BCLA Perspectives

Indigenizing and Decolonizing BC Public Libraries: Respecting Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights in Public Libraries by Martin Zhang

Martin Zhang

The concept of Indigenous librarianship is based on the integration of Indigenous viewpoints and ways of knowing into the practice of librarianship, which has traditionally been developed from a colonialist point of view. Libraries across BC, Canada, and the world are now actively talking about decolonization but there is still a long way to go in terms of substantive change. It is not enough to just make commitments to decolonization; all information professionals must take concrete steps to reform the operation of their institutions in the direction of greater inclusion of Indigenous stakeholders.

The public library has an important role to play in this greater societal shift. Being embedded in communities, public libraries have greater visibility and greater access to the general public than specialized Indigenous collections in academic libraries. There should be an active effort to expand collections to represent Indigenous voices and showcase uniquely Indigenous formats of information. This expansion must be done respectfully, in close collaboration with Indigenous partners, using classification systems that do not impose an outside narrative. This also means creating collection policies that prioritize materials that are pertinent for Indigenous peoples.

Public librarians must show greater respect to Indigenous epistemologies and perspectives regarding information, especially regarding Indigenous materials like traditional stories. This means taking into account Indigenous conceptions of custodianship over cultural and intellectual properties, making Indigenous librarianship practices part of everyday public librarianship. A good way to do this is by extending greater protections to Indigenous knowledge (IK) in the form of both traditional knowledge (TK) and traditional cultural expressions (TKE) (Fullmer, 2021).

Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights

The history for the legal protection for Intellectual Property (IP) in Canada began with the passing of the Patent Act of 1869 (Canadian Intellectual Property Office, 2020). This law focused on inventions and was written from a perspective that privileged personal property rights over collective ownership or custodianship rights, which is an intrinsic part of many Indigenous cultures. The Patent Act was later followed by the Copyright Act, the Trademarks Act, the Industrial Design Act, and the Plant Breeders Act

The idea of acknowledging the right of Indigenous peoples to their own cultures has been sadly ignored and deprecated by the Canadian legal system until recently. Articles 11, 24, and 31 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognize the right of Indigenous people to exercise control over aspects of their traditional culture (UNDRIP, 2007). In recent times, the Copyright Act has been used to protect traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions but doing so is fraught with difficulties due to different ideas of ownership.

Traditional knowledge is defined as stories, songs, medicinal knowledge, and rituals. Traditional cultural expressions can include things like a certain art style or a carving technique. These expressions may not fulfill criteria for “originality” as defined by the Copyright Act or “novelty” as written in the Patent Act or the Industrial Design Act (Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada, 2020). It can be rather awkward trying to fit TK into these Western categories and many Indigenous people are resistant to such attempts. One criticism is that existing copyright laws invite commercialization of cultural practices. Another problem    is that fifty years of protection after death is inadequate for protecting knowledge that has been passed down for generations (Fionda, 2019).

Alternative methods have emerged to certify Indigenous knowledge, such as the attempt to create a set of standard TK licenses and labels like those created for the Local Contexts project (Christen, 2015). Certain band governments have adopted authenticity marks for certifying authentic cultural products, with the marks themselves registered under Section 9 of the Trademarks Act (Alexander & Struthers, 2020). This type of protection is important for preventing the misattribution and cultural appropriation of cultural materials.

Indigenous Knowledge in Public Libraries

Some of the ways in which public libraries can represent Indigenous knowledge is by creating dedicated collections for Indigenous resources, a service that many public libraries provide. One example of this is the Richmond Public Library which has learning kits for a number Indigenous topics such as Residential Schools, Métis, or Coast Salish, as well as Indigenous perspectives collections for children and adults (Richmond Public Library, n.d.).

The collections prominently feature “own voice” works by Indigenous authors. In addition to books by Indigenous authors the kits include educational materials in other mediums; like a map of BC First Nations, a list of First Nations and Inuit place names, and a statement of intent from Musqueam First Nation regarding traditional territories. These resources aim to educate users in a holistic way and provide important context for Indigenous content.

Indigenous labels have been employed by many public libraries to not only inform users of the authenticity of each item but to teach people the provenance of different pieces of information. TK labels tell people “who the correct sources, custodians, or owners are” of a given material and “correct historical mistakes in terms of naming” (Local Contexts, n.d.).


Colonial and assimilationist policies aimed at destroying Indigenous culture have done much damage to traditional systems of ownership. Family lineages and chains of custody were badly disrupted, while vast quantities Indigenous materials were stolen by settlers only to be lost or taken out of their proper contexts. Many Indigenous cultural items and stories were presented to the public as if they were in the public domain and the original authors long dead. A lot of profit has been made from the sale of cultural artifacts without any consultation with the original, rightful owners of those materials.

The acknowledgement of Indigenous cultural and intellectual property is a way for Indigenous people to reclaim ownership over their knowledge. When libraries present Indigenous resources to their patrons, they need to inform patrons where traditional stories, artwork, or botanical knowledge came from. When libraries attribute authorship to Indigenous materials, they should not only attribute individual authors but also the nations that produced those resources. This can be done by using Indigenous licenses in consultations with the people who created the work or are represented in the collection.

Martin Zhang is a Dual degree MAS/LIS student at the University of British Columbia’s School of Information, slated to graduate in April 2023. He is interested in improving Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in libraries as well as incorporating Indigenous Knowledge into library practices. He lives on the unceded and ancestral territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nation.

Alexander, M. & Struthers, J. (2020). Squaring the Circle: Indigenous Intellectual Property and the

Canadian Trademark System. Miller Titerle + Company.

https://millertiterle.com/what-we-say-article/squaring-the-circle-indigenous-intellectual-pr operty-and-the-canadian-trademark-system/

Christen, K. (2015). Tribal Archives, Traditional Knowledge, and Local Contexts: Why the “s” matters. Journal of Western Archives. 6(1), 1-19.

Duarte, M. and Belarde-Lewis, M. (2015). Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 53(5–6), 677 702. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1080/01639374.2015.1018396

 Fionda, F. (2019). Canada’s Copyright Act failing Indigenous people, study finds. The Discourse. https://thediscourse.ca/urban-nation/copyright-act-failing

 Fullmer, M. (2021). Are we there yet? Visualizing Indigenous culture in today’s library. IFLA Journal47(3), 313–320. https://doi.org/10.1177/0340035220987577

 Local Contexts (n.d.) TK Labels. Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage (IPinCH). SFU. https://localcontexts.org/label/tk-attribution/

 Richmond Public Library (n.d). Indigenous Resources. https://www.yourlibrary.ca/indigenous-resources/