ICHORA 2020, DAY 4: Diana Marsh, “Documenting Digital Knowledge Sharing in Indigenous Communities”

Note: This presentation was part of a three-person panel entitled “Expanding Notions of Users and Use.”

With “Documenting Digital Knowledge Sharing in Indigenous Communities,” Diana Marsh (University of Maryland, College Park) examines the lack of Native and Indigenous perspectives on the circulation of digitized primary sources. Marsh asks probing questions in this study: How are digitized collections being used or repurposed in community contexts; How do they circulate, in what formats, and through which community spaces; Are some types of archival media more meaningful than others; What does impact mean for communities; and What are the best practices for institutions with Indigenous collections for facilitating use and partnership. Marsh proposes steps that heritage institutions can take to do better or change their relationships with Native communities. The project was facilitated by interviews with thirty-six Native, Indigenous, and community-based participants from June 2016 to March 2018.

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In the findings, Marsh saw that access to archival materials was impeded by several factors, such as time (especially for elders), expense to travel to institutions, restrictions placed by well-meaning gatekeepers, and poor descriptions of collections. In terms of technology used to circulate materials, digital files were transferred in a plethora of ways like via email, websites, social media, and person-to person. Materials in some collections were transferred before the digital age in formats like photocopies and reel-to-reel audio tapes. Audio recordings, photographs, manuscripts, and maps proved to be the most valuable types of collections for participants. Community use of digitized records was vast and included language learning, classroom immersion learning, and the creation of community archives.

Archival access, Marsh explains, is an important way to reclaim histories that have not been told by the communities themselves. Having remote access to digital collections reduces the cost of visiting reading rooms and enables an ease of use. Digital materials can also foster a “cultural revitalization,” which produces new contexts for collections. Particularly through the means of audio recordings, language learning and recovery can be facilitated and vocabulary enhanced by listening to fluent speakers. Marsh reports that the participants expressed that having access to these digital documents “validate what they already know.” 

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Marsh recounts the limitations and risks of digital media sharing that participants noted in the study. Limitations in the sharing of digital collections include difficulty in interpretation and use of large high resolution collections and struggles to elicit participation of younger generations. Participants in the study group expressed differences in working with digital as opposed to physical copies of collections. Many communities do not have a space to share or store these digital collections. Risks of digital knowledge sharing range from unauthorized dissemination outside of the community, to physical or spiritual harm from sacred texts, as well as community politics and media permanence. On the other hand, the idea of traditional ways of learning is valued by Native and Indigenous perspectives communities and some things cannot be learned the same way through explicitly recorded materials, digital or otherwise. 

In terms of best practices and advice for institutions with Indigenous collections, participants explained the need for communities to spearhead the projects. Institutions need to build relationships with these communities with mutually beneficial projects. These collaborations should entail creating protocols and inventories for holdings. Participants also expressed the desire to help to build more intuitive digital platforms.


Natalie Worsham, MLIS, MA

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