Indigenous Librarianship: A Global Perspective


2002 Jean E. Coleman Library Outreach Lecture
By Lotsee Patterson


As one who had the privilege of knowing and working with Jean Coleman, it is a distinct pleasure to be asked to present lecture which honors her.  Jean was a woman with quiet dignity, always gentle, generous of spirit, ever persuasive, and resolute in her goal to ensure all people have access to quality library services. My first experience in observing how Jean could make things happen is that of some 30 years ago when Charles Townley, Virginia Mathews and I, the founders of the American Indian Library Association, sought her assistance in legitimizing the Association (AILA). Working through the ALA bureaucracy, Jean was able to gain for  us the recognition needed to become the first association whose purpose was to improve and promote library services to American Indians.   Today, although the membership of this association is still not large, it is the voice speaking for indigenous library services in this country and it recently joined forces with other indigenous people around the globe in seeking better library services. As we pay tribute to her today, we acknowledge her role in bringing about fundamental changes that have occurred in the area of outreach services, especially those for American’s native people


Fundamental changes are taking place and, perhaps, on a grander scale than Jean might have imagined. A growing awareness of the importance of indigenous knowledge and growing support from national and international organizations in recognition of rights of indigenous people to control their own intellectual property has strengthen the resolve of indigenous librarians around the globe who have organized within their own countries and who, in November 1999, held their first ever gathering of  Indigenous Librarians.  Convened by the Maori in Auckland, New Zealand the International Indigenous Librarians’ Forum provided a focus for the exploration of the significant issues facing libraries and institutions that care for indigenous and cultural information.

A 2nd Forum was held in September 2001 in Jokkmokk, Sweden and a third is planned for 2003 in the United States.  These forums bring together indigenous librarians from around the world and build consensus on matters of mutual concern.     

Before I go further, I would like to explain my use of the term indigenous people. No single description or definition can capture the diversity of indigenous people.  Some characteristics used to describe them by the World Bank to do so include, people whose indigenous language is different from the national language and the presence of  customary social and political institutions. In an Operational Directive issued in February 2002, the World Bank defined the term as, “describing social groups with a social and cultural identity distinct from the dominant society that makes them vulnerable to being disadvantaged.” (p.1 of 8 Operative Directive, World Bank) For purposes of this lecture this is the definition used.

The World Bank estimates indigenous people worldwide number more than 400 million and indicates that, “historically they have been the poorest most excluded populations in many parts of the world.  They have not only faced serious discrimination in terms of their basic rights to property, language, culture and citizenship but also in terms of access to basic services...”. (World Bank p. 1 of 4 Overview)

The United Nations places the count as 300 million comprising 5,000 indigenous groups living in 70 countries. (ANKN Listserv)

The past decade has seen the international community place more importance on indigenous peoples. This recognition is evidenced by the number of corporations, libraries, and political entities that  have formulated basic principles, guidelines, directives, and protocols for working with and serving indigenous people.   For example, earlier this year the World Bank issued draft policy and guidelines to ensure that indigenous people benefit from the Bank’s development projects. (Wbank-Operatioal Directive, p. 1) The document cites strategies for making a difference in the Bank’s Program, and outlines challenges recognizing, “the complexity of the situations faced by indigenous peoples in each country where they live...” (WB Operational Directive, p.2)

The United Nations issued a report in the mid 1990's on Discrimination Against Indigenous Peoples subtitled, Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous People. It presents ten principles and fifty guidelines to be brought, “to the attention of all Member States through international, regional and national seminars and publications,  with a view to promoting the strengthening of national legislation and international conventions in this field.” (UN p. 13)

The global library community has also taken notice.  This is manifested in two ways.  First, groups of indigenous people in countries around the world are developing their own library organizations for the purpose of sharing experiences and supporting the development of libraries and library services that serve their particular interests. They have begun to draft policy statements, form coalitions, organizations and informal groups and to hold their own meetings and conferences to exert their influence over issues of concern to them, such as intellectual property rights, language retention, and all matters related to cultural heritage. 

