Digital Preservation, Ethical Care, and the Tribal Stewardship Cohort Program: An NDSA interview with Kimberly Christen
This interview comes to us from Jefferson Bailey & Maria Praetzellis, Internet Archive & NDSA Innovation Working Group.
We are very excited to talk with Kimberly Christen, Associate Professor and Director, Digital Technology and Culture Program, Director of Digital Projects, Native American Programs, and Co-Director, Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation at Washington State University. Kim speaks on behalf of the Tribal Stewardship Cohort Program, which was awarded an Innovation Award from the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA) in 2016 and is recognized for its work in providing long-term educational opportunities in digital heritage management and preservation as well as its dedication to culturally responsive and ethically-minded practices. You can find all of our interviews with the NDSA Innovation Award winners here.
Tell us about how the Tribal Stewardship Cohort Program (TSCP) came about? What prior work or experiences informed the conceptualization and development of the program?
The TSCP was a direct result of two other projects I lead at WSU’s Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation: the Sustainable Heritage Network (SHN) and Mukurtu CMS. It was from these projects that we saw the need for a longer-term, tribally-specific set of educational resources and initiatives around training. While Mukurtu CMS provides a culturally responsive and ethically-minded platform for providing access to digital cultural heritage and the SHN provides both online and face-to-face instruction in the lifecycle of digital stewardship, what was missing was a program that could meet the needs of tribal communities to provide training to their staff that fell between a standard MILS program and a short-term workshop. The SHN taught us that hands on workshops were crucial not just for training, but importantly, for creating networks between tribes. Because so many of the issues tribal librarians, archivists and museum professionals face are unique to the history of collecting of Native materials and to tribal laws and policies, the participants in our SHN and Mukurtu workshops made invaluable connections to each other and learned from their shared challenges, opportunities and experiences.
For readers that may not know, tell us the ways in which tribal stewardship is unique and how this program organizes or frames its work to address these specific issues?
This Tribal Stewardship Cohort Program fills a crucial need articulated both by tribal museum specialists, archivists and librarians and the funding institutions that they seek to collaborate with to support their vital digitization and preservation work. One of the greatest needs of the TALM community is continuing education and training for their current staff. It is not uncommon for tribal archivists and librarians to not have formal training in their fields and or be asked to fulfill several roles at their institutions. While post-secondary education to Tribal members through Master’s degree programs has increased, the literature shows that distance to programs, family obligations, cultural needs and financial difficulties are obstacles to local tribal members. There is a crucial need to train existing staff with short courses, hands-on and tuition free educational opportunities. The ATALM report Sustaining Indigenous Cultures found that, “According to the survey data, the best ways to train current staff are through local, state, and regional programs that are topic- specific and use hands-on or how-to teaching methods.” Next to hands-on training, the most effective method for local TALMs are “Brief distance learning programs like webinars or short web-based modular courses.” Combining these hands-on and web-based educational opportunities with a core emphasis on tribal content and cultural digitization needs, the Tribal Stewardship Cohort Program aims to train local TALM staff to work in their communities with their collections to meet their specific community defined needs.
What lessons have you learned thus far in terms of working with tribal communities and culturally sensitive materials? Any insights that might apply to working within other communities or with other types of special collections?
The biggest lesson is to recognize that the lens or filter we may bring to a set of materials is always partial and situated. Even when we think that a collection is not culturally sensitive, it may be that we don’t have the right point of view. For example, we had a set of lantern slides from a Native boarding school in our Special Collections. Many of these slides were images of buildings with no people in them. On first glance, our collections manager thought there would be no issue with putting them online—without individuals in the images it seemed privacy concerns would not be an issue and because there were no cultural materials, artifacts, etc., the assumption was that these were “harmless.” However, our protocol and workflow for all materials digitized and made available online through the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal, means that all materials are vetted by our tribal representatives on the project. In this case, many of those slides brought back painful memories of places that were filled with physical and cultural violence. It was only over a year of consultation with tribal members across several Native nations in the region that we digitized the materials and made them available after community curation so that tribal members stories could be told. In another instance, a community using Mukurtu CMS use the internal protocol function to define circulation of a similar set of disturbing materials to community members only while they worked through the community process of vetting, remembering, and re-narrating their histories through place.
