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Notions of Knowledge Sharing in Archival Access

Rose L. Chou

San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science




In the field of library and information science, the concept of open access to information is

treated as an underlying assumption. With the growing amount of archival materials being

digitized and made available online, it is important to examine some key issues relating to open

access – what it means, its relation to privacy, and its impact on cultural materials. This paper

examines open access in regards to Native American archival materials and argues that open

access is not always in the interest of the public good, nor is restriction of access always in

conflict with the values of information science. Knowledge sharing is complex and requires that

library and information science professionals critically examine different values and perspectives

of access.



Notions of Knowledge Sharing in Archival Access

In the field of library and information science, the concept of open access to information

is treated as an underlying assumption. Consequently, there is little discussion about what open

access really means – instead, discussion is focused on methods and best practices to increase

open access. Currently, the profession's emphasis is placed on the mass digitization of and

online access to library and archival collections. With the growing amount of materials being

available online, it is important to examine some key issues relating to the concept of open

access – what it means, its relation to the issue of privacy, and its impact on cultural materials.

Imagine searching the Internet for information about different cultural grieving and funerary

practices and finding photographs of human remains and excavation sites. In this age of

digitization, open access might not always be in the interest of the public good, and restricting

access to some materials is not in opposition to democracy and the ideal of freedom of

information. This paper explores issues of open access in the context of Native American

archival materials in the United States.

Literature Review

Literature on digitization, open access, privacy, cultural sensitivity, archival restrictions,

and Native American museum and archival materials was examined for this paper. Most sources

found focused mainly on one concept, such as digitization or privacy, with few sources linking

the issues comprehensively. On the topic of digitization, Lopatin (2006) provides a brief

literature review on library digitization projects. Gladney, Mintzer, Schiattarella, Bescos, and

Treu (1998) discuss a few digitization projects focused on primary source material, such as the

Vatican Library's manuscript digitization project and Yale University Beinecke Library's

photonegative digitization project. On the subject of open access to information, Valge and



Kibal (2007) discuss the history of archival access in Europe and analyze current restrictions on

access in European archives. Evans (2007) advocates for increasing online access to archives

and discusses ways archives can be more efficient in making their collections accessible. Most

relevant to this paper are the works of Kimberly Christen (2005, 2009), an anthropologist who

has written about how cultures practice different protocols in circulating and reproducing


The subject of privacy and archives has been written about extensively, mostly in regards

to personal information in public archives. Legal analysis of privacy is especially prevalent, but

this paper does not intend to provide legal arguments on this issue. Hodson (2006) writes about

privacy in regards to digital collections and provides a good overview of possible problems that

could arise when making archives public on the Internet. MacNeil (1992) examines various

ethical concerns when public archives may contain personal information. Of particular interest

to this paper is the idea of cultural privacy, which is discussed by Kukathas (2008) and Brown

(2003). The topic of cultural sensitivity in archives is closely related to privacy issues. Macri

and Sarmento (2010) describe ethical issues related to open access of materials in the J.P.

Harrington Database Project, which are comprised of transcripts that may contain culturally

sensitive information about stories, songs, and locations that are considered sacred by their

Native American communities. Henry (2004) discusses cultural sensitivity in regards to museum

professionals handling and caring for Native American materials. Guidelines for classifying

materials as culturally sensitive are provided and discussed in the “Protocols for Native

American Materials” (First Archivists Circle, 2007). Possible solutions for balancing different

notions of access in archives can be found in the “Protocols for Native American Materials”

(First Archivists Circle, 2007) and the example of the Plateau Peoples' Web Portal (2010).




A brief discussion on the background of library and archival digitization projects is

necessary to place this paper in context. Starting in the early 1990s, libraries began to digitize

fragile and unique items in their collections in order to preserve the materials and allow broader

access to them (Lopatin, 2006). These digitization projects were initially small in scope and in

support of an exhibit, class, or special event (Yakel, 2004, p. 102). Over time, libraries and

archives began to view digitization projects as assets instead of only objects (p. 103). With this

shift in perception, digitization projects evolved into digitization programs, requiring libraries to

adopt new strategies regarding the long-term maintenance, storage, preservation, and access of

these newly created digital materials (p. 104). In 2002, the Institute of Museum and Library

Services (IMLS) surveyed libraries and museums on their digitization efforts during the past

year. The IMLS survey results found that 25% of public libraries, 34% of academic libraries,

78% of state library administrative agencies, and 30% of museums were involved in digitization

activities (p. 5). As the number of digitization programs grows, libraries must create guidelines

for how to select and prioritize which materials are digitized and made accessible online.