For example, in New Zealand, Te Ropu Whakahau Maori Library and Information Association developed, “some protocols to guide the sensitive use of library technology in relation to Maori information resources, particularly in relation to hertiage material.” (Szekely, p. 59 )

Secondly, library associations, library agencies, state and national political bodies are acknowledging the need to address information issues of indigenous peoples.  In the United States the American Library Association has two groups whose responsibility it is to address issues of concern to America’s indigineous people.  One is the American Indian subcommittee within the Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (OLOS) and the other is the American Indian Library Association which is affiliated with ALA.  Both of these groups sponsor programs at ALA annual meetings which bring together library and American Indian interests. Among the activities the OLOS Subcommittee has completed in the past two years is the compilation of an extensive bibliography, Library Services to Indigenous Populations: A Bibliography, which is accessible though the OLOS website.  The American Indian Library Association (AILA) formally organized more than twenty years ago publishes a newsletter carrying brief articles, news items and reviews of newly published books centered on Native American topics.

At the state level, New Mexico exemplfies good practice. More than thirty years ago a Native American Round Table was formed within the state’s library association. This group, now believed to be the most active state group in the country, holds regular meetings throughout the year in which they problem solve, share ideas, participate in training and exchange information.  They also take an active part in the annual New Mexico Library Association meeting. The New Mexico State Library employes a full time consultant to work with the state’s tribal libraries in providing leadership and guidance.

The Alaska State Library, which has a long history of providing library services and training for its native people, developed a set of Culturally Responsive Guidelines for Alaska Public Libraries in Fall 2000 to help the state’s public librarians examine how they respond to the specific information, educational and cultural needs of their Alaska native users and communities. “These Guidelines are predicated on the belief that culturally appropriate service to indigenous peoples is a fundamental principle of Alaska public libraries, and that the best professional practices in this regard are associated with culturally responsive services, collections, programs, staff, and overall library environment.” (Alaska )

Other pockets of successful collaboration include California which, as part of a legislative mandate to, “ensure that all Californians have free and convenient access to all library resources and services..”,  provided a grant to fund a tribal library census and needs assessment of thirty seven reservations in the southern part of the state. (Biggs, p.1)  

Other state library agencies vary considerably in their level of cooperation and outreach to indigenous people.

Internationally, our neighbor to the north, Canada, has activities which vary by Province. In Ontario, the Southern Ontario Library Service  has a full time First Nations consultant who  helped organize a First Nations Public Libraries’ Spring Gathering held in Toronto earlier this Spring. In Vancouver a group of librarians serving in various libraries in the area meet informally on a regular basis and, at their own expense and on their own time,  offer support and assistance to First Nations library workers by holding workshops, seminars, providing on-site assistance and other consultative aid.

In New Zealand, the New Zealand Library and Information Association and the Maori Library and Information Wrokers Association joined in partnership to seek the views of the Maori in relation to library services.  The study they conducted asked Maori directly what their information needs were and how they viewed libraries.  They also asked how libraries could better meet their needs. (Szekely, p. 7) Results of the study with accompanying recommendations published in 1997 included, among the findings, those which suggested the Maori were over-represented in negative social statistics and that libraries could play a role in the empowerment of Maori.  (Szekely, p.54)

The report also addressed intellectual property issues and, as other studies in other parts of the world have, deplored the lack of culturally appropriate finding aids-indexes, inventories and especially inadequate subject headings.

The National Library of New Zealand conducted a study in the mid 1990's to evaluate the changes that had occurred in the public library sector since 1991 and found that over half of the libraries had done specific initiatives in relation to Maori.  These included employment of Maori staff, the development of a Maori collection, staff training, and services for the Maori.  (Szekely, p.10)

Initiatives in Australia include the creation, in the late 1990's of a new position for a Consultant of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services by the State Library of Queenslands and, in 1997, published a plan, Services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, which listed a number of strategies to be implemented. Other initiatives to address the needs of indigenous clients include the implementation of an Indigenous Resource Unit in Brisbane to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to gain knowledge of the resources in the library and subsequently to access records, promotion of library services to indigenous communities throughout North Queensland, establishing and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committee and a commitment by the state library’s Public Library Division to establish community libraries in Aboriginal communities. (Williams, pp.20-21) Other Australian states and territories also have initiatives.