The lesson, as I see it, is twofold. First, recognizing the limits of our own understandings of how events, places, people, and material culture can cause harm. Secondly, then is putting into place mechanisms to ensure that we reduce or limit the harm we do as archivists, librarians, or museum specialists when we make collections available. To do this, we need to provide guidelines at the institutional level that define collaborations, consultation practices, and digitization policies that meaningfully engage with source communities—whomever they may be. For many professionals this rubs up against perceived notions of professional standards to make information open and available. I have written about this on several occasions, it is enough to say here that these professional standards are built from very particular histories and points of view and they eschew the knowledge circulation practices and ethics of others. I suggest Special Collections, in particular, have guidelines for vetting and reviewing collections that include community consultation. Yes, this is sometimes hard. Yes, this sometimes takes a while. Yes, you may well make a misstep. However, taking this time and doing the outreach work will move institutions closer to honoring the views of all of our constituents, not just the ones whose names are listed on the donor forms.
Working with tribal collections is an honor, it ushers in responsibilities to communities who have often been marginalized in and by collecting institutions. First, we need to recognize the long history of colonial collecting and the perversions of Western law, specifically copyright law, but not only, that resulted in the collections we have at our institutions. Next, growing from this recognition we need to be willing to work government to government with the sovereign nations whose materials we have. A practical result of this could be a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with tribal nations in your regions or whose collections you maintain (we have example templates on the SHN site). An MOU starts a conversation and defines responsibilities and obligations to act in mutually beneficial ways. Thirdly, we need to act to implement ethical procedures in all aspects of or workflows from accessioning collections and creating metadata to digitizing and providing access. We need to recognize that open is only one form of access and it often repeats the original colonial violence of dispossession. Metadata is deeply political—who is in the author field, who is relegated to “notes” these are not trivial. I would suggest these are at the heart of reframing the colonial legacy of archives. Look at all stages of your institutional workflow and approach them with the questions of ethical care—does this erase other voices, does this assert ownership based on colonial legacies, does this relegate whole communities to “other.”? Fourth, at an institutional level create a space following from those MOUs for long term partnerships that include training, sharing ideas and collections, providing access in varied ways and making room for multiple voices in your collections records and reading rooms. Standard practices of white gloves, silence or hushed tones, denies the relationships with the materials on our shelves, and they often times unwittingly reinscribe the power relations and erasures that built many of our collections. Recognize that handling tribal belongings (not “objects”), singing, smudging, crying, laughing and joking may be part of a collections survey or documentation practice. Preservation may not mean the same thing to all parties, some material culture was never meant to be preserved. Don’t let preservation be the new paternalism.
Not many CMS tools have a founding story as interesting as that of Mukurtu. How do you think this early development shaped the type of tool it is today? What features does Mukurtu provide that is missing in other systems?
The early development of Mukurtu with the Warumungu Aboriginal community in Central Australia, shaped all of Mukurtu, including where we are today as an open source platform. Mukurtu started as and remains a grassroots project. We have taken that first set of development work as our guide and instituted what we call a “community software development” model. Combining the best of open source agile software development with the best of community participant engagement models, all the features and functions we add into the core Mukurtu CMS codebase is a direct result of community needs.
Core features that Mukurtu CMS has that aren’t in other content management systems include: cultural protocol based access at the item and collection level, sharing protocols at the media item level, expanded metadata that includes: traditional knowledge and cultural narratives, multiple records for items, roundtrip sharing import/export that allows sharing content and metadata with exclusions included (i.e. you may want to share all your metadata but the location), and embedded Traditional Knowledge Labels in additional to standard copyright and Creative Commons licensing options.
