Thursday, 9 June 2011

Open Access vs. Cultural Protocols: Indigenous Knowledge Management

I think I can speak for most librarians and information professionals in saying that we like open access. By open access, I mean having research (in the form of archives and repositories as well as academic research) available online, at no-cost and with limited copyright restrictions. More often than not, this sort of research is done in collaboration with universities or academic institutions (such as journal articles done by professors and researchers) or in collaboration with cultural institutions (such as online archives provided by libraries and museums); therefore, it makes sense in academia to make it available to as many people as possible at no cost.
For a quick overview of open access principles, see Open Access Overview by Peter Suber, a Berkman Fellow at Harvard University.
For librarians and information professionals, open access is a no-brainer: we WANT to make knowledge—especially if held by public universities, libraries and museums—available to more people at no cost. While it would be great for every university to have a digital repository for research and writing conducted at their institution freely available or to have every museum and special collection digitise their holdings and provide online access, there are many examples of when this is not only impossible (perhaps due to copyright restrictions or ownership) but also not culturally ethical (especially when it comes to indigenous knowledge and cultural items).

While not every librarian and information professional will agree with me, I feel it is necessary to question the assumption that making information “open to the public” is a general public good, especially if it violates the cultural ethics of the indigenous community to which the information relates. For example, American and Australian anthropologists documented the lives of various Native American and Aboriginal & Torres Straight Islander communities since European contact—both with and without permission or complete disclosure. That information—stored as documents, photographs, physical objects, video and audio recordings—eventually made its way into archives, special collections and museums. Many of these cultural institutions are planning, or have already realised, digitisation projects with the goal of providing open access to their collections. However, making this information “open to the public” without input from the traditional communities violates library and information professional ethics. Thankfully, many policies have been authorised to minimise the electronic dissemination of indigenous cultural information that would go against cultural protocols.

Dr Kimberly Christen (assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University), questions this assumption that making information “open to the public” is a general public good, especially regarding indigenous information. And she does a much better job than I ever could. I highly recommend watching the first 20 minutes.

So, my stance is that open access is great—librarians and informational professionals should constantly push for and find ways to create more access for more people for a lower cost. However, not all information should be open access—even if that information “belongs” to a public cultural institution—especially if open access would violate the cultural protocols of the community to which the information “traditionally belongs.”

On the flip side, what about indigenous communities that DO want a repository for their cultural knowledge? Or indigenous communities that DO want to provide open access to some of their photographs, documents, and recordings detailing their communities? I HIGHLY recommend every librarian and information professional who works with indigenous communities or materials to take a look at the Mukurtu project, directed by Dr Christen. While the pilot project began with creating an archive/repository for the Warumungu Aboriginal community in Northern Territory , it was also used to develop a gateway to the cultural materials of the Plateau peoples held at Washington State University 

Mukurtu is a free, open source community archive platform designed with the unique needs of indigenous communities, libraries, archives, and museums in mind. Basically, it is a FREE full-package content management system that is geared towards indigenous communities by allowing communities to control access based on cultural protocols.

Mukurtu is different from off-the-shelf or open source content management systems in 2 main ways:

1) It allows different levels of access to multiple types of content based on indigenous protocols.
This means that a member of a tribal group would have a different level of access than a non-member. It also means that age, gender, kinship and group associations that are important in cultural protocols can be maintained online.

2) It allows inclusive metadata fields.
This means that additional metadata—such as traditional knowledge—can be added to standard institutional metadata such as MARC. It provides user-friendly administration tools so that metadata can be added by community members as well as information professionals.

Check out their most recent press release for more info.

Although I have come across several articles on indigenous knowledge management systems, Mukurtu is a unique system that is specifically designed for indigenous communities that doesn’t require an information professional background and is FREE!

-Jeff Cruz

Jeff Cruz recently moved to Sydney and was formerly an Instructional Services Librarian at the University of Arizona (USA) and a Knowledge River Scholar in Latino and Native American Library and Information Issues at the UA School of Information Resources and Library Science.


  1. Fascinating and well written article. Its something that should be so obvious but not an issue I had actively thought about in the past.

  2. I always wonder, when I hear about research done about indigenous cultures, what rights the cultures have to their own information. Who ultimately has the right to say, 'yes this can go public' or 'no'? I'm with you Jeff, open access allows for more collaboration and better understanding, and I also agree that we need to tread lightly and respectfully.

    So much to think about, great post!

  3. Jeff this is fantastic, thank you so much - my pick of ALL blog posts across #blogjune so far! Relevant to my job and important as underlying knowledge for all of us as LIS professionals. So much to consider.