Navigating the Landscape of Traditional Cultural Expressions (TCEs) in Library Settings

Navigating the Landscape of Traditional Cultural Expressions (TCEs) in Library Settings

Siyao Cheng, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Melissa G. Ocepek, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Sara R. Benson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Managing traditional cultural expressions (TCEs) within library settings can be cumbersome for any librarian, and is especially challenging for those lacking adequate training to handle the complex legal and ethical issues involved in collection development and managing collections including TCEs. Some challenges in managing TCEs arise from their unique nature and expansive scope, requiring specialized consideration. Additionally, librarians face limited prior experience when navigating corresponding inquiries. Given the libraries’ vital role in preserving and protecting TCEs held therein (Ibacache, 2021), one might expect that Library and Information Science (LIS) educational programs would provide sufficient TCE training to its graduates. Below, we explore intersections between TCEs and librarianship, including current issues and potential remedies within LIS education. 

—There is a long and problematic history of mishandling TCE-related materials in libraries and museums—

Challenges for Librarians in Traditional Cultural Expressions Management

TCEs’ Complicated Nature and Lack of Adequate Legal Protection

There is a long and problematic history of mishandling TCE-related materials in libraries and museums (Gosart, 2021). As defined by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), TCEs embody indigenous communities’ creativities and encompass various artistic and cultural expressions, including dance, ceremonies, narratives, and other types of performances. These forms of expression represent the culmination of ancestral wisdom and the joint efforts of indigenous generations; they are highly valued within their respective communities and warrant respect and protection (n.d.). Unfortunately, TCEs lack definitive legal frameworks aimed at preserving and protecting them in a meaningful way, often due to their complicated nature and broad scope. For example, many TCEs are not protected by copyright, because they are incongruent with copyright law’s current definitions of “work” and “author.” Plus, some TCEs extend to multiple generations, which would fall outside of the scope of copyright protection term limits. The absence of definitive protection may also lead librarians to unknowingly mismanage TCEs in their collections, potentially offending or disrespecting related indigenous communities. 

Limitations of LIS Discourse in TCE Management

Over the last two decades, TCE protection has received increased attention in the LIS field. For example, some LIS scholars advocate that librarians directly consult relevant indigenous communities when electronically preserving their cultural heritage (Burtis, 2009; Roy et al., 2012). Similarly, others suggest that librarians should establish an adequate understanding of indigenous content management, so as to partner with the indigenous stakeholders and ethically steward materials placed in their library collections (Reyes-Escudero & Cox, 2017). TCEs’ lack of definitive legal protection is the focus of many discussions (Gosart, 2021); in 2009, WIPO proposed that libraries were among those institutions obligated to protect TCEs (WIPO, 2009). In response, the American Library Association (ALA) issued a practical statement of principles for librarians to serve as stewards and gatekeepers of TCEs (2013). In it, they acknowledged the need to be sensitive to the wishes of indigenous communities while encouraging librarians to ethically work with TCE-related collections. However, while all this attention makes it clear that librarians must have some background to appropriately manage TCEs, they offer little practical means to develop such a background. We argue that, without some proper training, librarians can neither ethically collaborate with indigenous communities nor can they respectfully manage the materials in accordance with indigenous groups’ wishes and beliefs.

The Need for an Extensive Study

While it is clear that US librarians should be trained to work with TCEs, there are only minimal, limited studies that consider the preparedness of US librarians to determine if they are adequately prepared for handling TCE-related tasks. Tumuhairwe (2013) concluded that US librarians were equipped to address questions surrounding the use of TCEs; however, they based their claim solely on the availability of ad hoc public resources offered by various library organizations, not on the degree to which librarians can and do access these resources. In another study, Andrews & Humphries (2016) investigated five LIS curricula in three countries to evaluate if LIS students received sufficient training. The countries were the USA, Canada, and Aotearoa (New Zealand), chosen for their large indigenous populations. In the American universities, only eleven courses (across three universities) were identified to be related to indigenous knowledge; all except one were electives. Moreover, the applicability of the study is restricted due to the small size of the sample. Therefore, they called for a more extensive future study, to provide deeper insight into the presence of TCE-related topics throughout LIS education.

A Way Forward

In response to Andrews and Humphries, our forthcoming article is an extensive study that examines a larger sample size of LIS programs, which offers a more holistic vision of the recent state of TCE-related content in LIS curricula in the United States. Meanwhile, we call on LIS educators to pay extra attention to TCE-related topics while designing their curriculum, which we hope can be a small but critical step to LIS graduates’ future career development and success. Such attention is very likely to increase and prioritize TCEs in the LIS field, enabling MSLIS students to better fulfill ALA Core Competencies of Librarianship (ALA, 2023)—especially in meeting the needs of diverse users. It will also help future librarians better balance the accessibility of TCE materials while respecting indigenous beliefs.


American Library Association. (2013, January). Librarianship and Traditional Cultural Expressions: Nurturing Understanding and Respect. https://www.ala.org/membership/sites/ala.org.membership/files/content/librarianship_and_traditional_cultural_expressions_nurturing_understanding_and_respect_jan2010.pdf

American Library Association. (2023, January). ALA’s Core Competences of Librarianship. https://www.ala.org/educationcareers/sites/ala.org.educationcareers/files/content/2022%20ALA%20Core%20Competences%20of%20Librarianship_FINAL.pdf

Andrews, N., & Humphries, J.L. (2016). Negotiating Indigeneity: Fostering Indigenous Knowledge within LIS Curricula.

Gosart, U. (2021). Responsive and Responsible: Libraries promote ethical care of Indigenous collections. American Libraries52(1/2), 14–15.

Ibacache, K. (2021). University Libraries as Advocates for Latin American Indigenous Languages and Cultures. College & Research Libraries82(2), 182.

Reyes-Escudero, V., & Cox, J. W. (2017). Survey, understanding, and ethical stewardship of indigenous collections: A case study. Collection management42(3-4), 130-138.

Roy, L., Hogan, K., & Lilley, S. (2012). Balancing access to knowledge and respect for cultural knowledge: Librarian advocacy with indigenous peoples’ self-determination in access to knowledge. Libraries Driving Access to Knowledge. The Hague: International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, 163-189.

Tumuhairwe, G. K. (2013). Analysis of library and information science/studies (LIS) education today: The inclusion of indigenous knowledge and multicultural issues in LIS curriculum.

World Intellectual Property Organization. (n.d.). Traditional cultural expressions. Retrieved February 28, 2023, from https://www.wipo.int/tk/en/folklore/.

World Intellectual Property Organization. (2009). Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore. Fourteenth Session, Geneva, June 29-July 3.

Cite this article in APA as: Cheng, S., Ocepek, M. G., & Benson, S. R. Navigating the landscape of traditional cultural expressions (TCEs) in library settings. (2023, October 18). Information Matters, Vol. 3, Issue 10. https://informationmatters.org/2023/10/navigating-the-landscape-of-traditional-cultural-expressions-tces-in-library-settings/


  • Siyao Cheng

    Siyao Cheng is a doctoral student at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focus is everyday information behavior and copyright education.

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Siyao Cheng

Siyao Cheng is a doctoral student at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focus is everyday information behavior and copyright education.