D-Lib Magazine
March 2002

Volume 8 Number 3

ISSN 1082-9873

We Come from around the World and Share Similar Visions


Maurita Peterson Holland
University of Michigan

Red Line



Digital technology offers enormous opportunity to encompass global information systems. Should digital library models be applied in venues that have little or no tradition of compiling and sharing knowledge? This article deals with this question by discussing three broad themes: 1) cultural instantiation in electronic media requires very careful thought about a wide range of issues, 2) indigenous community members and digital library builders can create rewarding partnerships, and 3) a new model for collective, caring plans from all stakeholders (indigenous communities, digital library researchers and builders, institutions of memory, funding agencies) will ensure that plans are responsive to the needs of indigenous groups.


Having digitized collections from museums, libraries and archives, digital library planners and builders are beginning to consider collaborations with other stakeholders to create an integrated virtual institution to capture, celebrate, and perpetuate cultural memory. The challenge to that vision is the rationalization of long-established rules of practice in physical institutions: varying levels of granularity of description, multiple languages, and special vocabularies. However, digitally blurring boundaries between different cultural institutions may weaken or confuse the physical territory of, and fiscal support to, venerable institutions. Nevertheless, as information technology becomes more powerful and widespread, increasingly sophisticated and broadly based projects will be planned, and one can envision a time when everyone, everywhere, will have access to digital instantiations of information and artifacts [1]. We can imagine a time when those digital instantiations beget new knowledge from within networked computers rather than within the human brain.

Over the past decade, capture and management of knowledge in electronic form has seemed a miracle. It has been the most widespread information creation and sharing the world has ever seen. However, this electronic content is shaped by only a small fraction of the world's population. Worldwide, many indigenous peoples are still without access to computers—or even without access to sources of electrical power. Some of the people have neither the ability nor the need to write. In fact, some cultures have no need for written language. More importantly, many indigenous people live within cultures that place little or no value on Western-created technology and its results. Is electronic intervention appropriate or desirable for such cultures?

How digital technology might provide appropriate venues and facilities for indigenous populations is a many faceted issue. Indigenous people express two concerns regarding "digital citizenship": their need to be equal partners or participants, and the very deep concern that they may find their culture compromised by techno-centric, non-indigenous giants. Successful initiatives must reflect the values of the people and must be developed and controlled by their culture's guiding principles.

This article focuses on three broad themes: 1) cultural instantiation in electronic media requires very careful thought about a wide range of issues, 2) indigenous community members and digital library builders can create rewarding partnerships, and 3) a new model for collective, caring plans from all stakeholders (indigenous communities, digital library researchers and builders, institutions of memory, funding agencies) will ensure that plans are responsive to the needs of indigenous groups.

Culture: handle with care!

Culture is generally described as a set of beliefs and codes, life styles, and activities that together create property, such as objects, music and performances. For example, storytelling, in a common language, may be central to cultural perpetuation of rituals, customs, myths and ceremonies. The use of the plants, animals, soils, and minerals found in the natural environment; the gathering and growing of food; architectural development; and appreciation of ruins and sacred places are all parts that make up a particular culture. Viewing this rich fabric, carefully and holistically integrated, suggests that compartmentalized databases and decontextualized data cannot suffice to provide cultural understanding or to properly celebrate a culture's depth and meaning.

Developed from a Euro-centric perspective and based on tools commonly used in many parts of the industrial nations, digital media and the Web embody the dominant western culture. They turn on continuous activity and rapid change, promote commercial development, result in struggles to set boundaries, and reward competition. The Web encourages individual participation and creativity even as it creates challenges to individual rights and privileges, privacy policies, and copyright. Its recognized constituents set limits and promulgate standards based on their own accumulated experience.

When considering applying digital technologies to indigenous cultural groups not part of the dominant digital culture, digital library researchers and builders should think carefully about the tools they have in hand. Raymond Dasmann provides some perspective:

"I have attempted to describe the differences between people who live in one place and are dependent on the local ecosystem for support and those who do not. If one is totally dependent, or largely so, on the animals and plants of a particular area, one must learn some reasonable balance….It follows that people who have lived for centuries or longer in the same places, without major sources of supply from the outside, must develop some working relationship with the species surrounding them. I have called these people ecosystem people, because they occupy one, or a few, local ecosystems" [2].