The indigenous people of Northern Europe, the Sami, occupy their lands in four countries, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia.  International law supports Sami rights to take responsibility for their cultural and economic development and issues that conern them.  Among the things these people are working on is a Sami bibliography to pull together literature and other materials related to their heritage.  They are working cooperatively on library development, language retention and on protection and perpetuation of Sami Culture.

An especially interesting project that cuts across national boundaries is one being conducted by the University of Michigan’s School of Information, Office of Academic Outreach. Funded by a National Science Foundation grant the project is designed to examine the role of technology in building a global indigenous library.  In August 2001 the School convened a meeting of stakeholders to explore the connection of information technology in celebrating and extending culture. (Michigan p.2). A report of this meeting contained in a booklet entitled, Digital Collectives in Indigenous Cultures and Communitiescited a major issue as, “Indigenous people in some areas of the world are overlooked in externally-generated programs.  As a result, they are disaffected before and during the activity.  Therefore sometimes projects are not relative or successful.  Indigenous people want to have support, but on terms that empower them to be the primary decision-makers.” (Michigan, p.8) Attendees raised the issue of cultural property rights in such an initiative and warned that, “traditional knowledge is fast becoming a commodity as folklore and genetic material come under scrutiny for potential world patent and as a food and pharmaceutical industries explore possibe gains.” (Michigan, p.8)


The protection of indigenous knowledge, language, culture and traditions is a major challenge for indigenous people who seek their basic right to retain it for their own descendants.  This intellectual and cultural    property issue also poses a dilemma to authors, archivist, curators, publishers, producers and librarians. What right, one might ask, do others have to take this knowledge and under the guise of protecting it or, under no guise at all, take it, adapt it, change it, and publish or produce it for commercial purposes.  Virtually every aspect of indigenous cultures’ traditional knowledge: songs, dances, rituals, stories, ceremonies, music, games, medicinal practices, can be found in libraries and most got there by virtue of someone who used it for financial gain.     

One might argue it is time for those of us in our profession of librarianship to subscribe to the ten principles given by the United Nations in their report on Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous People. One principle reads, “3. Indigenous peoples should be recognized as the primary guardians and interpreters of their cultures, arts and sciences, whether created in the past, or developed by them in the future.” (UN p. 8) Another states, “9  The free and informed consent of the traditional owners should be an essential precondition of any agreements which may be made for the recording, study, use or display in indigenous peoples’ heritage.” (UN, p.8)

One could pose the question: Does oral traditional knowledge belong in the library?  A native Alaskan raised this issue in a recent essay when she noted that local educators are documenting the oral traditional knowledge of our ancestors and developing methods and means of bringing this information to our descendants.” She added, “We are constantly faced with decisions that affect how this knowledge will be passed on to our future descendants.” (Ilutsik p. 1) She explained within the oral traditions knowledge was sacred and was not passed down to be documented or categorized as the Western-influenced world demands. (Ilutsik p. 2)

One Inuit filmmaker sees videos and filmmaking as a new way of passing on storytelling, a traditional oral practice, that he felt compelled to preserve because he explains, “Fifty years of priests, school, and cable TV silenced 4,000 years of oral history” among his people. (Kunuk, “The Art of Inuit Storytelling” in National Museum of the American Indian. Vo. 3, number 2, Spring 2002 p. 34)

There is a good bit of discussion among indigenous people about    intellectual property rights.  Who owns this information? Who has the right to make decisions about its use?  Some native people that I have worked with are adamant that their stories, cultural practices and even their language be only be transmitted orally and will never be written or recorded. They have a strong sense of ownership.

