First Monday

UX design in online catalogs: Practical issues with implementing traditional knowledge (TK) labels by Dana Reijerkerk

At the center of the evolving debates of open access and intellectual property in memory institutions is a long history of excluding Indigenous Peoples from conversations concerning the access and use rights to their belongings. In recent decades many memory institutions challenged prevalent historical and current classifications of Indigenous Peoples in online catalog records. Most recently the Library of Congress (LC) adopted a new cataloging practice called Traditional Knowledge (TK) labeling as a way to return control over access and use of Indigenous materials to their rightful Indigenous owners. The advent of this emergent digital rights tool disrupts previously held assumptions about the purpose of rights statements in catalog records as well as challenges the existing balance between the rights of Indigenous communities and the interests of public access. The adoption of TK Labels in the LC’s “Ancestral Voices” digital collection brings serious practical implementation issues to light that deserve further consideration before memory institutions invest in this new digital access rights metadata standard. Although TK Labels are a technological opportunity that provide more space for community-based relationships within memory institutions, this paper suggests that the practical implementation of TK Labels in Ancestral Voices falls short of its promise to return authority to the Passamaquoddy people. Rather, TK Labels raise more logistical and technical questions about the effectiveness of the TK labeling framework and purpose of re-cataloging records describing Indigenous materials.


TK Labels in practice: The Library of Congress
Improving usability: Rethinking access as display




One of the most persistent problems in memory institutions (libraries, archives, museums) is the exclusion of Indigenous communities from their own material culture and knowledge (Pohawpatchoko, et al., 2017). As a historical practice, cataloging excluded Indigenous peoples from choosing the words and labels used to describe their cultures and communities in catalog records. As technologies, words in catalog records shape users’ understanding of the world by defining what a thing is [1]. Many contemporary Indigenous scholars recognized that normalized cataloging vocabulary and standards promote stereotypical notions of Indigenous peoples as dead or dying and also insufficiently represent Indigenous perspectives (Littletree and Metoyer, 2015; Kam, 2007; Berman, 1993; Knowlton, 2005). In response to these systemic representation issues, librarians and memory institutions developed and proposed alternative vocabularies to describe Indigenous materials for catalog records (e.g., Brian Deer Classification Schema, Ngā Upoko Tukutuku [Māori Subject Headings]) [2]. While these changes are important and necessary, they fail to address emerging representation issues resulting from the advent of the Internet.

The Internet allows unprecedented access to museum and anthropological collections. Internet-accessible catalog records and digital cataloging practices often perpetuate, whether explicitly or implicitly, outdated anthropological representations of Indigenous peoples. Complicating matters is the growing shift in memory institution access policies towards varying degrees of open access. By open access I mean free, online public access to specific digitized or born-digital material. On the surface, access to information for all, particularly to archival or anthropological materials, sounds great. In reality this may not be the case, particularly for many Indigenous peoples. One of the underlying reasons is because there are conflicting attitudes between institutional open access mandates and many Indigenous beliefs of privacy to information based on specific Indigenous communal and cultural protocols.

Internet-accessible technologies make it easier to copy and access information that may not be considered appropriate by Indigenous communities for public consumption (Christen, 2015a, 2015b). Despite the growing number of opportunities for Indigenous self-representation in the past few decades, there has not been considerable discussion about Indigenous representation in displaying, distributing, and digitizing Indigenous materials available on memory institution Web sites (Colwell, 2015; Hansen, 2011). Indigenous communities are often concerned with intellectual control over their cultural patrimony, particularly in how their information/knowledge is managed, accessed, and used. Many Indigenous peoples call for integrating Indigenous knowledge into mainstream practices by including their expert voices in public collections and maintaining traditional cultural protocols for access and use of some materials (Christen, 2011). In response to trends in memory institutions to engage in digitization projects, an increasing number of Indigenous communities on a global scale renewed efforts to protect their intellectual control over their materials and traditional knowledges. The most common form of protection sought by communities is asserting claims of intellectual property (Hansen, 2011).

At the international level, many Indigenous communities call for recognition of intellectual property over digitized copies of their material culture that are copyrighted or in the public domain. These ethical and moral demands to recognize Indigenous intellectual property sparked calls for memory institutions to recognize Indigenous claims of Traditional Knowledge (TK) (Christen, 2011, 2015a; Hansen, 2011; Nicholas, et al., 2010; WIPO, 2016). Widely-known international groups, such as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), assert that TK labeling is a practical mechanism to attribute intellectual property rights to Indigenous communities (WIPO, 2016; Hansen, 2011; Nicholas, et al., 2010). For example, WIPO (2016) markets recording and registering TK and Traditional Cultural Expressions (TCEs) as a way to, “safeguard particularly sensitive cultural materials, access to which and use of which are exclusively reserved for the relevant traditional holders in accordance with their customary laws and practices” [3]. In theory therefore TK Labeling returns intellectual control to communities over their materials; while not legally binding, theoretically TK labeling affords Indigenous communities “positive” protections (Hansen, 2011) over their materials that are copyrighted or in the public domain (Coombe, 2017; Christen, 2015a; Anderson, 2018; WIPO, 2016; Anderson and Christen, 2013) [4]. Positive TK protections are argued to give communities exclusivity rights that are analogous to copyrights, such as the right to exclude, license, and profit from works (Hansen, 2011).

In the last nine years, TK labeling moved away from the theoretical and into practice. In 2012 Dr. Jane Anderson [5] and Dr. Kimberly Christen [6] developed the Local Contexts platform, which is the first practical implementation to create and apply TK Labels to online catalog records. In practice, TK Labeling would be another cataloging vocabulary seen in mainstream library or museum online catalogs. TK Labels inform users of specific Indigenous community access and use terms. Local Contexts market its TK Labels as a, “tool for Indigenous communities to add existing local protocols for access and use to recorded cultural heritage that is digitally circulating outside community contexts” (Local Contexts, 2019). The Labels look like small pieces of paper or price tags with images inside them. Each image has associated text descriptions, such as “TK Non-commercial (TK NC)” and “TK Attribution (TK A)”. As of September 2019, Local Contexts developed 15 TK Labels, which are grouped into subsets of labels designed to be used separately by Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous institutions.