All of our workshops have a component for feedback and much of our daily work with communities using Mukurtu results in updates, new feature requests and “bug reports.” Our workflow for this has grown over the years as Mukurtu has developed and as we now look to creating our Mukurtu Hubs—regional centers for Mukurtu support and development—we will be expanding this even more with added communication channels for input. While GitHub works great for some instances, we have to be mindful of the limitations that seemingly “low barrier” technological platforms and tools offer. If we only depended on GitHub for the Mukurtu community of users to provide feedback we would miss a tremendous amount of invaluable feedback. In addition to this, our focus on community needs and use means that we create new features and functions that will work for a range of users and not impose new obstacles or barriers. This is a tightrope walk sometimes as we are dealing with a robust platform like Mukurtu CMS, but for us, the mission and philosophy of Mukurtu comes first: create a safe keeping place for communities (however defined) to provide ethical, stable and secure access to their digital cultural heritage materials. So, we don’t always fall on the side of academic, scholarly, or professional standards or needs. For example, one of our newest features, the Mukurtu Dictionary, resulted from two years of community feedback about the needs for language teaching, learning, preservation and revitalization. The dictionary has many functions that align with those needs (multiple audio files for one word, multiple translations for one word, linkages between words and multiple dialects in one site, etc). However, this is not a tool that a linguist might use for documenting a language. The feature grew out of direct community needs, then we had to address the range of stakeholders we serve (Indigenous communities globally) to create this first iteration (in beta now) and ensure that the functionality is as flexible as it can be while meeting the baseline needs of our core community.
The Tribal Stewardship Cohort Program is built upon a cohort-based educational model. What have you learned thus far in terms of new methods for archival education and partnership building? What role has ethics and collaboration played in this model?
The cohort model has been—hands down—the most significant learning experience for all of us involved, staff, instructors, and the participants. Our exit interviews from our first cohort group (2015-16) showed that the relationships formed with fellow cohort members, the time and space to share ideas and experiences and the chance to learn together in a non-competitive environment was invaluable to the group. Now halfway through our second cohort we see this even more. The biggest lesson is that providing time and space for co-learning and balancing policy with hands on learning provides a foundation for success. For us, we have also seen how collaboration between not just our participants, but between non-Native repositories and other institutions, like Universities, plays a crucial role in archival education—specifically when dealing with cultural heritage materials. We have a module in the program on “digital return”—getting digital materials back from repositories—and we start with how to craft an MOU with an institution who holds a Native communities’ materials, to lay the groundwork for a mutual relationship between Native and non-Native institutions. Over the last 15 years there has been a steady shift in the way non-Native institutions have thought about their collections, ownership, and the ethics of maintaining collections that have dubious histories. Although we discuss ethical issues throughout the whole program, this section brings home the necessity to create ways for non-Native institutions to be involved in the ethical return, curation and circulation of Native heritage. For me, it highlights the work those of us in non-Native institutions need to continue to work towards: relationship building, creating ethical workflows, providing pathways for meaningful and long-term collaborations, and ridding ourselves of the vestiges of colonial collecting practices.
What are new areas of development, research, or broader points of discussion within the TALM community that the larger professional community should be aware of?
Technological protocols like those that Mukurtu offers work hand in hand with other forms of non-technical, analog, relational protocols for handling, sharing, managing and preserving materials (whatever its format). In the TSCP we work at all layers of digital stewardships, from creating collections and digitization policies, to defining workflows and project plans to hands on digitization skills. The key insight I think is that the technological protocols have to be informed by the social and cultural protocols and then filtered up and down at every stage. Tribal and Indigenous institutions around the world have policies for collections handling, information sharing and documentation that can and should inform the broader conversations in the library and archives field.
The creation of standards that work from and maintain the situated and very particular nature of information is very exciting. Reimagining our own library and archival standards will be, I believe, the only way to truly decolonize our work. I think immediately of the Brian Deer Classification system, that provides a new way of thinking not just about a specific area of classification, but how we can work towards these regional and local systems and structures. The management and organization of knowledge using Indigenous systems of knowledge sharing and social networks has been underway for some time now and it is only starting to get the wider recognition it deserves. For a good start see the recent special issue of Cataloging and Classification: Indigenous Knowledge Organization.