The world community has a growing awareness of the importance of indigenous knowledge and the right of indigenous people to control it.  The United Nations, UNESCO, the World Bank and the World Intellectual Property Organization are a few organizations that have issued statements and declarations regarding this subject.

In the international library community, we have a few examples of declarations, guidelines and protocols for working with indigenous people. The New Zealand library association has issued a declaration on cultural and intellectual property rights of indigenous people. Australia developed protocols for libraries, archives and information services to guide their work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders.  The Alaska State Library, mentioned earlier, issued a set of culturally responsive guidelines for use in their public libraries.

An outcome of the 2nd International Indigenous Librarians Forum held in Jokkmokk Sweden this past September was a recommendation that international guidelines and protocols be developed to guide libraries, archives and other information providers to assure that culturally responsive practices for indigenous people are implemented. (Forum II Report p. 11)


In closing, although I concentrated on library services to indigenous peoples, much of what applies to them is also applicable to broader populations.  I suggest those who are concerned with outreach services would do well to examine some of the guidelines, policy statements and protocols mentioned and consider how to appropriately incorporate them into your own institutional setting. Today we have honored one of our own.  Jean Coleman was a pioneer of sorts in bringing about an appreciation for, and improvement in library services to all people.  Let us continue to build upon the legacy she left by renewing our efforts to continue to reach out to future generations.
Thank you.


The World Bank: Draft Policy on Indigenous Peoples (OP/BP 4.10)
_____World Bank page 2 Operational Directive (cite on objective “to ensure....” at end of paper

Biggs, Bonnie. Library of California Tierra Del Sol Tribal Library Census and Needs Assessment Study.(

Alaska Native Knowledge Network

Ilutsik, Esther. “Oral Traditional Knowledge: Does It Belong in the Classroom?” Sharing our Pathways, vol. 7, Issue 3 Summer 2002, p. 1

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander protocols for libraries, archives and information Services

(ANKN Listserv, “Indigenous People Get Voice at UN” Associated Press, May 14, 2002.)

Kunuk, “The Art of Inuit Storytelling” in National Museum of the American Indian. Vo. 3, number 2, Spring 2002 p. 34

Williams,Loris. p.19 “Issues and Initiatives in Indigenous Librarianship: An Australian Perspective” in Issues and Initiatives in Indigenous Librarianship. ed. Chris Szekely. Te Ropu Whakahau, 1999.)School of Information, Office of Academic Outreach. Digital Collectives in Indigenous Cultures and Communities, Ann Arbor, Michigan, March 2002

Office of the United Nations High Commissoner for Human Rights. Discrimination Against Indigenous Peoples: Protection of the hertiage of indigenous people.  Final report of the Special Rapporteur, Mrs. Erica-Irene Daes. Geneva, Switzerland, June 21, 1995.  E/CN.4/Sub.2/1995/26

Szekely, Chris.  Te Ara Tika Guiding Voices: Maori Opinion on Libraries and Information Needs.  Wellington, NZ.  New Zealand Library and Information Association Te Rau Herenga o Aotearoa and Te Topu Whakahau, Maori Library and Information Workers’ Association.

About Dr. Patterson 

An enrolled member of the Comanche tribe, Dr. Patterson is one of the founders of the American Indian Library Association and has served as its president.

Dr. Patterson has worked on a number of committees in various organizations. She co-chaired the Native American Pre-Conference to the 1991 White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services. She has served on ALA's Council, the Committee on Accreditation, the American Association of School Librarians (AASL's) Board of Directors, and currently serves on the ALA's Office of Literacy and Outreach Services (OLOS) Advisory Committee.

Dr. Patterson's awards include the Oklahoma Library Association's Distinguished Service Award, the United States National Commission on Libraries and Information Science's Silver Award, the ALA Equality Award and the Beta Phi Mu award for distinguished service to education in librarianship.

Best known for her work in developing tribal libraries for the past 30 years, Dr. Patterson continues to work with tribes throughout the United States and with indigenous librarians around the globe.