The Library of Congress' (LC) American Folklife Center (AFC) is the first non-Indigenous institution to apply TK Labels to existing records in their online catalog. In 2017 the AFC adopted TK Labels curated by the Passamaquoddy Tribe, a federally-recognized Indigenous community located primarily in what is known today as eastern Maine, to their “Ancestral Voices” digital collection [7]. Ancestral Voices is a co-curatorial cultural representation project between Indigenous communities and the Library of Congress. The Ancestral Voices project is designed to gather input from Indigenous communities about the content of their cataloged materials, amend the records with Indigenous perspectives, and additionally place TK Labels in the amended records. The stated purpose of creating these relationships is to reposition communities, “as authorities over their cultural histories and heritage” (Library of Congress, 2018a). The Jesse Walter Fewkes collection of Passaquoddy cylinder records is the first subcollection to be added to Ancestral Voices. This collection is of 31 wax cylinders recorded in March of 1890 by anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes in Calais, Maine. Fewkes’ three-day visit to the Passamaquoddy community was to field test wax cylinder technology for when Fewkes went on the Hemenway Southwestern Expedition. This is the first and only collection of records with TK Labels in the LC’s online catalog.



TK Labels in practice: The Library of Congress

The fact that the LC holds some of the oldest known artifacts and audio recordings of Native Americans provides a unique opportunity to analyze if TK labeling in catalog records does return intellectual authority to Indigenous community creators. The way in which the LC catalogs and displays TK Labels will substantially influence how and when other institutions adopt TK Labels as a cataloging practice. Furthermore, this practical implementation of TK labeling provides a case study for the TK Label framework; this is an opportunity to analyze the TK Label framework from a user experience (UX) design perspective to see how effective TK Labels are at being educational tools for access and use.

In January 2019, I looked at the various catalog record versions available online for all 31 cylinders cataloged in Ancestral Voices. My data and analysis reflect how the LC records looked on 27 January 2019. Due to the digital nature of these records, they may not look like my screenshots if viewed today. Moreover, the LC are still in the process of re-cataloging the cylinders in Ancestral Voices; therefore, the record appearance will most likely change over time.

I quickly noted that all 31 items in Ancestral Voices had the same three Passamaquoddy TK Labels. All Ancestral Voices records had these three TK Labels: (1) Attribution — Elihtasik (How it is done); (2) Outreach — Ekehkimkewey (Educational); and, (3) Non-Commercial — Ma yut monuwasiw (This is not sold). Due to this fact, I only analyzed three described cylinders. While this analysis is limited in sample size and is specific to the LC’s technological systems, my analysis is in line with the TK Label framework established by Local Contexts. By this I mean a key point of the TK Label framework is curating local contexts in catalog records. In practice therefore, each instance of a cataloged TK Label might be unique compared to other institutions but also to other catalog records in a specific institution. Thus, focusing on a relatively small number of catalog records is more substantially relevant to my practical and technical analysis.

Each cylinder in the collection has approximately three differently formatted record versions. I refer to the re-cataloged cylinders with their Passamaquoddy names. I looked at the following re-cataloged cylinders: (1) Mihqelsuwakonutomon; Esunomawotultine; (2) Polansuwe Susehp Neptan; and, (3) Namopawak; Pemoluhkemkil. I chose these specific cylinders because they represent different levels of cataloging changes and also describe different kinds of intellectual content. For example, the user interface of Mihqelsuwakonutomon; Esunomawotultine’s curated view is unique to all 31 cylinders in Ancestral Voices. Compared to all other cylinders, Mihqelsuwakonutomon; Esunomawotultine’s curated view displays both pictures of the TK Label icons and embedded audio displays (see Figure 1). This is particularly important because Local Context designed TK Labels as icons; institutions should be displaying the visual TK icons in addition to the Label text in their catalog records rather than just cataloging the textual components.


Users first see the TK Labels and their associated icons in a side panel to the right of their computer screen
Figure 1: Users first see the TK Labels and their associated icons in a side panel to the right of their computer screen. Screenshot shows the screen layout of the curated view of Mihqelsuwakonutomon; Esunomawotultine (“Passamaquoddy War song; Trading song,” n.d.-a).


I chose Polansuwe Susehp Neptan and Namopawak; Pemoluhkemkil because these cylinders represent the user interface of the majority of Ancestral Voices records (e.g., no visual TK Labels). In terms of intellectual content, cylinders in Case B represented different song quantities and genres. For example, Namopawak; Pemoluhkemkil describes four separate audio recordings, including counting, basic vocabulary in the Passamaquoddy language, and also a, “funeral song” (Library of Congress online catalog, n.d.-b). In contrast Polansuwe Susehp Neptan describes only one song. Collectively, these three cylinders represent the kind of technical and intellectual complexity one might encounter in Ancestral Voices but also in other institutional online catalogs.

I separated the multiple record sets for my cylinders into two cases based on the different available formatted versions describing each cylinder (see Figure 2). I organized the records sets in this way to better understand the underlying record format structures in the LC’s online catalog.

