WASHINGTON – Like a lot of libraries nationwide, tribal libraries are struggling. Books are lacking, roofs are leaking, and the Internet is broken. Indian students this back-to-school season tend to be suffering most, while tribal educators continue to spread the word on the need for improvements.
The importance of tribal libraries to the cultural and educational fabrics of tribal nations cannot be overstated, according to tribal educators. Beyond their primary role as centers for information, tribal libraries often have missions to strengthen cultural identity and Native language revitalization, promote intergenerational activities, and serve as research centers for tribal citizens.
Despite the critical community roles they play, a report published this year in the Library Student Journal found that dilemmas facing tribal libraries are numerous and daunting. The report noted that it is often difficult for tribes and tribal colleges to retain quality staff at some facilities due partially to recruiting shortfalls facing remote reservation areas.
“Many tribal librarians do not have the master’s degree that other professional librarians have,” said Sandy Littletree, a program manager of the School of Information Resources and Library Science at the University of Arizona.
“While it is true that many of these librarians do an excellent job of running their libraries and providing these essential services to the community, it also means that many tribal librarians are hired without some of the fundamental skills that their colleagues at other institutions may have.”
Beyond the staffing concerns, lack of money, by far, is the main problem.
“The biggest issue facing tribal college libraries, and most other colleges and universities and libraries in general, is funding and budgetary constraints,” according to the LSJ report by Lisa Shamchuck of the University of Alberta. “Funding usually comes in the form of federal obligations from treaties, legislation, regional and local laws, private donations, tribal sources and grants, all of which may be unpredictable.”
Miguel Figueroa, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Diversity and Spectrum, said 54 percent of rural libraries face flat or decreased operating budgets for 2010, according to the organization’s studies.
This funding crisis has tangible impacts on some of the most essential of services; 73 percent of rural libraries reported they are the only provider of free public computer and Internet access in their communities, but nearly 70 percent of rural libraries reported that they have too few public access Internet workstations; 62 percent reported there will be no additions to their public workstations in the next year; 70 percent reported they have no plans for replacement of the current workstations they have, and 61 percent of rural libraries reported that cost is the most important factor in their decision about adding computer workstations.
Figueroa said tribal libraries, which often serve communities of 2,000 to 3,000 or less, tend to experience among the most severe funding challenges of all rural libraries.
Jurisdictional issues complicate funding matters for some tribal libraries, added Littletree. “Tribal libraries often have no ties to state library agencies or other library systems, which means that not only is their funding limited, they also have less support and less visibility in the profession.”
The lack of visibility means that many of the nation’s top library advocates and policymakers have little insight into the problems facing some of the most struggling libraries in the country.
The advocates who are out there, including the leaders of the American Indian Library Association, are working overtime to improve the outlook. The group of tribal professionals, which holds business meetings twice a year and publishes a regular newsletter, is currently led by president Jody Gray. She and past president, Loriene Roy, are currently among the most well-known of tribal library supporters.
Even though the picture is bleak for many tribal libraries, especially in the current economic climate, there are a few bright spots to celebrate, including new funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal grant-making agency.
In its latest round of grants, announced Sept. 7, IMLS said out of 46 applicants nationwide, 17 Native American tribal communities were chosen to receive $2,030,562 in Native American Library Services Enhancement grants – 10 of the grantees were first time awardees.
Projects planned by awardees are expected to further the cultural underpinnings of the tribal library movement. The Cherokee Nation, for instance, is working to establish a “Virtual Library of Cherokee Knowledge,” which is designed to provide Cherokee citizens and the general public access to a comprehensive digital repository of authentic Cherokee knowledge related to the nation’s history, language, traditions, culture and leaders.
IMLS, which is the primary source of federal funds for the nation’s museums and libraries, also announced that 24 of 35 applicants would be receiving funding through the 2010 Na-tive American/Native Hawaiian museum services grant program. The projects chosen for funding will receive a total of $1,023,857.
Mamie Bittner, deputy director of IMLS, said the agency keeps a close eye on tribal institutions and their needs.
“Like with most tribal issues, there is no ‘standard’ or ‘average’ library. They run the gamut. The one thing that they do have in common is a commitment to lifelong learning while aiding in the preservation of Native cultures.”
She added that one of the most exciting parts of working with tribes for her involves convening tribal library representatives to discuss and share information about how to solve the problems.
“One interesting comment we heard at the last convening was that tribes are using 21st century tools to preserve Native cultures and stories.”
The need to get more tribal library projects funded continues to be a top issue of priority for many advocates who say that improved grantwriting is needed across the board.
“The grantees who received the grants will enhance their tribal communities’ ability to provide much needed resources for their people, and I would encourage other tribal communities to apply for these funds,” said Willard Sakiestewa Gilbert, a National Indian Education Association leader and professor at Northern Arizona University.
Gilbert hopes that those who have yet to receive awards take the time to review successful applications, and keep trying for future success. Examples of recent grants are online.
Along those lines, Bittner noted that at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Association of State and Local History in Oklahoma City, there will be a “tribal track” especially for tribal libraries and museums to help them talk about and work on such issues.
The next deadline for Native American Library Services Enhancement Grant applications is May 2. Senior Program Officer Alison Freese can be reached at (202) 653-4665 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting (202) 653-4665 end_of_the_skype_highlighting or firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.