The Cost of Collaboration, a meditation on librarian allies

According to Marina La Salle and Richard Hutchings (2018), collaboration is “colonial whitewash” that is “ultimately rooted in cooptation and dependence” that does little to actually “decolonize” the structures of power (p. 1). For them, when “collaboration is seen as the means and the end,” it ultimately results in “less power to Indigenous communities” (p. 12). Their arguments are persuasive, particularly if we are to assume that these digital projects are about the collaborative process and not the final product. It raises the question: Whose interests are being served?

Nicole Strathman

During this week’s reading, I was struck by Strathman’s (2019) article Digitizing Ancestors. Digitizing Ancestors examined five collaborative projects with indigenous communities (four resulting in functional databases and one whose funding ran out before the database came into fruition). Since these databases were constructed as part of Masters theses and PhD dissertations, they weren’t built to be sustained. Rather, they were just a jumping off point for these researcher’s careers. Strathman states, “the creation of a digital heritage program was part of their dissertation, and, like all good scholars, they would take the lessons learned, build on them, and move on to other projects.” I was personally taken aback at how casually Strathman states that the students involved in these projects just disregarded them. While this is an honest statement, I object to the descriptive of “good scholars.” The sacred cultural heritage of indigenous communities should not be left with stewards who aren’t committed to ensuring its survival, especially in an environment where digital preservation is tenacious at best.

Moreover, Strathman’s (2019) article left me questioning the ability and intention of allies. Throughout the years, I’ve found myself asking if those who do not belong to a marginalized community can genuinely be allies. Often, the actions of those who label themselves as allies do not match their intentions and mission statements. In the article, we see multiple graduate student researchers (Christen, Srinivasan, Shorter, Verran, Christie, Ridington, & Hennessy) take action to create or envision systems of organizing information that are better suited to indigenous cultures. These projects were done in collaboration with and with the permission of the indigenous communities. The problem with this situation is that the researchers were not personally connected and thereby committed to these projects. Once the funding ran out, and their degrees were completed, the databases were left untended. The technology, flash, became hackable and thus fell into disuse. With no researchers to update the database, they became less interactive (videos became stills) and, for some, completely unusable (Strathman, 2019). Call me optimistic, but it is difficult for me to imagine that an own-voices researcher would let the database fall into disrepair. This isn’t to say that I believe that the burden of fixing the system should be on indigenous and other marginal groups, but rather that those who are aware of the given issues and who are part of the dominant group should give communities the resources, platforms, and spaces back. Giving indigenous communities these databases, but not leaving with the tools to manage them, is an empty gesture. In class, we talked about how fragile digital repositories can be (Barone, Zeitlyn, Majer-Schönberger, 2015). What happens when communities lose entire collections to poor database management?

My opinions are compounded by the fact that I fall in the camp of intent doesn’t matter, if your actions are resulting in harm or contributing to continued marginalization. So what should librarians do? We all have biases that impact our ability to serve, and accurately perceive marginalized communities. Notably, white librarians like myself state that we want to improve conditions that our ancestors have created and society continues to uphold, but what actions are we willing to take to balance the scales? What privileges and power are we willing to part with? Are we honest with others and ourselves? Even for communities that I am a part of, I know I have internalized biases and -isms that impact the way I navigate my world.

I believe that Christie’s (2015) more recent work is a small step in the right direction as there more of an emphasis on indigenous youth being taught to manage the databases. Christie has also worked with lawyers to address the use of stolen objects, songs, and dances through the use of TK codes. In spite of her efforts, TK codes can not override the pre-existing property laws. Is that sufficient? What is sufficiency in light of what is owed? I believe that we should be teaching the youth of communities how to access and manage information, facilitating the acquisition of grants, teaching community members how to write grant proposals to fund database projects, and providing legal and financial support. In doing this, the actions of librarians like those in the “Digitizing Ancestors” article would read less like performative activism and, in the context of the funding climate in 2010, a grab for easy grant money.

References

Barone, F., Zeitlyn, D., & Mayer-Schönberger, V. (2015). Learning from failure: The case of the disappearing Web site. First Monday, 20(5). Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v20i5.5852.

Christen, Kimberly. (2015). Tribal Archives, Traditional Knowledge, and Local Contexts: Why the “s” Matters,” Journal of Western Archives, 6(1). Retrieved from: https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/westernarchives/vol6/iss1/

Strathman, N. (2019). Digitizing the Ancestors: Issues in Indigenous Digital Heritage Projects. International Journal of Communication, 13:3731-3738. Retrieved from: https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/8018/2748

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