Each cylinder has a record found in the online catalog (referred to as the “catalog view”) and metadata records in two metadata languages, all serialized in XML: MODS and MARC/XML. The Mihqelsuwakonutomon; Esunomawotultine cylinder (Case A) has two additional record views that the other two cylinders (Case B) did not. Specifically, Case A has a curated view and Dublin Core version. The curated view is a nicely formatted version that is part of a special online exhibit about the AFC. The curated view is located on the Library’s Web site at and is described in fields that appear to be pulled from the Dublin Core record format. For example, Other Title is similar to the Dublin Core Contributor field. It is unclear whether the underlying data in the curated view is pulled from MARC because the fields appear to be based on Dublin Core. A record version for Mihqelsuwakonutomon; Esunomawotultine is also available in Dublin Core and linked on the curated view.


Chart illustrating the multiple sets of records describing the same object for my three cylinders
Figure 2: Chart illustrating the multiple sets of records describing the same object for my three cylinders. The Mihqelsuwakonutomon; Esunomawotultine cylinder (Case A) has two additional catalog record views that the other two cylinders (Case B) did not: a curated view and Dublin Core version.


TK Labels as access rights not intellectual property

The LC treat TK Labels in the MARC record format as intellectual property instead of metadata. This highlights logistical/technical issues with actually finding a good fit in MARC for access and use information. In libraries it is common to input bibliographic information in the MARC record format, which often becomes the underlying format for all records in an institution’s online catalog (Anonymous, 2002). In all three MARC views of my cylinders, the Labels are cataloged in a MARC view: 540 field (see Figure 3).

The MARC 540 — Terms Governing Use and Reproduction field is for, “terms governing use of materials after access has been provided” (Network Development and MARC Standards Office. Library of Congress, 2019). RDA cataloging rules, which the LC uses to catalog its MARC records, have vague, open-ended field definitions for access and use information. For example, the MARC 540 field and subfield definitions include legalistic-sounding vocabulary, such as “copyrights” and “trade restrictions”, which suggests that non-legal information does not fit here. The scope information of subfield $a further supports the argument that catalogers should reserve the 540 field for statements of intellectual property.


Screenshot of the MARC view of Polansuwe Susehp Neptan
Figure 3: In the MARC versions of my records, TK Labels are cataloged in a 540 field, which is typically reserved for intellectual property information. Screenshot of the MARC view of Polansuwe Susehp Neptan, which highlights where in the MARC record TK Labels are positioned in comparison to the Peabody Museum statement (Library of Congress online catalog, n.d.-c).


TK Labels are not legal statements. To be clear, TK Labels are access and use statements that outline in non-legal language culturally appropriate ways to access and use labeled material. Thus, TK Labels are access rights not intellectual property. MARC currently does not have a specific field for this kind of access rights information; thus, the adopting institution must decide where to catalog TK Labels. While I recognize this current limitation to the MARC record format, I argue that substantial user experience (UX) design problems arise when catalogers treat TK Labels as intellectual property. Notably, situating the Labels in a MARC 540 field creates unnecessary usability issues that work to embed inaccuracy and confusion around TK labeling.

In practice, cataloging the Labels in a MARC 540 field might confuse or misinform researchers and non-Indigenous users about the legal status of the Labels. Conflating the concept of the Labels with legal rights or obligations associated with intellectual property ultimately embeds inaccuracy and confusion in the Label definitions. If other institutions also catalog TK Labels in the MARC 540 field, it might exponentially embed inaccuracy in TK labeling and work to undermine the educational purposes of the TK Label framework.

Compounding this MARC UX design issue is a key underlying problem with the MARC record format: its inability to account for cultural contexts. TK Labels are culturally specific information, yet MARC is currently not designed to prioritize one cultural viewpoint or context over another. The fact that TK Labels are not legal obligations does not remove ethical/moral obligations to engage with Indigenous communities on their own terms by adhering to various communal and cultural protocols when called for. Ultimately, to address these practical issues in MARC, it requires changes to RDA cataloging rules and the MARC record format. For example, perhaps a specific field is added that is for information about cultural contexts.

While cataloging rules and record formats may not be of interest to the average online catalog user, these rules and the MARC record format directly impact where in the record information displays. In turn this impacts how users interpret information. The LC’s implementation demonstrates the need for a clearer distinction within memory institution online catalogs and Web services between digital access rights statements and legal rights statements concerning copyright. Rather than waiting for changes to catalog rules, a simple technical change could be adding another field to the catalog views or renaming current fields. For example, the “Access Rights Advisory” field could be renamed “Copyrights” or “Digital Access Rights”. Situating the Labels as an emergent digital access rights metadata schema may alleviate current and/or future UX design problems with usability in the MARC record format.

UX issues with multiple access rights statements

The multiple access and use rights statements on the LC’s Web site significantly weakens the authority and intellectual control of TK Labels. I argue that this is the most substantive UX design issue affecting the LC’s TK Labels. The underlying classification issues of TK Labels as intellectual property epitomize standardization issues with catalog record access rights statements on a systematic level. Access rights statements in catalog records are not necessarily legal statements. TK Labels exemplify this fact. Yet, Web page design structures and the actual wording of the statement(s) on library Web sites often generate usability issues surrounding access and use rights.

The decision to place/classify TK Labels in a field named rights advisory raises serious practical issues related to access rights statements in online catalog records [8]. First, the actual Web design of the TK Labels within the text of the record creates usability issues. For example, users may be provided little to no contextual information about the Labels depending on which formatted record is viewed. By this I mean that in the catalog views, there is no explanation within the record itself about the purpose or context for the TK Labels [9]. Simply put, there is no visual context in the Web design for TK Labels. This is a missed design opportunity to educate users about Passamaquoddy terms for access and use.

Second, inserting the Labels as text without their associated icons creates a significant scannability issue. In the catalog and curated views, the Labels display as a wall of text with no significant distinguishing space between each Label (see Figure 4). Fundamentally, catalog records should be scannable so that users can quickly search and find materials in the catalog that may be of use to them. The catalog views show what Carlyle and Timmons (2002) refer to as the “default display” of a record. Default displays show a briefer record; default displays are integral to improving user search functions because they provide the context needed to understand the record. From a practical standpoint, the font colors of the text block and the lack of distinguishable space between the Label names and definitions makes this difficult to read. For example, readers with visual impairment or color blindness may have a hard time distinguishing between the rights statements when reading at a glance.


