My series of posts on international information architecture:
- Translating taxonomies and categories
- Translating categories, translating terms
- Translating the Dewey Decimal Classification system
- Designing the relationship between content and locales
- Emergent i18n effects in folksonomies
- The Maori versus Dewey, and why limiting access can be culturally appropriate. (This post.)
While doing research on cultural differences in information needs, I came across the fascinating paper “Cross-cultural usability of the library metaphor” (Elke Duncker, 2002). It talks about how people from the Maori tribes have problems with libraries. There is a lot of good stuff in the paper, but the two things I want to talk about today are:
- How Dewey subjects headings really don’t work for the Maori. (Really)
- How sometimes, limiting access can be culturally appropriate.
Let’s get going.
Have you seen the movie Whalerider? Those are the Maori, a Polynesian culture with an oral tradition. Libraries are common to all written cultures, but oral cultures have other ways to keep their stories: songs, story gatekeepers and such. The paper describes the Maori way:
Traditionally Maori knowledge has been transferred orally. For centuries, Maori knowledge and skills have been handed down from one selected person to the next. While no individual knew everything, all knowledge was available within the tribe or sub-tribe at any given time. The keeper of the knowledge was seen as a living repository of this knowledge. He or she was supposed to âlook after the knowledgeâ which meant to memorize it in great detail, to use it for the best of the tribe and to pass it on to the next person selected to look after it. Genealogies were the core of traditional Maori knowledge.
Even today, Maori trace their ancestors back to a particular passenger of one of the canoes with which they came. This knowledge is tapu and not for public display.
The Maori that use libraries today are a bi-cultural elite: they grew up in Maori culture, but also had access to mainstream culture. Still, they have a lot of problems finding things in the libraries. One of the main problems is the Dewey classification system used to organize things.
Melvin Dewey was a white westerner, and his classification system is well known for showing western biases. For example, here is the “Religion” subsection:
210 Natural theology
230 Christian Theology
240 Christian moral & devotional theology
250 Christian orders & local churches
260 Christian social theology
270 Christian church history
280 Christian denominations & sects
290 Other and comparative religions
You can see how this taxonomy is somewhat western-centered, right? Just a little bit? Still, the Dewey system has survived, and is used in libraries throughout the world.
Now, apart from it’s obvious flaws, there are deeper, cultural problems with Dewey, or any classification system for that matter. It’s roots are so ingrained in us that it’s hard to see how someone might see the world in a fundamentally different way.
The Maori worldview is very much centered around the tribal world, and the backbone of the Maori tribal world is genealogy (ancestry). If a Maori wants to find information about their culture, a really important way for them to search is by genealogy, all the way back to that original canoe. Unfortunately, Maori genealogy isn’t represented in Dewey’s classification system.
From the paper:
Maori knowledge, when divided into subject areas based upon Anglo-American categories, becomes scattered across the library in a seemingly random way. Texts that belong together undergo an artificial division and end up in different places. Subsequently, it is difficult and tiresome to find them and bring them back together again. The following quote exemplifies
âI found that some of the cataloguing as far as themes [were concerned] wasnât very goodâ¦ I actually think that some of it should be focused in one area. So this is the collection pertaining to so and so, and I know that it doesnât fit Dewey, but he is American. He aha?â?
In other words, the Maori have their own way of classifying their knowledge. If you try to re-classify it into a western system, it looses most of the meaning and logic for a Maori. Suddenly, they can’t find anything anymore.
To address this problem, the maori subject headings committee was recently created to provide a new taxonomy that’s going to appropriate for this culture. They have developed a Iwi HapÅ« Names List (reflecting the importance of genealogy in Maori culture this was their first achievement), and are now working on a Maori subject list.
The second thing I wanted to talk about is how, sometimes, limiting access can be culturally appropriate. Most information architects don’t like the idea of limiting access – we’re all about findability, remember? Too often limiting access serves the powerful. In this case, it serves the relatively powerless.
A really important concept in Maori culture is “tapu”. From the paper:
The word is usually translated to âsacredâ and sometimes to âset apartâ. The tribal meeting house is sacred, as is the tribal knowledge. People are set apart for being warriors or priests. There are many meanings and attendant conditions of tapu, which are difficult to understand, particularly for non-Maori. For our purpose it may suffice to understand that tapu foremost represents the power of the creator, but other gods endow things and people with tapu as well. Tapu can be good or bad. A whole system of sanctification and nullification keeps the various forms of tapu in balance and life workable.
Representations of people are very tapu, as are tribal genealogy, knowledge and ritual items. It does not matter whether the representations take the form of texts, pictures or carvings. They are only allowed to be used in their sacred, tribal, dignified environment with the attendant rituals in place and are treated with the utmost respect.
“Western” libraries contain a lot of the information and artefacts of Maori culture, and this open access is extremly frustrating for many Maori. The internet (including, perhaps, this article) makes things even worse. It may be hard to appreciate this desire for closedness, but it is an integral part of Maori culture. I am not sure how to deal with this, a big part of me wants to say “the Maori should accept openness, because it helps them find things”, but another part of me understands that this is, deeply, a part of their culture, and should be respected.
So not many answers in this post, just some thoughts around how some cultures have truly different ways of organizing the world than the western culture has, and how closedness is also a part of some cultures.
Now, Maori culture is, in a way, for webdesign purposes, an edge case. In that most of us don’t design websites or information architectures for the Maori. There are a lot of cultures like this, but you could argue that, for practical purposes, most of the websites we build are for mostly written cultures, and I wonder if similar cultural differences come into play there. Any ideas?
Follow up reading: