LIBR 200 Blog Post #5 – Legal/Ethical Issues

In addition to the many ethical and legal issues addressed in the course readings (Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been on the American Library Association’s list of the top ten most frequently challenged books for the years 2010-2013), there are  a number of additional legal and ethical issues which concern tribal communities.

The idea of collecting oral histories of tribal members raises a number of ethical issues.  If these resources are collected by a tribal library, who will have access to them?  Some tribal members believe these resources should be restricted to immediate family.  Others believe they should be restricted to the broader community.  There are some stories which are considered acceptable to share with the public.  So it follows, to whom does the principle of equal access apply?  Do tribal libraries restrict access to any or all of their materials?  What are the legal precedents for such restrictions?

Peterson (2007) indicates the answer to at least one of these questions in her directory of tribal libraries.  Yes, tribal libraries do restrict some sensitive materials.  Does this violate the ALA’s list of core values?  It would appear so.  However, it’s worth noting that the ALA doesn’t necessarily speak for everyone in the profession, and even the ALA’s Tribal Library Procedure Manual states that oral histories could be part of a special collection not available to the public.

Foster & McMenemy (2012) note that it’s nearly impossible to develop an international list of core values due to differences in culture.  This is also true for the 566 federally recognized tribes within the United States.  There is a wide variation in values between tribes, and the general legacy of colonialism has led to very different ideas about the dissemination of information.  However, while the values important to these tribes and libraries may be at odds with the ALA and the wider profession, they have developed in response to the needs of their individual communities and the history of the treatment of these tribes at the hands of the dominant United States culture.  One size doesn’t fit all, and as sovereign nations, tribes have the right to decide who has access to their cultural information, especially considering the ways it has been used against them in the past.

Foster, C., & McMenemy, D. (2012). Do librarians have a shared set of values? A comparative study of 36 codes of ethics based on Gorman’s Enduring Values. Journal of Librarianship & Information Science, 44(4), 249-262. (Links to an external site.)

Peterson, E. (2007). Tribal Libraries in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.


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