Additionally, policies on access to digital materials must be made carefully with privacy and

cultural sensitivity concerns in mind.

Open Access

Library and information professionals largely operate under the assumption that open

access and freedom of information is always good. To comprehensively examine this value of

open access in the library and information science field, one can start by looking at the ethics of

the prominent professional associations. The American Library Association (ALA) Code of

Ethics (2008) states:



In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession

explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information.

We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present

and future generations. (para. 3)

Similarly, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Code of Ethics (2005) states:

Archivists strive to promote open and equitable access to their services and the records in

their care without discrimination or preferential treatment, and in accordance with legal

requirements, cultural sensitivities, and institutional policies… Archivists may place

restrictions on access for the protection of privacy or confidentiality of information in the

records. (Section VI, para. 1)

A notable difference in these ethical statements on access is that the SAA takes into account

factors such as cultural sensitivity and privacy while the ALA does not give the impression of

any exceptions when it comes to access. While professional ethics generally operate as

guidelines and not policies, it is important to note that these codes of ethics often serve as the

foundation and starting point for most library and information professionals.

Beyond the codes of ethics of the ALA and SAA, scholars also describe this point – that

the library and information professions view unrestricted, open access to information as a

fundamental belief. This value is justified on the grounds that freedom of information is the

foundation of democracy (Brown, 1998b, p. 18). Notably, this rationale is often based on the

idea of open access to specifically government documents in order to provide citizens with

knowledge and understanding of their government’s activities and decisions, with restrictions

only in place to protect personal privacy and national security (Brown, 1998b, p. 18; Valge &

Kibal, 2007, p. 193). I do not have a contention with this point. However, the value of open



access has largely been taken out of its government context to the degree that open access to any

and all information is perceived as a “fundamental human right and freedom, and a condition for

the free exchange of ideas in a democratic country” (Valge & Kibal, 2007, p. 193). When

discussing open access in this manner, it is often forgotten that open democracies do in fact place

restrictions on access to information, mostly due to age, and its citizenry generally supports these

restrictions. The purpose of these age restrictions is to protect and shield children from

potentially harmful imagery and concepts. For example, the Motion Picture Association of

America provides ratings based on movie content, and the Entertainment Software Rating Board

rates video games based on content as well.

The issue of open access must be examined closely, especially because of cultural

sensitivities and privacy concerns. Restricting access to certain information is not in opposition

to democracy but in actuality promotes certain individual and group rights. For example, the

First Amendment protects anonymous speech. It is necessary to highlight that this value of open

access is not shared by all cultures. Brown (1998b) describes that many indigenous peoples have

different positions on access to information:

The social fabric of native nations often consists of reciprocal spheres of knowledge, the

boundaries of which are zealously protected. Elders preserve information that they share

only with those who demonstrate required wisdom. Women and men have

understandings unique to their gender, fostering complementarity that helps to keep

spouses together in times of trouble…The uneven distribution of information thus

strengthens social bonds while insuring that powerful knowledge remains in the hands of

those who know how to control it. (p. 18)

Christen (2009) explains that the Warumungu community in Australia has different cultural



protocols for distributing, circulating, and reproducing cultural materials and knowledge (p. 4).

These cultural protocols determine how information is shared – they define who, when, and how

different types of information can be accessed and distributed (p. 4). For example, photographs

of locations might be restricted to viewers based on “age, gender, and one’s own ritual

knowledge and performance history within a group” (Christen, 2005, p. 316). Additionally, the

Warumungu’s cultural protocols on access are not permanent but constantly changing – levels of

access operate across a dynamic spectrum (Christen, 2009, p. 4).

Access to information should not be viewed in a limited perspective – as either/or, all or

nothing, open vs. closed. This narrow view disregards alternative modes of information sharing

and access that result from different cultural values on knowledge (Kelty et al., 2008, p. 564).

While at first glance, archivists may be conflicted by how Native American communities and

other Indigenous communities may restrict access to some types of information – based on

valuing knowledge as a privilege and not a right – “[t]hese views of information are not

irreconcilable, given that archives and libraries often contain restricted materials, classified

materials, secret materials, or materials that may not be accessed until some future date” (First

Archivists Circle, 2007, Section Striving for Balance in Content and Perspectives, para. 3). As

archivists and information professionals, we should not place judgment on different cultures,

defining them as good or bad depending on if we share their values of information sharing and

access. When developing information systems and policies, different cultural values should be

respected, though they should also be examined critically.