Gary Paul Nabhan [3] considered Dasmann's thoughts and developed the phrase "cultures of habitat." The inextricable interplay of the environment with humans in shaping behavior and culture, once the province of anthropologist, ecologists and psychologists, now engages the attention of digital library researchers and architects as they build new digital environments. As these digital library researchers and architects consider extending their scope, they may face challenges to building models or lenses through which a culture may be viewed or interpreted. For example, they might find they need to provide access through geographic, rather than geopolitical, region, or provide access via themes (e.g., children and play, respect for nature, health and disease), language (vernacular, translated), or non-text-based sites. Digital library researchers and architects may need to work toward establishing cultural, social, political, health, economic, seasonal and educational scales for sharing and celebration. They might also need to plan for critical issues such as protection of ownership, the level(s) upon which sharing is facilitated, and long-term concerns for sustainability and migration as digital technologies evolve.

An example of a successful collaboration between digital library architects and cultural leaders in the creation of a digital library for indigenous people is provided in the next section.

A Rewarding Partnership

In 1999, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) obtained funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to work with the Alliance for Community Technology [4] to develop a digital library based on the technology of the Internet Public Library (IPL) [5]. In voting to take on this project, the AIHEC leaders stated that

"the purpose of a virtual (a.k.a. digital) library is to select, collect, organize, and manage electronic resources (or links to electronic resources) relevant to the needs of its users, in order to assure easy and consistent access. The resources in a digital library vary in their format: from text, to images, to audio and video clips, to multimedia presentations, to executable files (programs), and come from a variety of sources: commercial content producers (e.g. database and journal publishers), freely available materials in public domain (e.g. government documents, census data), and original content created exclusively for the digital library (e.g. cultural artifacts in digital form)" [6].

The resulting prototype digital library permits ports for participating AIHEC colleges and universities and supports consortial negotiation for resources; the initiative also provides training for librarians and webmasters on AIHEC campuses under the direction of an AIHEC-supported digital library director.

The AIHEC Virtual Library [7] includes:

  1. Subject classification: Tribal librarians and staff worked with IPL staff to develop appropriate subject classification to enable searching by tribe or geopolitical region. (For example, see a search of Ottawa [8] or Treaty [9] to view linked records.)
  1. Expanded search: In "Browse" and "Search" listings, [Full Record] links provide access to all tribes, subjects and geopolitical sections, thus facilitating further information gathering.
  1. Individual campus versions: Each AIHEC school may want to develop its own version of the Virtual Library. Therefore, campus-specific versions are also available (such as this one from Fort Peck College [10]).

The AIHEC Virtual Library is a collaborative project built on IPL software. Staff of the IPL and AIHEC libraries together devised browsing taxonomies and collection development policies and procedures. The subject taxonomy and collections support the curricula at the tribal colleges and also provide access to information to, for, and about Native Americans. University of Michigan class projects and workshops [11] developed the initial content of the AIHEC Virtual Library. The Cultural Heritage Preservation Institute [12] included a class project at Little Big Horn College searching for titles in the Library's reference collection to provide comparable or related web-based resources.

The AIHEC Virtual Library is a growing digital environment administered and staffed by AIHEC librarians. As AIHEC realizes its vision, it is building a powerful information tool to support the educational programs of its schools and assure every student access to shared knowledge resources.

Sitting down together

The Digital Collectives in Indigenous Cultures and Communities Meeting in Hilo, Hawaii on August 10-12, 2001 [13] brought together cultural leaders, digital library researchers and builders, and representatives from institutions of cultural memory and funding agencies, to explore themes of cultural preservation and sharing, technology barriers and opportunities, and appropriate roles for collaborators [14].

During the meeting, attendees affirmed that indigenous people must think about their own future, make their values explicit, and act within that framework. Attendees discussed technology as a bridge between elders and youth, and emphasized that the communication between old and young about what to put into electronic form may be much more important than the resulting "digitally frozen" content.

All participants acknowledged the rapid pace of technological development and how, all too often, the development seems without regard to purpose or content. Indigenous communities expressed concern that their cultural information may be misappropriated and marketed as a commodity.

