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Interview with Gerry Lawson from Indigitization

Physical limitations have accelerated the shift to digital formats, and yet, developing ties with local communities seems more important than ever.  As the arts and culture sector continues to focus on these two areas, we look to trailblazers like Indigitization for inspiration.

Indigitization is a program that helps build capacity to digitize and sustain Indigenous knowledge, within Indigenous communities. It is a collaborative initiative between BC Indigenous groups, and academic partners including the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC). 

Indigitization began in 2012, and over the past eight years, the multidisciplinary team has developed culturally appropriate access protocols and policies, championed accessible toolkits, and created a community-responsive digitization grant for BC First Nations community knowledge. Indigitization incorporates feedback to continuously adapt its work and approaches participants as partners, convened in 2016 at the Indigitization Futures Forum. 

We spoke to Gerry Lawson about this unique model, cultural heritage, culturally appropriate information practices, and sustainable community development.

Let’s begin with some context. Could you tell us why  Indigitization was created, and what needs or gaps it responded to? 

When the pilot program started, there was very little digitization being done in First Nations organizations, even though there was tremendous need for it. Some community organizations were doing digitization, but it was difficult for them to know if they were meeting digitization best practices. Community organizations hold large and small collections of precious cultural heritage recordings on nearly every format possible. Almost universally there was a feeling in communities that these recordings are too precious to trust to an outside organization. But at the time, there was little guidance on digitization practices and insufficient funding for digitization in general. 

Funding that was available to memory institutions often was not available or appropriate for First Nations community collections. These funds required adherence to onerous practices, or providing full and open access to digitized content. Virtually no community-based Indigenous knowledge collection can ethically be made completely openly accessible. On top of western intellectual property concerns, Indigenous knowledge is subject to cultural access protocols, which are unique to each culture. In many ways these protocols had not been implemented in the digital realm.

Additionally, most of the best practices guidelines for audio digitization were written in jargon-heavy language and many were out of date in terms of minimum equipment specifications. Quite simply the equipment specified wasn’t available, the documents were unreadable by anybody other than subject experts, and the “best practices” couldn’t scale into “actual practices”. Community collections managers were paralyzed by both a lack of funding and any clear guidance on how to move forward. 

How did Indigitization address these issues?

With the Indigitization pilot project in 2012, we developed an audio-cassette digitization kit that is largely self-contained and is extremely easy to assemble. Accompanying this kit is a (mostly) jargon-free manual designed to help a small organization plan their digitization project and conduct the step by step processes of condition assessments and digitization for preservation. The Irving K Barber Learning Centre (IKBLC), who funded the original pilot project, courageously re-invested in the project to turn the toolkit resources into an ongoing grant program. 

We have been able to create a funding process that doesn’t require the First Nations organization to make any recordings publicly accessible. We do ask that communities use their digitized collections as a basis to develop policies for culturally appropriate access. The grant also provides technical training and ongoing support for the duration of their projects. We have been able to modify the grant parameters from cycle to cycle, continually improving it to meet the needs of technical capacity building for these community organizations.

Could you describe what is unique about this program? 

I think that our program is unique because of the people who have worked on it. It may look like an academic initiative because of its origins at UBC, but it actually has grassroots beginnings. 

We have a core team who stay focused on the changing needs of Indigenous communities. This has allowed for the inclusion of other individuals and organizations to grow the program without losing momentum towards our original goals.

People who have led the development process of our guides, and the program leadership, have had experience working directly for community organizations. The first Indigitization Project Coordinator, Mimi Lam, who assembled many of the guides, got much of her experience at the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. This is where I myself developed many of my digitization practices. Sarah Dupont (Metis) who became the program coordinator after Mimi, used her experience working with community practitioners to develop most of the grant parameters and in-person protocols for our training workshops. Sarah also paid attention to feedback to continually innovate and make the grant process better each round. Erica Hernandez-Read of the UNBC Archives has brought deep relationships with northern communities and helped to develop many new relationships. Lisa Nathan of the UBC iSchool brought her ability to work ethically with students to the project. We have recently welcomed Kayla Lar-son, who has taken over for Sarah as the Program Coordinator. Sarah continues to manage many aspects of the Indigitization Program from her new position as Head of the Xwi7xwa Library at UBC. Many students have contributed real and lasting work to the program, thanks in large part to lessons from early grant funded student involvement. 

 

Cultural heritage is so broad: how do communities determine what they want to digitize? 

Cultural heritage is very broad, and even more so for First Nations organizations. There are very few recordings that don’t hold some content related to language, culture and history. Even something as seemingly mundane as recordings of band council meetings will contain prayers, songs and stories.

Some community organizations, such as language programs or schools, also hold very specific collections. This might include recordings of language gatherings, interviews with elders, or structured lessons. Overall, communities have varied collections with structured oral history projects, traditional use study recordings, recordings by linguists or other academics, potlatch recordings or family knowledge recordings. This is exactly the reason why Indigitization targets cultural heritage recordings, rather than “language recordings” or some other more restrictive term. 

