Toward Understanding Libraries as Tribal Treasures

While many tribal libraries started with the goal of providing books and learning resources for the community, many have embraced libraries as places to gather and revitalize traditional culture and language.
July 18, 2011

Arizona has been home to Native Americans for thousands of years. Over 250,000 individuals representing twenty-one federally recognized tribes call the state home, from the Akimel O’odham to the Zuni.

These tribes have histories rich with tradition, and many keep libraries to preserve and make accessible the stories and texts of their cultures as well as give community members access to the world of information through literature and web-enabled computers. And yet, strategies for developing and preserving these libraries have not always been prioritized.

How essential are these resources and what value do they represent to their tribes and to Arizona? Sandy Littletree, program manager for the Knowledge River Project at the UA School of Information Resources and Library Science (SIRLS), and graduate student Jamie A. Lee have launched a project to unearth the value of these treasures and develop a better understanding of the role of the library in these cultures.

The two are heading up "Stories of Arizona’s Tribal Libraries: An Oral History Project," an effort to record the oral histories of tribal elders, librarians and other tribal community members detailing the important role their libraries have long held in communities throughout the state. 

The project – for which Littletree and Lee received an $8,400 grant from the Arizona State Library – is meant to "demonstrate that these libraries are indeed a vital and valuable part of the community and the state of Arizona," said Littletree, who manages the Knowledge River program.

Together, they plan to engage about four other nations in Arizona.

“So far, we have only collected oral histories from the San Carlos Public Library on the San Carlos Apache Nation and the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation,” says Lee. “We have approval from the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Navajo Nation.  We have other tribal councils reviewing the proposal and hope to hear from them this fall as well.”

Some tribal libraries were initially launched by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, during the late 19th century, with the Colorado River Indian Tribes in Arizona being the first tribal library ever established. Today, more than one dozen tribal libraries exist in Arizona.

Most maintain collections of books and journals written by American Indian authors. All of the libraries are designed to meet the unique information needs of their communities. They house everything from resources to connect to the culture, to books for children, teens and families, to materials for job seekers and those searching for medical information.. Some have extensive video and audio collections, often times containing interviews with elders and other tribal members.

Littletree and Lee agree on the importance of understanding both the similarities and differences tribal libraries share in addition to their community-specific importance. 

This is part of the reason why oral histories become crucial. 

Lee says she was especially drawn to the project because of the power of both digital documentation and storytelling, particularly when working with underrepresented populations. And her passion is taking her far, as she also has been named a Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian summer internship recipient. Her fellowship with the museum's media initiatives unit will involve working with oral histories to expand a database centered on indigenous media.

“I would love to see the Stories of Arizona's Tribal Libraries Oral History Project become a living and breathing digital archive,” she says. “Not only would it share the histories of Arizona's Tribal Libraries, but it would also become a space for tribal community involvement with ongoing oral history collection documenting the changes that are taking place as traditional histories and memories connect with emerging technologies in new and meaningful ways.”

Learn more about the Knowledge River project, focused on Hispanic and American Indian library and information issues. Visit the UA School of Information Resources and Library Science.
Visit the UA School of Information Resources and Library Science.