The catalog view of Polansuwe Susehp Neptan displays the rights advisory field as a large text block
Figure 4: The catalog view of Polansuwe Susehp Neptan displays the rights advisory field as a large text block (Library of Congress online catalog, n.d.-c). From a practical standpoint, the font colors of the text block and the lack of distinguishable space between the Label names and definitions makes this difficult to read.


Finally, third, the wall of text design flaw hides an additional access rights statement. This is significant because the Peabody Museum statement reads as legal rights. Directly beneath the TK Labels is a rights statement claiming the Peabody Museum as a rights holder. It reads: “Rights are held by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University” (see Figure 5). The LC decision to include the Peabody Museum statement at all generates questions about the copyright status of the audio recordings: Why is this statement here? What rights does the Peabody Museum actually hold? This UX issue substantively demonstrates the importance for institutions adopting TK Labels to consider the impact that including access rights information in catalogs might have on TK Label user interpretation and use.


Close up view of the Rights Advisory field in the Polansuwe Susehp Neptan catalog record as seen in Figure 4
Figure 5: Close up view of the “Rights Advisory” field in the Polansuwe Susehp Neptan catalog record as seen in Figure 4. Readers with visual impairment or color blindness may have a hard time distinguishing the Labels from each other.


The language in the Peabody statement is ambiguous and implies that the Peabody Museum holds legal rights. The language is phrased in a way that suggests the nondescript rights refer to copyright, but if so, this language could have been more specific. Moreover, MARC has an explicit field for copyright notices. Thus, if the Peabody did hold copyrights, the Peabody Museum statement could have been cataloged in the MARC 264 field, which is explicitly for copyright notices (Network Development and MARC Standards Office. Library of Congress, 2011). All three MARC views of my cylinders did not even have a 264 field.

Regardless of whether or not the Peabody does hold legal rights to the cylinder, rights statements in catalog records are not always useful. In fact, it is typically up to the user to determine whether or not a work is copyrighted (Coyle, 2005; Library of Congress, 2018b; Society of American Archivists (SAA), 2013). Most institution Web sites include a generic access rights statement that informs the user it is their duty to ascertain the copyright status of a work (Coyle, 2005). The LC Web site is no exception. As a general statement, the Library plainly tells its Web site users that it is the users’ responsibility to determine whether or not there is a need to satisfy copyright or use restrictions when publishing or distributing collection materials (Library of Congress, 2018b). Why then include rights statements in catalog records if it is up to the user to determine the copyright status? Further, why include additional access rights statements if their contents trump and/or cancel the access and use rights outlined in TK Labels?

Conflating TK Labels with the Peabody Museum rights statement creates practical usability issues in terms of the Labels legal status. By visually contextualizing the Passamaquoddy’s TK Labels with the Peabody statement, which reads as legal rights, it may further confuse researchers to the legal status of the Labels on the Web page. From a UX and design perspective, the validity of the Peabody Museum statement does not necessarily matter if users believe it is legalese. More importantly, the actual wording of the Peabody Museum statement is too vague to be useful enough to assist users with general reference services. By this I mean that the statement works to further confuse users on who to contact for copyright information or potential research questions. For example, both the Peabody Museum statement as well as the TK Labels do not inform users whether to contact the Passamaquoddy Tribe or the Peabody Museum for permission to use the cylinders in publications. This design flaw might lead to users circumventing the Passamaquoddy Tribe entirely in matters of research and publication inquires. This fundamentally goes against the ethical research practices the Labels mean to establish.

Ultimately, there are too many rights statements associated with Ancestral Voices for any one statement to be useful. Case-in-point, in the collection-level rights statement users are told the LC holds nondescript rights over the material. In a fifth rights statement, the LC asserts authority over the collection’s contents (see Figure 6). The contradicting statements herein about consent, purpose for use, and securing permission do more to confuse users rather than establish precedents for use which are both legal and ethical in their nature. For example, the first line of the statement suggests that the LC prohibits commercial use of the cylinder’s content instead of the Passamaquoddy in their TK Label Non-Commercial — Ma yut monuwasiw (This is not to be sold).


Screenshot of the collection-level rights statement
Figure 6: Screenshot of the collection-level rights statement, which is located in the truncated “Rights & Access” menu in the curated view of Mihqelsuwakonutomon; Esunomawotultine. This statement is also verbatim on the “About this Collection” Web page for the Ancestral Voices digital collection.


While the number of conflicting statements might be unique to the LC’s Web site, it demonstrates the need for a unified rights advisory message between a library’s technological systems. Inaccurate rights statements only generate more work, confusion, and a lack of confidence. As TK labeling further develops as a metadata standard, institutions will need to consider whether or not additional rights statements in records are necessary and/or useful. In future implementations, institutions should seriously consider: When are there too many rights statements? Further, when does rights advisory information stop being useful to users? Conflicting rights statements at the Web site and collection-levels undermine the ethical dimensions TK Labels mean to create. TK Labels could easily be undermined or misinterpreted if the wording of additional rights statements contradict the access and use terms outlined in a TK Label.

