I went to a local diner for breakfast that is near the Greyhound bus station and the Regional Market (think farm-fresh foods). As I meditated over my cup of coffee, a gentleman came in who was Amish. Having grown up near Amish country (and visited areas that are heavily populated by the Amish), they are a group I know something about. However, not everyone knows who the Amish are or understands even vaguely their lifestyle. As I watched him, I wondered how could more people learn about the Amish? Through information provided online, of course! We could photograph, digitize, record audio and use other technology to document and explain their lives. We could provide ways for people all over the world to understand and appreciate the Amish.
And here is the ironic part. The Amish shun electricity and thus the digital age. (Yes, I know there are exceptions.) So...everything we created would be things the Amish likely would never see or use because of their religious beliefs. We might never even be able to get feedback in order to know if our documentation was correct. Would they deem our efforts to be culturally insensitive if they saw (or heard) them? We might never know. We might be stuck guessing or getting an opinion from someone who used to live in the Amish community (an opinion that might not be correct).
Cultural sensitivity is something that we (as a global community) are thinking more about these days. Thankfully, some cultures are helping us become more sensitive. For example, in the National Museum of the American Indian, they allow photos to be taken of the exhibits. However, they do place "do not photograph" signs around exhibits where it would be inappropriate to take photos (like the ghost dresses which are part of this exhibit). The World Digital Library has publicly stated that it wants to be cultural sensitive as it builds its collections; a task that will not be easy.
Here in Onondaga County (New York), I've heard local librarians talk about displaying Native American artifacts. The problem? They hear from one elder that a specific item cannot be displayed, then hear from another elder that it can. They have learned that being sensitive is not always straightforward or simple. It can be confusing and it may lead them to not display something when they don't have a clear answer. (Sounds a bit like the problems we have in copyright clearing items!)
So what is the point of this rambling? You can find ideas for digitization projects everywhere. However, not everything that can be digitize, should be digitized because of the beliefs of the culture. And sometimes you might be able to digitize materials from a culture, but not be able to get proper feedback from the culture (community) in order to understand if you've interpreted the materials correctly. Finally, this is not a unique problem. Unfortunately, there is not a common solution.
All that from a cup of coffee.
Technorati tag: Digitization