In developing visions of the application of information technology to their own communities, cultural leaders learned that no matter which part of the world they came from, their hopes and expectations were remarkably similar to those of other cultures. This realization led to consideration of the indigenous peoples in areas of the world who are overlooked in externally generated funding programs and who have no internal funding programs available.

It was noted that barriers to cultural community participation in digital library development may include: lack of technology and the skills to use it, inadequate communication systems and connectivity, insufficient funding, externally imposed projects that do not match needs, unavailability of native language textual fonts, and unproductive stakeholder alliances.

Stakeholders need to be very mindful of the fragility and tenuousness of collaborative relationships. Successful collaborations take time. Attendees discussed the need for neutral intermediaries and for clear statements of the individual and mutual stakeholder benefits. Responsible stakeholders must also consider issues of scalability, job creation, and the empowerment of sustained development and participation.

Attendees concluded:

  • funding agencies and researchers must invite indigenous people as equal partners when they consider new initiatives;
  • indigenous peoples have expertise and interests they want to share with each other; and
  • funding, so often provided from U.S. sources, must extend beyond the boundaries of the U.S.

A final consideration

Digital instantiations of artifacts, virtual re-creations, powerful communication tools, and gigantic knowledge stores may be keys to imbedding culture in digital libraries. Is it possible that virtual spaces can sustain links to past cultures as well as provide a means of sharing cultural knowledge in the present? Or will these virtual spaces generate digital forms that have no physical basis and very short persistence? Can the Web change culture? Observing young people as they develop skills in online multi-tasking, simultaneously maintain several chat lines--some anonymous, some with assumed persona--play online games, and do their homework using computers, it can be seen that a new form of culture is already evolving, as their clipped spelling, attenuated grammar, and virtual avatar identities demonstrate. As technology helps these young people leap geographic and geopolitical boundaries, it may reduce or compress culture to fewer or entirely new groups.

Inevitably, technology will have an impact on indigenous cultures. This impact needs to be anticipated and carefully considered. On one point, digital library technologists and cultural leaders very much agree: when developing digital libraries for indigenous peoples, it is critically important to begin with an understanding of what the goals of such development are and with agreement about what the responsibilities of the stakeholders will be. Technologists can suggest what's technically possible, but they need to be sensitive to the culture and needs of the indigenous community. Cultural leaders need to make their needs and aspirations known to the technologists. The resulting digital library should be reflective of this mutual understanding and agreement. Then it can be said, as one of the Hilo meeting attendees concluded, "We come from around the world and share similar visions!"

Notes and References

1. For a model "digital collective" that encourages museums to consider the role of ethnic communities, incorporation of multi-generational voices, and local or tribal member input into exhibit and collection development, see Holland, Maurita P. and Kari R. Smith, "Broadening Access to Native American Collections via the Internet," Museums and the Web, March 1999: <>.

2. Dasmann, Raymond F. (1964) Wildlife biology. New York: Wiley.

3. Nabhan, Gary Paul. (1997) Cultures of habitat: on nature, culture and story. Washington, DC: Counterpoint.

4. Alliance for Community Technology: <>.

5. Internet Public Library: <>.

6. AIHEC Board of Directors, Fall 1999 meeting notes: <>.

7. AIHEC Virtual Library: <>.

8. AIHEC Virtual Library search: <>.

9. AIHEC Virtual Library search: <>.

10. Fort Peck Virtual Library: <>.

11. University of Michigan Workshop Classes: <>.

12. CHPI: <>.

13. Hilo meeting: <>.

14. The meeting website includes the Context and Agenda along with personal statements from each of the 35 participants who described their current work and responded to questions about their primary interests in attending the meeting, what they were seeking and wanted to hear about at the meeting, and the ideal outcomes of the meeting. Invitees included Native North Americans (including Alaskan, Hawaiian and Canadian Indians), Maori, Australian Aboriginals, Sami, Brazilian and African people. The meeting documentation includes a set of drawings by each participant and the wall charts and visuals developed during the course of the meeting. The meeting was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF-INT 9605202) and sponsored by AIHEC, The University of Michigan School of Information, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of the Native American. A publication documenting the meeting is available from the Office of Academic Outreach, 406 West Hall, School of Information, 406 West Hall, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1092; phone (734) 647-7650 <>.

Copyright 2002 Maurita Peterson Holland

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DOI: 10.1045/march2002-holland