One practical solution is to define a digital preservation standard for all institution assets to harmonize all access rights statements. By this I mean that multiple rights statements on a library’s Web site are remediated to articulate a clear uniform message that accounts for specific copyright or access rights at the Web site-level and the item-level. In 2015 Dean Farrell, a software developer for the University of North Carolina Libraries, developed a treemap visualization of the top 575 licenses in the Digital Public Libraries of America (DPLA) corpus (Farrell, 2018a). The DPLA is a non-profit that collates hundreds of digitized cultural heritage materials that other institutions, like the LC, digitized (Digital Public Library of America, n.d.). The treemap is broken into four clusters, such as no known copyright and copyright unknown; Farrell found that more than half of the licenses attached to the DPLA catalog records are classified as no known copyright or copyright unknown (Farrell, 2018b). Farrell’s work illustrates the complexity and inaccuracy of copyright statements on a systematic, institutional level. In practice, therefore, institutions should discuss ways to avoid conflating additional rights statements with TK Labels as part of their digital access rights strategy development.

A second practical solution is to curate more nuanced access rights statements that specify contact information for rights holder(s) and/or explicit copyright statuses. By developing a nuanced rights message, institutions streamline their position on access and use in a way that prevents potential user confusion or misinformation. In her work, Karen Coyle (2005) asserts that for catalog record rights statements to be effective, they should provide information to help users determine the copyright status by asserting what aspects if any of the copyright status are known. For example, a helpful nuance to the Peabody Museum statement would inform users that the Peabody Museum donated the Jesse Walter Fewkes collection to the LC. This information is helpful because users might first contact the collection donor when looking into the copyright status of materials [10].

Poor usability with responsive Web design

The fact that TK Labels are icons substantially suggests that the LC will create curated views for all 31 cylinders in Ancestral Voices. The LC did. As of August 2019, many of the 31 cataloged cylinders in the Jesse Walter Fewkes subcollection now have a curated view. The curated view of Mihqelsuwakonutomon; Esunomawotultine highlights specific UX design challenges to integrating TK Labels with homogenous Web site design templates based on responsive Web design. Since most memory institution Web sites also use responsive Web design, I highlighted these UX design issues.

Responsive Web design is when the layout of a Web page changes based on the size and capabilities of the viewing device (LePage and Andrew, 2019; Smashing Magazine, 2011) [11]. LePage and Andrew (2019) state that responsive design is when the user interface, “responds to the needs of the users and the devices they’re using” by changing the layout of a Web page’s content for a desktop computer and mobile version of a Web site [12]. For example, the user interface of the LC’s online catalog is designed to enable “optimal viewing and interaction” across multiple user devices, such as desktop computers and mobile phones (Library of Congress, 2019). In other words, if viewed on a computer versus mobile device, the size and view of content adjusts to fit the size of the screen.

The curated view most clearly demonstrates the LC’s responsive Web design. Glancing at the record on a computer screen, users first see the Labels in a side panel to the right of the Web page. The side panel displays the TK Label icon and name but not their corresponding definitions. When I viewed this formatted record on mobile (see Figure 7), the side panel appears at the bottom of the record; this strongly suggests that the side panel design element is part of the Library Web site’s responsive design for mobile devices. Side panel designs optimize viewing on mobile because the panel assists in sub-navigating the record as a whole (Smashing Magazine, 2011). For example, users can navigate the record one-handed on mobile instead of having to toggle left to right. Unfortunately, this design benefit is a design flaw for the LC’s records with TK Labels. In practice, the LC’s responsive Web design practically interferes with its TK Labels in terms of visual context and information organization.


Mobile view of the side panel from the curated view of Mihqelsuwakonutomon; Esunomawotultine in an Android operating system
Figure 7: Mobile view of the side panel from the curated view of Mihqelsuwakonutomon; Esunomawotultine in an Android operating system (OS). On mobile, the side panel is situated at the bottom of the record, which makes it easier to navigate to specific fields within the record without needing to scroll.


I argue that the side panel fails to contextual the TK Label information. The record design template is not suitable for the lengthy descriptive nature of TK Labels, which suggests that adopting institutions should reconsider using homogenous record templates for every kind of record. To be fair, a side panel is not the place for lengthy text. In part this is because lengthy text here interferes with how the record renders on mobile; too much text here may actually make the record illegible to mobile users. Yet, the lack of Label context and explanation in the side panel generates confusion rather than providing intended navigation usability on mobile.

The LC worked around their side panel design limitation by adding the explanatory TK Label context in a drop-down menu element at the bottom of the record (see Figure 8). The design trade-off is visibility. The only way to see this content is by purposely clicking the button next to the section heading. This is precisely the more substantive, detailed information that users need to see in order to understand the context to which TK Labels were added to this record.


Wide screenshot of the Rights and Access drop-down menu located in the curated view of the Mihqelsuwakonutomon; Esunomawotultine record
Figure 8: Wide screenshot of the “Rights & Access” drop-down menu located in the curated view of the Mihqelsuwakonutomon; Esunomawotultine record (“Passamaquoddy War song; Trading song,” n.d.-a). In order to see contextual information about Ancestral Voices and TK Labels, LC users must click on the plus icon located next to the section heading.


Users ignorant to the TK Label framework have no way of knowing what the purpose or use of TK Labels is without the Label definitions associated with the icon in the side panel. Users that briefly view the records could legitimately miss the drop-down menu thereby missing substantially relevant information to understanding the cylinder. As Walt Crawford (1992) pointed out, “snazzy design and clever features [of a user interface] are pointless if they don’t serve the aims of the library” [13]. The LC record template clearly demonstrates how record designs practically interfere with the effectiveness of the TK Labels as educational tools.

Other adopting institutions should consider how their own responsive Web design might create accessibility issues with TK Label information within the records themselves. Arguably, it would not be unreasonable for Indigenous community partners to request that the LC curate their Ancestral Voices records in a way that does not use the homogenous record template. Since staff are already providing specialized digital curation services (e.g., curated views of records), it is reasonable to alter the visual design layout of the records too.



