Perhaps it is distance itself,
That causes our voices,
To be lost,
From the margins.
It seems we are invisible too,
Out here in the distance,
As we flicker at the margins,
- from “Margins” by John D. Berry, California, 2003
In a group breakout discussion on March 22nd, 2012, TLAM students talked about the possibilities in which tribal librarians and advocates can bring the voices of their communities forward. Traditional, mainstream Eurocentric cataloging systems, such as the Dewey Decimal System and Library of Congress, have long consigned indigenous knowledge to the margins. A classmate noted cultural bias in the typical shelving of Native American literature under the “History” section of local libraries. Top-down classification systems like the Dewey Decimal System perpetuate “ghetto-izing” Native cultures by relegating their existence to the past as Holly Tomren describes in “Classification, Bias and American Indian Materials.”
However, since the 1970s, tribal librarians and advocates have been creating innovative, community-centered and culturally appropriate systems to organize their resources.
To promote a Native classification scheme, TLAM students considered the following ideas proposed by researchers/librarians such as UW-Milwaukee Professor Hope A. Olsen and Brian Deer:
1. Organization versus Classification
According to Olson, the concept of organization is appropriate to indigenous classification because it “suggests an organic whole made up of connected parts” (Tomren 10). Traditional classification, on the other hand, emphasizes arrangement of information as individual entities.
2. Using Unbiased Subject Headings/Terms
Olson talks about the need for librarians to be aware and eliminate derogatory terms used by Library of Congress that further marginalize communities of color, women and the disabled.
3. Creating Knowledge Organization Reflecting Indigenous Worldview
Libraries need to understand that the Western worldview, which emphasizes hierarchy, linearity and individuality cannot be applied to the organization of non-Western knowledge. Native cultures, in particular, value relationships, holistic concepts and balance. In addition, indigenous cultures are diverse and should not be treated as a monolithic entity as they have been since the beginnings of American colonization. The Brian Deer Classification system is an example of a classification scheme that reflects a First Nation’s perspective and was developed in the 1970s.
Inspired by these ideas and those from David Weinberger’s book on cataloging in the Digital Age Everything is Miscellaneous, students also presented the following steps towards improving current cataloging protocols in various library settings:
- Consult with members of indigenous communities on creating appropriate knowledge organization systems.
- Encourage user/patron participation in creating subject terms and/or tag information (organized online) themselves.
By engaging in conversations about issues in tribal librarianship such as indigenous classification, students of TLAM are learning how to apply values of democracy, equality and cultural sensitivity not only in tribal libraries, but in all libraries. Discussions like these provide us with rich background knowledge that fosters our abilities to collaborate with tribal librarians and community organizations with a better understanding. Most importantly, we are gaining insights and new ideas to replace traditional, oppressive cataloging systems with ones that are inclusive, liberating and accessible to users of all backgrounds.
Readings on Indigenous Classification: