustice.” Waldron argues that reparations for historical injustice have to consider changing circumstances and what would currently be just. For example, it wouldn’t be just to send all non-indigenous persons in the United States back to whatever part of the world they or their ancestors came from, even if that were possible, because that act in itself would cause tremendous amounts of suffering and injustice. However, this doesn’t preclude reparations for actions that were historically unjust, if such reparations don’t create injustice in the present.
Something like this might support the return of some objects. Libraries shoudn’t return objects or documents because they are sacred, but because they were acquired unjustly or transferred unjustly. Their sacredness as such is irrelevant to library values. Returning items or negotiating with cultural communities about their use are forms of reparation, and could only be justified within a library framework as works of justice. This argument smuggles in a plethora of problems regarding the relationships between indigenous peoples and colonists, but it helps us make more sense of some of these statements from within the value structure of librarians, rather than from an external and incompatible set of values. If libraries were to return objects or restrict access, it’s not because the objects are sacred or because they’re “expressions” of a culture. That could be said of many objects and texts and carries no special weight for librarians. Instead, it would be because the objects or texts were acquired or transferred unjustly at some point, and their return itself wouldn’t cause injustice in the present. Figuring this out for every collection would be difficult, if not impossible, but only this type of reasoning could be compatible with core library values. One group’s claims about sacred knowledge tells us what they believe, but gives librarians little cause for action.
However, there are probably cases where even a return of unjustly acquired objects might do an injustice to education and knowledge. Let’s say for the sake of argument there’s an absolutely unique collection of TCEs in an archive somewhere. I don’t mean unique like yet another Civil War diary is unique, but unique in a strong sense. There’s nothing quite like this, and it’s the only public available collection of objects from a community available for study. And let’s assume that if the objects were returned to their cultural community, they would be restricted so that only members of that community could see them. Even if the provenance wasn’t completely pure, there’s an argument for keeping them in the library, because restricting access to that extent would be impossible to reconcile with the values of education, intellectual freedom, and the public good. It’s a thorny area, but once librarians betray their values we could be on a slippery slope to other problems.
The majority of of claims in the TCE document are fully compatible with library values, but not for the reasons given in the document itself. A revised document, with more rigorous reasoning about how the core values of librarianship support the claims about education and context, and a revision of the claims not supported by those core values, specifically those on restriction of access, would be an appropriate document for ALA support.