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This paper discusses current issues surrounding the management of indigenous knowledge (IK) and traditional cultural expressions (TCEs) in libraries, archives and other cultural institutions. It addresses the need for: (1) ethical policies for the management of these knowledge systems, (2) critical approaches to the dominant library paradigm of information management, (3) recent efforts by the World Intellectual Property Organization and the American Library Association to craft policy on this topic, and (4) the need for and examples of collaboration with indigenous communities. Implications for social change with the implementation of socially responsible management systems are also considered.


Even as globalization opens up more opportunities for worldwide democratic participation in the information society, the digital divide continues to grow larger for the cultural groups that have already benefited the least from the development of information and communication technologies (Appadurai, 1998, cited in Srinivasan, 2006). While this paper will specifically consider indigenous communities, the discussion is also relevant to other communities that are disadvantaged.

At least in the United States, the library and information science (LIS) profession subscribes to the idea of technological utopianism, or that technology will lead to the creation of a perfect society (Segal, 2005). This progression toward a utopian society will include the cataloging of all information that is pertinent to the promotion of scientific and technological development. I argue that a movement toward a utopian information society would not be of equal benefit to all members of our global society. Collective ownership of the world’s knowledge would continue to disadvantage those who have already been exploited by dominant world powers. Of concern is the unequal relationship between those who control global information systems (i.e., corporations, publishers, IT developers, libraries, archives, etc.) and those in less empowered positions who are the subject or creators of a part of this information.

With the creation of a global information society, and the collection and storage of information related to it, has come the increased opportunity for misuse and misappropriation of indigenous knowledge (IK) and indigenous peoples’ traditional cultural expressions (TCEs). National policy ensuring proper handling of IK and TCEs would likely be the most effective approach to addressing these issues. Since such policies have not yet been implemented, LIS professionals must take it upon themselves to address this issue.

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Published in Information for Social Change, Volume No. 29, Summer 2009.