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Navajo Nation Library Digital Preservation of Oral Histories
Navajo Nation Library Digital Preservation of Oral Histories

Navajo Nation Library Digital Preservation of Oral Histories

Who "owns" cultural property?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Two recent journal articles published by the Smithsonian Magazine and Library Journal brought a local library preservation issue to my attention: the digitization of thousands of hours of Diné oral histories, songs, and stories recorded in the 1960’s and later discovered stored in an empty jail cell. The Navajo Nation Library in Window Rock, Arizona, hopes to preserve the voices of Diné elders whose interviews from half a century ago survive on gradually decaying audio tapes.

This proposed project is exciting and important not only because digital preservation is the cutting edge of library and archives work, or because oral histories record information unpublished in print form, but because the oral tradition has historically been the preferred way to transmit knowledge in Diné culture. Although audio recordings are not part of that tradition and may in some ways be antithetical to the intent of oral transmission, I can’t help being glad that the information exists and may in the future be accessible to some library users. If the Navajo Nation Council becomes the main funder of the project, the Navajo Nation Library will maintain control over preservation and use of the tapes.

During most of my graduate studies in Library and Information Science, my courses emphasized the importance of freedom of and access to information. Only in one of my final courses, “Indigenous Systems of Knowledge” (an elective I took in the last quarter of my MLIS), did the issue of culturally appropriate information access arise—the idea that, in Burkhart’s words, there are “things we cannot or should not know.” The course instructor, Sandy Littletree (Eastern Shoshone/Diné), gently led me and my classmates into a deeper understanding of what it means to “own” cultural property, and how the concept of ownership both clashes and harmonizes with a belief that cultures should determine for themselves how they share their own creations or information.

As necessary as I think it is for the Navajo Nation Library to preserve these oral histories, as essential as I think such resources are for linguistic research and revitalization, and as much as I might want to listen to the songs and stories myself, I’m not advocating for non-Diné people like me to have unrestricted access to the collection. It’s hard to unlearn years of pursuing knowledge for its own sake because it’s interesting or available, but sometimes what we call cross-cultural knowledge seeking is really just curiosity. And there are things we cannot or should not know. When it comes to access to oral histories, in particular, the Boston College Belfast Project controversy provides a warning to archivists about the real-life dangers of making information freely available.

For those reasons, I’m comfortable with a kind of doublethink about oral histories in our own CSWS collection. Some of the recordings we have in the archives do not have signed release forms, so patrons are not allowed to access them. It may seem futile to keep recordings no one can listen to, but I’d rather we hold on to them, unheard, than either destroy them or cause unanticipated harm by making them accessible.

There are many different points of view on access to information. What’s yours? How much do you think your cultural background informs your opinion, and in what ways? 

Postscript, 1/31/17: The CSWS Archives Manager just brought this news to my attention: New Federal Rule Exempts Oral History From IRB Review. As of January 19, 2018, "the following activities are deemed not to be research: (1) Scholarly and journalistic activities (e.g., oral history, journalism, biography, literary criticism, legal research, and historical scholarship), including the collection and use of information that focus directly on the specific individuals about whom the information is collected." Do you think the previous IRB requirement was "chilling" to research, as the National Coalition for History argued, or do you think the requirement protected interviewees?


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