Privacy is a necessary topic to examine when discussing the issue of open access in

relation to digital materials. The concept of privacy, and especially the right to privacy, is



incredibly difficult to define. Any existing definitions are also subject to the framework of the

discipline that attempts to define its meaning – for example, law, political science, and sociology

probably all define privacy differently, in addition to having debates about its meaning within

their academic disciplines. Hodson (2006) writes, “we may not know precisely what constitutes

privacy, but we think we know about our own privacy, and we definitely feel we know if it has

been violated” (para. 1).

As a starting point, I will use a description by the legal scholar William Prosser of four

ways in which invasion of privacy occurs:

intrusion upon the individual’s seclusion or solitude, or into his or her

private affairs; public disclosure of embarrassing or private facts about the individual;

publicity that places the individual in a false light in the public eye; and, appropriation,

for another person’s advantage, of the individual’s name or likeness. (as cited in Hodson,

2006, para. 4).

The first two ways are especially applicable to records in archives and special collections.

As the Internet has become a central figure of our everyday lives, privacy is increasingly

becoming a concern. People are concerned about what personal information can be found just by

searching the Internet. With the increasing digital access to archival materials, this concern is

only amplified. No longer can individuals only be concerned with who can see information they

elect to provide on a social media website, they must also be concerned with information being

posted that they have no control over. Additionally, the Internet's power to reveal and share

information is unmatched – the speed at which information is disseminated online makes it

almost completely impossible to delete an item of information permanently.

While specific types of records must legally remain restricted, such as medical records,



attorney-client files, student education records, and personnel files, archivists deal with a variety

of other materials that contain similarly personal information yet fall outside legal regulation.

Archivists do not have any specific policies that they must adhere to when managing access to

archival items such as diaries, photographs, personal correspondence, and professional files –

they must rely on their institution's policies or create their own ethical guidelines if no

institutional ones are in place (Hodson, 2006, para. 19). Even the SAA Code of Ethics (2005)

for Archivists remains general, “Archivists protect the privacy rights of donors and individuals or

groups who are the subject of records” (Section VII, para. 1). Beginning archivists will have

little or no practical foundation for applying this ethical code. They will either follow the lead of

their predecessors, or those with initiative will take the opportunity to create new institutional

policies that reflect the dynamic world of digital information.

Institutions need to provide archivists with guidelines for protecting materials that contain

sensitive and personal information. As more archives and special collections receive the papers

of living or recently deceased individuals, archivists must carefully examine if materials should

be restricted for a certain amount of time. Archivists need guidance to determine if there should

be sealing periods, and if so, how long the periods should last. In this age of digitization,

archivists must also determine which materials will become digitized and openly accessible on

the Internet for anyone to see and share.

The concept of cultural privacy is another key point of this paper. Mainly, the question is

if cultural privacy should be respected and protected, especially in the context of archives. What

does cultural privacy mean? Kukathas (2008) states:

Just as it is important for individuals to be able to determine for themselves what they

will reveal and what they will keep concealed from the public, so is it important that



cultures be able to do so. This means not only that there should be limits on the extent to

which public authorities may intrude into the life of cultural communities but also that, as

members of society, we should uphold conventions of privacy. (p. 69)

Dignity is among the many reasons why privacy is important, and protecting the privacy of

cultural groups would be a great sign of respect for these communities – as well as a sign of

respect for the individuals who comprise the communities (pp. 73, 78). Though general, the

SAA Code of Ethics (2005) does state that the privacy rights of groups who are the subject of

records should be protected (Section VII, para. 1). Cultural groups, especially Native American

communities, are often the subject of archival materials.

Culturally Sensitive Materials

In order to respect and protect cultural privacy, one must understand the types of archival

material that can be considered culturally sensitive. From a Native American perspective,

examples of materials that could be culturally sensitive include images of human remains,

religious or sacred objects, ceremonies, funerals and burials, and sacred places (First Archivists

Circle, 2007, Section Culturally Sensitive Materials, para. 4). Other potentially culturally

sensitive materials are song recordings, oral histories, genealogical records, and maps of sacred

sites (para. 4). While records on births and deaths are largely considered public materials in

Western society, Native American communities might view and treat them as confidential

because parentage is a private, family issue (Brown, 2003, p. 32). In certain contexts, sacred

stories and songs can be viewed as spiritually and physically dangerous to those reading or

hearing the materials (Macri & Sarmento, 2001, p. 197). Public access to these types of

materials, which may be deemed specialized and privileged information, could be considered



A specific issue many archivists and museum specialists may face is not only access to

culturally sensitive materials but the caring and handling of Native American archival materials

in accordance to their tribal protocols. For example, objects may be considered living entities or

retain living spirits, which require feeding and human interaction to maintain the items' health

(Henry, 2004, p. 208). The question of maintaining the health of these types of objects only adds

to the complexity of managing archival collections with culturally sensitive materials (p. 208).

