Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Traditional Cultural Expression

One of the topics which is likely to hit ALA Council this session, is a resolution on Traditional Cultural Expression.

I was very confused about what happened at ALA Midwinter with was proposed and then withdrawn, and at the time, given very little time to read and reflect, I was admittedly confused by the content, and therefore happy to have it taken off the agenda. That document is here (as CD#20.4, you will have scroll down).

Since then I have learned more.

Here is the document which engendered discussion, but note that it is not a resolution, but merely a statement. There is a web site, but it does not seem to have much newer than that to which I linked here.

Let's start with the definition of "Traditional Cultural Expressions" which is included in the document. In a footnote, the document explains the term.
For the purposes of this document, traditional cultural expressions are defined as, but not limited to, narratives, poetry, music, art, designs, names, signs, symbols, performances, architectural forms, handicrafts.
Wayne Bivens-Tatum, a librarian at Princeton, has written a long (almost 3,500 words) and thoughtful post which lays out many of the issues.

He starts by noting: "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." And like him, I agree with this in principle.

He has a section on philosophical objections which include his analysis of the language (which helped me understand). It ties the "cultural expressions" tightly to the creator or expressor. I think that is where I also begin to have problems.

I can't summarize or do justice to his long section on librarian objections. However, at one point he says:

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.
In his section with reasons to support a revised document, he has this cogent paragraph:

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.
Now, I would have gone even further and said, that if the "expression" had been legitimately (i.e. justly) obtained, then the control of it remains with the owning institution (library). It is part of why I support the return of skeletons, mummies, and the like which were pilfered from graves during the 19th and 20th centuries in the name of science and history.

My friend Melora Ranney Norman talks about TCEs with an "intellectual freedom" slant in her new-ish blog librarygist.

Her post is in a question and answer format. She is very up front about her issue in her second question:

Does it create a First Amendment/Library Bill of Rights conflict to officialize a document asserting that libraries should participate in the restriction of content when a cultural or religious group asks us to, whether by actually restricting the content in-house, or by returning it to the group so that they may do so themselves?
It was in reading this question back in early May that fixed the issue in my head...well, at least for now. If Melora's reading of the document (and I think mine, too) is that adopting the statement on TCE, ALA is suggesting that a group can control the distribution of something (folklore, stories, etc.) after it has left them, then we are allowing an outside "agency" to censor what we do. She uses an example of a group which believes that anatomically correct illustrations are abhorent, and therefore, all such depictions should be returned to them. She further cites the controversy of a couple years ago where a Danish cartoonist drew an image of Mohammed.

I have been going back to this over the past month, and still am both confused, and concerned that Melora is correct. If so, I am opposed to adopting the current version of the statement.

"We" have been promised that a task force, appointed by the ALA President will meet, listen, work on the document, and have public meetings at ALA Annual before anything comes back to Council. I hope that they can create a document which is both clear and inclusive, and that it avoids the pitfalls which Melora has identified.

At this point, what I long for is someone like Walt Crawford to gather any other relevant posts, digest them all, and offer his opinion from his perspective, which he refers to as "the radical middle." After all, this is what he often does in Walt at Random, and does incredibly well in Cites and Insights.


  1. I'm afraid you'll have to hope for someone else to do this. It's a complex issue and one where I don't even feel qualified to gather up the commentaries, much less integrate them and add my own. You need Serious Librarians (and serious people from the cultures involved) on this one...

  2. Thanks Walt. I am sorry that you will not be doing it, but understand. This was also a serious compliment to you and the work you do with Cites and Insights, with this comment more on the latter than on the former.

  3. For which I am grateful. The next C&I, out probably by 6/12, *will* have a Zeitgeist piece--on Facebook. And I honestly wish I felt qualified to do the piece you suggest...