Improving usability: Rethinking access as display

It may be more practical to discuss TK Labels in terms of usability and user-centered design rather than focusing discussions on access rights in the sense of intellectual control. Online catalog records are curated digital projects; therefore, TK Label implementations should account for a catalog record’s digital nature. The fact that online catalog records are Internet-accessible means that memory institutions can precisely format how information is situated and displayed on a Web page [14]. More importantly, TK Labels as metadata need to account for the underlying principles of why institutions create catalog records. A fundamental purpose of a library catalog is to design catalog records based on the principle of user convenience. Spiteri (2012) defines user convenience as the idea that catalog records are designed with the user in mind [15]. How an online catalog’s user interface looks directly impacts its usability in terms of finding and selecting, “items that may be useful”, to library users [16]. By centering TK Label discussions on the record’s user interface, it is easier to reconcile the principle of user convenience with cataloging TK Labels.

Equally important to consider is how the framework of cataloging rules impacts UX design. Usability is often forgotten or a secondary aspect to online catalogs, even though usability is an important factor in improving access to information (Majors, 2012). RDA cataloging rules are based on a conceptual data model called the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR) (Denton, 2007). One of the widely accepted key functions of a library catalog is a FRBR user-task to “identify” materials that meet their information needs (Riva, et al., 2016; Hider, 2017; Harej and Žumer, 2013). In other words, users need to be able to find or discover information resources in the online catalog. The UX design of a catalog record directly affects a user’s ability to accomplish this key FRBR user-task. For example, in an ideal scenario, LC users should be able to briefly view the records for Mihqelsuwakonutomon; Esunomawotultine and know whether this cylinder is of interest to their purposes. Yet, the current design structures of the LC’s catalog record template impede fundamental catalog record usability principles: navigation and scannability.

Even though implementing TK Labels in memory institutions needs further review and thoughtful discussion, the LC’s implementation demonstrates that TK labeling does provide more space for community-based relationships. The mere existence of the Labels in the LC’s online catalog provides further momentum for the larger examination and critique of prevailing representation standards of Indigenous communities within memory institutions. The Jesse Walter Fewkes subcollection in Ancestral Voices demonstrates that TK Labels as metadata are a good step in the right direction; however, how the LC inserted the Labels in the digital collection falls short of its promise to return authority to the Passamaquoddy people. Rather than being a tool to return intellectual control to the Passamaquoddy, the Labels give the illusion of enhanced control because they fail to meaningfully return it. Phrasing Labels in authoritative, actionable ways does not make them actionable. Even re-cataloged, the catalog records continue to privilege the LC’s curatorial power — not the Passamaquoddy’s.

Catalog records adopting TK Labels require far more than just new cataloged information in order to meaningfully return intellectual control and authority to Indigenous communities. I argue that memory institutions also need to adopt technical and logistical means by which to make the terms and conditions outlined in TK Labels necessary and legitimate. Indigenous community creators need an actionable voice in how the user interface of re-cataloged materials displays their information. The point of re-cataloging the records is restitution of power. Repatriation is fundamentally about restoring power relations through giving things back to Indigenous communities (Tuck and Yang, 2012; Colwell, 2015; Phillips, 2015). The physical and digital return of heritage resources and information requires a shift of power from memory institutions to descent communities (Colwell, 2015).

As a technological system, online catalogs can and should relinquish more curatorial authority to Indigenous communities creating TK Labels. Warnings and temporary displays that acknowledge protocols are empty gestures if the design structures of the records, including cataloging rules in MARC and the user interface, work around the ethical systems the Labels attempt to engineer. Dr. Kimberly Christen, one of the co-creators of TK Labels, arguably intended for TK Labels to do more than just exhibit cultural difference because the act of re-cataloging demands altering display practices. By this I mean to suggest Christen intends for the Labels to actionably, “alter museum display practices, question modes of authoring, and/or redefine collecting priorities based on systems of accountability that define an ethical field of visuality based on not looking” [17]. Rethinking the design and purpose of online catalog records returns far more substantive authority to the Indigenous communities engaging in TK labeling than merely providing opportunities for self-representation.

Implementing card-based design in Ancestral Voices

In light of the various usability and technical issues I highlighted, I propose one potential method of re-designing the user interface of the curated record views around card user interface design. My proposal illustrates how the actual design structures of catalog records can be manipulated to prioritize Indigenous corrections [18]. A card-based user interface organizes information in a card-like display on a Web page. Gill (2016) defines a card as a, “sheet of material that serves as an entry point to more detailed information” [19]. Similar to Polaroids or baseball cards, the card is made up of an image and text. The image on each card shows a preview of the Web page users go to by clicking the hyperlink in the card description (see Figure 9). Rather than including the TK Labels in a side panel design, I propose displaying card-based designs of the relevant, substantive content on the right-hand side of the Web page.


Wide screen view of my proposal for redesigning the user interface of the curated views
Figure 9: Wide screen view of my proposal for redesigning the user interface of the curated views. Instead of including the Labels in a side panel design, card designs of the relevant, substantive content can be displayed on the Web page’s right side.


I suggest designing cards for the TK Labels and Passamaquoddy cultural information, both of which are more substantive content users need to see. The cards could be positioned where the side panel is in the current design. Alternatively, the card-based designs for the Passamaquoddy stories could be interspersed between other catalog fields. For example, the cards for the Mihqelsuwakonutomon; Esunomawotultine could be placed between the “Creator/Publisher” and “Contents” fields.