Another specific issue that may arise is if Native American archival materials should be

destroyed in order to follow Native American protocols. In the early twentieth century, the

anthropologist A. M. Tozzer drew sketches of Navajo dry paintings, which were eventually

acquired by Harvard University's Peabody Museum (Brown, 1998a, p. 193). The original

Navajo paintings that Tozzer based his drawings on are traditionally destroyed at the end of

healing rituals (p. 193). Additionally, only those individuals participating in a specific ceremony

are supposed to have knowledge of what happens during the ceremony – which could make the

Tozzer sketches a breach of cultural privacy (p. 193).

Though a difficult task, archivists must balance their profession's protocols in regards to

archival materials with the cultural protocols of the communities who are the subject of archival



When determining if archival materials should be restricted to researchers in any way,

archivists must ask a variety of questions. Not only must archivists be mindful of privacy of

those who are the subject of records, they must balance the interests of different stakeholders

such as researchers and donors (Schwarz, 1992, p. 180). Archivists must also ask if restricting

the archival material would actually accomplish anything, especially if the material has already



been reproduced in other publications (Brown, 1998b, p. 19).

A responsibility of the archivist is to clearly explain to donors the consequences of

placing materials with them. Archivists should be clear about who will have access to the

materials, in addition to discussing what information in the materials could be used for. This is

especially important when the donor does not know very much about archives or may be unable

to understand the exact terms of their donation due to age or health (Fleckner, 1984, p. 8). At the

Lesbian Herstory Archives, when a donor is giving her poems, journals, letters, artwork, or other

personal material, she is asked to write the “accessibility proviso” herself (Schwarz, 1992, p.

187). This act provides the donor with control over how her information may be used by

researchers (p. 187). To aid this process, the archivist will ask the donor questions in order to

give her a comprehensive idea of the types of access given – can college students use the

materials to write papers, or will a journalist be allowed to cite and reprint the materials?

Because the archive is based on a sexual identity, it is also necessary for privacy reasons to ask if

the donor's name can be published in the archives' holdings (p. 187).

Additionally, if archival materials have already been accessible for a long period of time,

archivists must examine if restricting the materials now would make any difference. For

example, H. R. Voth was a missionary and ethnologist who studied and lived among the Hopi for

over 20 years (Brown, 1998b, p. 19). Voth's photographs and fieldnotes provide very specific

details on Hopi rituals, and the Hopi community largely disapproves how information on their

rituals and ceremonies has been shared publicly (p. 19). Over half a century later, if archivists

today chose to restrict the original materials created by Voth, what difference would be made if

the photographs and fieldnotes have already been reproduced in a number of books and articles?

While details of Hopi rituals have already been shared and published, restricting Voth's archival



materials would still serve as a sign of respect for the Hopi community.

Placing restrictions on archival material is a complex decision process, and archivists

must be cautious to not first make material public, as it is impossible to remove knowledge once

it is out in the public realm. One can only imagine the immediate irreparable consequences that

would occur if culturally sensitive archival materials were publicly accessible on the Internet.

Once the information is downloaded onto another computer, there is no way to ensure the

permanent removal of the materials.

Reconciling Different Notions of Knowledge Sharing

There are examples and guidelines in place to help archivists reconcile different ideas of

information access. The “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials” were created

specifically to help non-tribal institutions that house Native American archival materials respect

Native American knowledge sharing practices while also remaining true to the values of the

archival profession. As discussed earlier in this paper, these values are not necessarily in

conflict. Archives should aim to build mutually respective relationships with Native American

communities through meaningful consultation and dialogue (First Archivists Circle, 2007,

Section Building Relationships of Mutual Respect, para. 2). Additionally, in order to develop

comprehensive collections that include all perspectives on Native American issues, archives and

libraries should make concerted efforts to collect materials that are created by, and not just about,

Native Americans (Section Striving for Balance in Content and Perspectives, para. 3). In regards

to access, archivists should actively consult Native American community representatives in

reviewing collections to determine if any materials are particularly culturally sensitive (Section

Accessibility and Use, para. 2).