All of these recordings are important, and we want to allow each community to decide what their priorities are. Communities are all at different stages of addressing the very difficult challenges of language, culture and governance reclamation. Each community addresses these challenges according to local strategies and priorities that will best impact long-term community health. For this reason, communities are in the best position to decide which content in their collections is the highest priority for digitization.

 

How did you reach communities early on, and how do these relationships evolve as you collaborate through Indigitization? 

For the first rounds of Indigitization funding we mostly relied on word of mouth through established relationships and networks. Since there really wasn’t any resource similar to Indigitization when we started, there were many Indigenous organizations who had been looking for this kind of assistance and were ready to start. As the program continued to mature, we reached out through other streams, such as paid advertising through Indigenous technical networks and a radio station in northern BC. Social media is also becoming an increasingly important avenue to connect with our community partners.

We have had many grant recipients, who we like to refer to as partners, receive funding to gain capacities in new areas, or train new people. We have also supported some of these organizations through assistance with other grant applications or letter of support. There are very few organizations that we have worked with that we do not stay in contact with, at least periodically. 

In 2016 we organized the Indigitization Futures Forum. A symposium where 23 of our previous community partners joined many of our information management colleagues to talk about successes and gaps of cultural heritage digitization within Indigenous communities. The discussions and feedback from this event have helped us to plan for the future of the Indigitization Program.

How do you bring ethical and cultural appropriate practices into your work? Was this a goal from the onset? 

This was absolutely the goal from the start. The ability to implement culturally appropriate practices came from the personal experience of the project team while working directly for or with Indigenous community organizations. Our Indigenous team members also bring a great deal of understanding to the project from very personal perspectives on mechanisms of cultural trauma and loss.

Real culturally appropriate information practices are created by the local community practitioners. I am mostly just omitting the culturally-inappropriate practices from our guides, which have typically dominated the digitization discourse and practice. Things like onerous requirements for funding eligibility, open access requirements, and adherence to western intellectual ownership concepts which do not acknowledge Indigenous rights to access and control of their own cultural heritage. 

As a program, we observe many practices and protocols in our communications, and our training workshops that help to build and deepen relationships with communities, as well as to make our community partners feel more welcome and ready to learn while visiting our colonial-academic setting. 

Sarah Dupont, our Program Manager through most of our existence, has been the person who fought for, and integrated, most of these practices. Things like having local Indigenous community representatives welcome our participants and participate in knowledge sharing while they discuss their specific projects. Having Indigenous caterers bring the food for most of our shared meals. There are many more examples as this is a core consideration when planning our gatherings.

 

There is digitization of content on the one hand, and information management of digital heritage as it grows. What is your vision for access to and use of these materials? 

Information management is a very expansive field. At the start of our project, we really thought Information management is a very expansive field. At the start of our project, we were helping to address a focused, but critical, part of a larger problem. Digitization has a specific window of success. We will only be able to access equipment to play these formats for a short while longer, and the physical media itself suffers different problems as it ages. 

We are currently developing guides to help with other common formats, like VHS, Betamax and open reel audio. These formats are significantly more complicated to digitize than audio-cassette. We are developing more resources to help with basic collections management processes. This is the start of addressing that broader issue of information management. We also have to consider what the scope of our own program should be. We don’t need to solve every problem and many problems are better suited to be addressed by other organizations or teams.

 

What are some strategies to keep these archives in circulation?

One very important, emerging content management system (CMS) is Mukurtu. Mukurtu is an open source CMS that focuses on empowering Indigenous communities to manage and share their cultural heritage in appropriate ways. It was originally developed with an Aboriginal community in Australia to manage access using their local protocols, and has since grown to accommodate customization for any Indigenous local protocols. It is far from a perfect system but is a definite trailblazer in helping to scaffold many community organizations into a more structured information management practice. Michael Wynne, a member of the Mukurtu team, sits on our steering committee to better align our shared efforts.

 

Do you see Indigitization working with other sectors in addition to academia, or with any particular field? 

Indigitization began as a multidisciplinary, cross-sectoral project and has always been open to collaboration, where the fit is good. It is a core quality of most of our team members that we challenge the practices that we have been taught. Such collaborations can take the form of structural partnerships, where a new institution becomes a part of the Indigitization team; it can exist as temporary project partnerships where we join with another group to develop new resources or reach new audiences; or it can be an informal relationship where we help each other meet goals without any greater commitments. 

The Archives at UNBC has long been a partner, as has the Sustainable Heritage Network based in Washington State University. We have emerging relationships with the First Peoples Cultural Council and with colleagues at Mount Royal University. As we grow and need additional capacities in terms of educational tools, information management systems support and in providing greater reach for our resources, we will likely partner with organizations that have similar goals and are positioned to take on some of these challenges.

 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.