Card-based design practically solves some of the technical implementation problems I mentioned. First, card-based designs are an extension of the design elements already in the LC’s online catalog. When users search the catalog, search results display as cards with the name and a brief description of the item. To the left of each card is a picture of a digital copy of the described item or a generic icon displaying the type of resource, such as audio or book formats. Second, card-based designs solve some issues related to the homogenous templates of the record. Compared to the homogenous record template, card-based designs make it easier to navigate to information about the Labels and Passamaquoddy culture found in the catalog record itself and on other LC Web pages. For example, placing the Passamaquoddy cultural narratives and knowledges in a card design more clearly separates cataloged narratives/knowledges into more meaningful bite-size sections that make the record easier to scan (Babich, 2016). This immediately and practically alleviates problems with the walls of text seen in the current design. Finally, chunking the Passamaquoddy content into coherent pieces of information reinforces the idea that the Passamaquoddy corrections are necessary to understand the described cylinder. This benefit in particular is more in line with the TK labeling framework and purposes for re-cataloging these records.

I created sample card-based designs for the TK Labels and “Ancestral Voices” collection descriptions (see Figure 10). My examples display a screenshot of the information found on the Ancestral Voices collection “About this Collection” Web page. Placing the contextual TK Label information in a card improves the readability of the information currently found in a drop-down menu on the curated view. More importantly, this design improves the record’s responsive Web design because cards could easily be adapted to the screen of a computer or mobile device.


My mockup card design for the information hidden in the Rights and Access drop-down menu design
Figure 10: My mockup card design for the information hidden in the “Rights & Access” drop-down menu design. Card designs for collection-level and TK Label contextual information help users navigate to additional LC Web pages.


Cards based on Passamaquoddy culture and knowledge could include screenshots of the Passamaquoddy created and designed re-cataloged records located and a short text description of content directly from the Passamaquoddy’s own Web site. I created sample card-based designs for the cultural narrative and traditional knowledges of both songs: Mihqelsuwakonutomon and Esunomawotultine (see Figure 11). The visual component in the cards could include any portion of the Passamaquoddys Web site. In my mockup the image component is a screenshot of the Passamaquoddy’s catalog record for this cylinder found on; the text component is pulled from textual content also found on the Passamaquoddy’s record version. I chose a wider angle for the image compared to other mockup cards to highlight the variety of additional content not found in the LC’s catalog records or on the LC Web site.


Google Map image and embedded video in the above mockup card designs are the kinds of content that could also be showcased in the LC's online catalog
Figure 11: The Google Map image and embedded video in the above mockup card designs are the kinds of content that could also be showcased in the LC’s online catalog. The image components come from the Passamaquoddy’s catalog record versions located at


The current designs do not accurately reflect the amount of time and effort the Passamaquoddy put into curating their materials in Ancestral Voices. Specifically, the current designs fail to emphasize the digital archive curated by the Passamaquoddy Tribe located at The current LC design includes the hyperlink to a Passamaquoddy Tribe digital resource but fails to mention that this links to a significant amount of Passamaquoddy cultural information and multimedia not included in the LC’s re-cataloged records. For example, in my mockup for the song Mihqelsuwakonutomon the image shows a Google map; the LC versions of these records do not include this reference information. This kind of additional content is relevant and may be of interest to LC users. By creating the cultural narrative and knowledge card designs on the LC’s Web site, the LC records more clearly indicate that the Passamaquoddy Tribe has a separate digital exhibit available to researchers and non-Indigenous users. Further, the text and screenshot in the card design do more to direct users to go directly to the Web site curated by the Passamaquoddy than just including the hyperlink.




UX design in online catalog records exposes broader issues in reconciling public access mandates of memory institutions with the kinds of protections that TK Labels and re-cataloging records call for. Phillips (2015) argues that in debates of decolonization, it is often a question of whether state-sponsored memory institutions can allow for Indigenous cultural expressions to keep their autonomous power if they are mandated to make visible the imagined community of the larger nation [20]. The idea that catalog records and/or online collections have a specific cultural-context goes against the notion that catalog records represent knowledge for the public. Phillips (2015) argues this is because the collective construct of a national identity is inherently antithetical to Indigenous affirmations of sovereignty [21]. In order for TK Labels to prioritize Passamaquoddy knowledge and intellectual authority, Passamaquoddy sovereignty has to be acknowledged by the LC (Rickard, 2011). One practical way in which this could happen is by returning more substantive curatorial decision-making power to the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

The LC’s adoption of TK Labels demonstrates substantive challenges to cataloging this emergent digital access rights information in the MARC record format. For the past few decades, the paradigm shift in memory institutions involved providing more opportunity for Indigenous self-representation (Hansen, 2011; Christen, 2015a; Anderson and Christen, 2013) instead of technical changes to what and how catalog records display information. My paper brings serious practical implementation issues to light related to Web site design and the technological systems behind library online catalogs. These kinds of technical issues deserve further consideration before memory institutions invest in this new cataloging practice of TK Labels. Arguably, in order to fully prioritize TK Labels in catalog records, it might mean altering the code of an adopting institution’s Web site or designing new record templates specifically for TK Label records.

TK Labels as metadata cannot practically address the historical, systematic dispossession of Indigenous communities from their belongings. Anderson and Christen (2013) argue that TK Labels can be tools for a cultural interface between Indigenous individuals and non-Indigenous peoples and third parties [22]. I agree. However, this cultural interface requires rethinking the use of homogenous design structures and user interfaces, especially when catalogers and information technologists are already redesigning specific catalog records.

In designing mock-ups, I hope if anything to create space for Indigenous designs that are just as legitimate and necessary to catalog records as other forms of bibliographic information. Rethinking the design and purpose of online catalog records returns far more substantive authority to the Indigenous communities engaging in TK labeling than merely providing opportunities for self-representation. A good first step for the LC might be to adopt some user interface designs from Clearly, the curation of the Passamaquoddy’s digital collection for the Jesse Walter Fewkes materials illustrates the kind of user designs Passamaquoddies feel best represents their message.