Another good resource for archivists to look at is the Smithsonian Institution's National



Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). A priority of the museum is to create long-term

relationships with Native American communities, and NMAI allows Native constituents

unfettered access to its collections (Henry, 2004, p. 106). Additionally, Native American

community representatives are invited to review the museum's collections when developing

exhibits and public programs and are consulted regarding the conservation of Native objects (pp.

106-107). NMAI's philosophy is that the museum staff are stewards of the collections, not the

owners, and authority over the collections is shared with the Native American community (p.

107). This joint stewardship approach is not based on the concept of rights and rules, but

compromise (Brown, 1998a, p. 205).

A specific example of an archivist attempting to balance professional ethics with tribal

values can be found in Brown's (2003) Who Owns Native Culture?. A university's archives

received a gift of interview tapes and correspondence by an anthropologist and his Native

American collaborator, who together studied a regional Native American tribe (p. 229). The

tribe's officials requested that the public would not have access to the materials because the

collection contained religious knowledge that some Native members did not want shared (p.

229). Additionally, the tribal officials wanted the ability to review the materials and decide who

could be given access to them (p. 229). Allowing this request would have potentially conflicted

with ethics of the archivist's professional organization, which states that all patrons should be

treated equally, in addition to federal and state laws that prohibit discrimination based on

religion, gender, or ethnicity (p. 230). On the other hand, the university archives are responsible

to the public, and members of the tribe are citizens of the state where the archives is located and

some tribal members are students and staff at the university (p. 230). To balance the interests of

the archives and the tribal community, the university has considered creating a joint board to set



rules for the collection's use (p. 230). An example of a proposed compromise is allowing

researchers to listen to the collection's recordings but not allowing them to quote the content in

print (p. 230).

The Plateau Peoples' Web Portal is an innovative example of a library's special

collections working together with Native American communities. The portal is a web-based

database that allows the Plateau Tribes of the Umatilla, Coeur d'Alene and Yakama nations to

curate their cultural materials that are held in Washington State University's special collections

and anthropology museum (Plateau Peoples' Web Portal, 2010, para. 1). In libraries, archives,

and museums, staff members generally create catalog records based on the profession's standards

of metadata, which is structured information about information. This process of creating

metadata for catalog records often occurs without consulting the Native American communities

who are the subject, or original owners and creators, of these materials (para. 1). To challenge

this process, the Plateau Peoples' Web Portal has created a new framework for describing,

curating, distributing, and reproducing cultural materials of Native communities (para. 1). For

the portal, tribal consultants chose which materials would be digitized, created their own

keywords and categories for the materials, and provided oral and/or written narrative for the

materials (para. 2). The website further describes this project:

Each piece of content has the pre-existing catalogue record information side by side tribal

knowledge generated by the tribes. In addition, users to the portal—students, researchers

and tribal members can add comments and tags to the materials. This layering of

narratives provides a rich and complex foundation for the exploration of Plateau peoples'

histories. (para. 2)

The tribes have administrative access to the database, which provides them with control, at any



time, over the representation of their materials (para. 3). Additionally, members of the tribe can

add their own information to the database's records to create more comprehensive content. The

portal aims “to create a space to open dialogue and allow many perspectives to sit side by side.

Instead of 'finding' information, the portal seeks to be a space where knowledge is created in

constant conversation” (para. 4).


Access to information does not operate on an either/or basis, as there are many different

cultural notions of knowledge sharing. Similarly, the value of unfettered open access is not

always in the interest of the public good, nor is restriction of access always in conflict with the

ethics of information science professions. Arguments for open access to information usually

state that open access is the foundation of democracy, yet how does knowledge of people's

private lives or cultural rituals promote democracy? Or rather, how does not knowing the details

of people's personal lives or a tribe's burial practices damage democracy? The importance of

open access to information originated in the context of government activity, not cultural groups,

and even in the context of government, there are numerous justifications for keeping information

confidential. Additionally, restriction to some archival materials does not inherently violate any

professional ethical codes, as many archives already have restrictions in place when it comes to

personal information. Access is not a simple issue, and it should not be treated as such –

especially with the increasing amount of digitized materials. Knowledge sharing is complex and

requires that archivists, librarians, and other information science professionals critically examine

different values and perspectives of access.




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