I see more institutions adopting TK labeling in their online catalogs in the next decade. As institutional interest in TK labeling grows, it will be important to build relationships with Indigenous communities beyond correcting or cataloging new information in existing catalog records. Relationship building is inherently imbued in the TK label framework because the Labels challenge authority over visuality in the digital landscape. Dr. Christen, one of the Labels co-creators, argues that digital projects and spaces are tools, “part of the possible integration of new types of relationships that will redefine the very notion of the museum itself. Without relationships the digital is merely a tool” [23]. In order for TK labeling to be such a tool, it requires for these relationships to be built into the technologies used in memory institutions. The technical and user experience design issues I bring up in this paper are not limited to Ancestral Voices. Rather, these technical and usability challenges to catalog records will need to be overcome by every adopting institution before records can effectively preserve Indigenous contexts as well as return intellectual control to their rightful Indigenous community owners. End of article


About the author

Dana Reijerkerk is the Knowledge Management and Digital Assets Librarian at Stony Brook University Libraries.
E-mail: dana [dot] reijerkerk [at] stonybrook [dot] edu



1. Bowker and Star, 1999, p. 319.

2. The thesauri I list are meant to give a general audience examples of alternative cataloging vocabularies specifically for Indigenous material culture and users.

3. WIPO, 2016, p. 1. WIPO defines TCEs as “expressions of folklore, [which] may include music, dance, art, designs, names, signs and symbols, performances, ceremonies, architectural forms, handicrafts and narratives, or many other artistic or cultural expressions” (WIPO, n.d.).

4. It is important to note that WIPO does not recognize documenting TK as being legally binding. WIPO states that the, “protection granted to the documented content under the copyright regime has a limited scope” and that, “documentation in itself thus cannot substitute for positive protection of TK” (WIPO, 2016, p. 1).

5. Dr. Jane Anderson is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Museum Studies at New York University. For more information see

6. Dr. Kimberly Christen is the Director of the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation (CDSC) at Washington State University. The CDSC is the team that manages Mukurtu CMS, a database platform specifically designed for Indigenous communities to curate and use TK Labels. For more information see

7. For more information about the Passamaquoddy people and their culture, see their digital exhibit and Web site located at

8. The LC cataloged its TK Labels in a “Rights Advisory” field in all record versions for my three cylinders. When navigating via the search bar on the Library of Congress’ Web site, users will most likely find the catalog view of each cylinder located in the Library’s online catalog. The exception is Mihqelsuwakonutomon; Esunomawotultine’s bibliographic record. Users find the curated view when searching via the search bar tool at the top right corner of the Library’s Web site. At first, I thought this may be because I searched for the cylinder using the Passamaquoddy name. In order to test this theory, I typed the English name, “Passamaquoddy war song; Trading song”, in the search bar. The first search result from the search query was still the curated view of the record. From this interface, I could not find the catalog view.

9. In the curated views, brief contextual information is provided in a drop-down menu design element at the bottom of the Web page. I specifically discuss this later in the paper.

10. As of August 2019 the only places users see this information is in: (1) the “About this collection” access statement located in the Ancestral Voices digital collection and, (2) the “Rights & Access” drop-down menu in the curated record views (“Passamaquoddy War song; Trading song,” n.d.-a).

11. A note on sources: I cite UX scholarly material in this section to enforce the idea that responsive Web design is back-end Web site development. It is specific lines of code that information technologists program into the Library’s Web site. As such, it is more appropriate to cite coding resources.

12. LePage and Andrew, 2019, paragraph 1.

13. Crawford, 1992, p. 62.

14. From a cataloging perspective, catalog rules themselves do not dictate specifications for an online catalog’s user interface. The RDA framework is a content standard (Hart, 2014). The order of catalog record fields and how cataloged information displays on a computer screen are curatorial decisions made by the Web site designers.

15. Spiteri, 2012, p. 208. The idea of designing catalog records with the user in mind is not new. In 2009 the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) released a Statement of International Cataloguing Principles that outlined their vision for an international cataloging standard. Of the nine general principles, three explicitly relate to user needs; according to this statement the most important principle used to create cataloging rules is, “the convenience of the user” (IFLA, 2009, p. 2). Further, Cutter’s objects of the catalogue, a widely known early cataloging pioneer, direct catalogers to prioritize the convenience of the public (Cutter, 1904; Denton, 2007; Spiteri, 2012). For example, Cutter’s first object states, “to enable a person to find a book”, thereby emphasizing the importance of designing a catalog based on user experience (Cutter, 1904).

16. Carlyle and Timmons, 2002, p. 179.

17. Christen, 2015a, p. 366.

18. I recognize that only a small number of specific Passamaquoddy belongings are being re-cataloged in the Jesse Walter Fewkes subcollection. However, the usability issues I highlight replicated across all items for all peoples added to the Ancestral Voices project expands the problem exponentially.

19. Gill, 2016, paragraph 1.

20. Phillips, 2015, p. 555. By decolonization I mean the deliberate dismantling of colonial hegemonic power dynamics. Wilson and Yellow Bird (2005) define decolonization as, “the intelligent, calculated, and active resistance to the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the subjugation and/or exploitation of our minds, bodies, and lands, and it is engaged for the ultimate purpose of overturning the colonial structure and realizing Indigenous liberation” (p. 5). Nicholas (2014) argues that decolonization is not just altering the perspectives used to view Indigenous materials and knowledge, but also changing the structures of the, “decision-making process regarding heritage matters” (p. 221).

21. Phillips, 2015, p. 546.

22. Anderson and Christen, 2013, p. 111.

23. Christen, 2015a, p. 384.



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Editorial history

Received 16 December 2019; revised 3 June 2020; accepted 4 June 2020.

Creative Commons License
“UX design in online catalogs: Practical issues with implementing traditional knowledge (TK) labels” by Dana Reijerkerk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

UX design in online catalogs: Practical issues with implementing traditional knowledge (TK) labels
by Dana Reijerkerk.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 8 - 3 August 2020