World Libraries

Supporting, Documenting, and Preserving Tribal Cultural Lifeways: Library Services for Tribal Communities in the United States

Several publications describe the historical development of tribal libraries. [1] Instead of reviewing similar ground, this article will instead present a snapshot of library services today in tribal communities. Tribal communities are populated by independent sovereign nations of indigenous peoples residing within the contemporary boundaries of the United States.

There are 550 federally recognized tribes, and it is impossible and erroneous to generalize about tribal libraries. They may have separate or combined archives, community libraries, school libraries, tribal college libraries, technology centers, cultural centers or museums, and literacy programs. One or more of the programs may be combined into a delivery outlet or may be provided in tandem in a multi–purpose tribal information center, social service center, or health clinic.

The variations in organization may be due to tradition and/or to the local economic situations. In terms of governance, tribal librarians may report to another tribal agency, such as the tribal education office, to a head of information technology, or directly to the tribal council. Just as their organization structures and missions vary, so do their services. Tribal library patrons are Native peoples across the lifespan: library personnel are just as likely to work with preschoolers in reading readiness programs as they are to plan and coordinate oral history projects that document elders' lives. They develop collections that reflect indigenous lifeways across generations.

While tribal library organization and services vary, they do share the same needs for stable funding, education and training for personnel, and access to new materials and technologies. This article provides a summary of some current initiatives in tribal college, tribal school, and tribal community libraries. Instead of reporting on a single case study, the emphasis is on describing statewide, regional, national, and even international efforts to further indigenous library services.

Support for Tribal Libraries: National, State, and Regional Efforts

Tribal library budgets are determined within the tribal community, whether it is tribal council/governance, tribal school board, or tribal college coordinating board.

Regardless of the source, tribal libraries are notoriously under funded. The needs of tribal libraries are great yet tribal librarians often operate in isolation. Even electronic communication may be difficult due to unreliable Internet access and little technical support.

The challenges of great geographic distances, insufficient financial support, lack of reliable communication systems, and the overtaxed lives of tribal librarians makes national coordination very difficult.

There are some efforts to support gatherings of indigenous librarians internationally. The first International Indigenous Librarians Forum was held in Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand, in November 1999 and the second in Jokkmokk, Sweden, in September 2001. [2] A third Forum is scheduled for November 2003 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA. Forums are organized by representatives of the indigenous library organizations in the respective countries and include workshops, formal presentations, and directed deliberations. While these events provide opportunities for local indigenous information specialists to meet with others, they have largely been open only to those with the financial means to attend.

International efforts need to investigate other mechanisms to be more broadly inclusive of indigenous information specialists residing outside of developed countries.

The International Federal of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) has expressed interest in indigenous librarianship. This includes programs sponsored by two of its forty–five sections, Libraries Serving Disadvantaged Persons, and Library Services to Multicultural Populations.

In addition the IFLA Governing Board approved a resolution in 2002, now referred to as the IFLA Statement on Indigenous Traditional Knowledge. [3] This is an acknowledgement of the value of tribal knowledge systems and the need to collect, document, preserve, and provide access to such knowledge. Note that applications of this statement must insure that indigenous peoples are involved directly in interpreting the guidelines.

The U.S. federal government provides some funding for tribal libraries through the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and federal legislation in the form of the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA). The IMLS Native American Library Grant program provides two categories of grants. The two non–competitive grants are the Basic Grants, approximately $4,000 per year for general operating expenditures, and Professional Assistance Grants, $2,000 per year to support an honorarium and expenses of a consultant. Tribal libraries compete to receive the Enhancement grants of up to $150,000 to expand services or work cooperatively with other libraries. In some cases the small IMLS Basic Grants are the only financial support that tribal community libraries receive.

IMLS also provides state library agencies with funding. In turn, the state libraries distribute the IMLS funding through various grants. For example, tribal libraries in Washington State have received subsidy grants to access databases. Public libraries in Arizona that partner with tribal libraries to extend services to underserved communities may receive funding through a competitive grant process.

The IMLS funded the Five State Project which provided financial support for the staff of tribal community libraries, archives, and museums to gather separately in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah and together at one annual event. These regional meetings were expanded in 2002 with a national conference in Mesa, Arizona. Papers and workshops will be published in a monograph in 2004. [4] The Five State Project was a rare example of a tribally centered continuing education opportunity.

In 1997, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched a U.S. Library Program that has delivered 40,000 computers at 10,000 public library outlets serving low economic communities in the United States. In 2001 the Foundation unveiled its customized Native American Access to Technology Program (NAATP) for the nineteen Pueblo, two Apache, and Navajo tribal communities in New Mexico, as well as tribes in Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. NAATP delivered computer equipment and software, some initial onsite training, and access to a technical assistance hotline for three years. [5] By June 2003 the Foundation had provided nearly $7 million towards NAATP. [6] The NAATP program also included an Intern program for students at tribal colleges and the University of Arizona's graduate School of Information Resources and Library Science (SIRLS).

The Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records department provided additional funding in 2002/2003 to support staffing on–site technology interns at nine sites in Indian Country as a test to assess whether tribal communities would provide local support to continue the staff positions.


The closest organization to a national tribal libraries organization is the American Indian Library Association (AILA). [7] AILA, which has been in existence for nearly 25 years, represents tribal library interests to the American Library Association (ALA) and to the public at large. Because its mission is so broad, its impact on tribal library development is probably best felt through the efforts of individual AILA members who report on their work at membership meetings and in the American Indian Libraries Newsletter. AILA membership is consistently around 300, a number that includes institutional members that join to receive the print–only newsletter. Approximately 30 AILA members and interested observers attend bi–annual meetings held in conjunction with the ALA Midwinter Meetings and annual conferences. While AILA provides a contact point for some professional librarians interested in tribal libraries, few practicing tribal librarians are able to afford to costs associated with attending AILA business meetings.

AILA is officially affiliated with ALA. The ALA Office for Literacy and Outreach Services' Subcommittee on Library Services to American Indians is another venue for librarians to collaborate to develop conference programs and otherwise increase the visibility of tribal library needs. Members of this committee have recently developed a webliography of resources on Native librarianship. This list of books, book chapters, journal and newsletter articles, documents, and Internet resources is available at http://www– Tribal community librarians who are unable to attend ALA conferences may attend state library conferences, such as the New Mexico Library Association and Arizona Library Association annual conferences, or regional meetings such as those planned by the Mountain Plains Library Association. Tribal school librarians may be involved in meetings of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA). Tribal college librarians may attend national general library conferences or the American Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) annual conference for individuals involved in education at tribal college settings.

California, Alaska, and New Mexico illustrate how states can work with tribal communities to advance library services.

Support and recognition of tribal libraries varies from state to state. California is the state with the greatest American Indian population—333,000 people according to the 2000 U.S. census—and the largest number (150) of federally recognized tribal groups. In 2001/2002 the California State Library sponsored a "Tribal Library Census & Needs Assessment" of thirty–seven reservations in the southern region of the state. Results of this study found that just over half (53 percent) of the tribal communities had libraries and three–fourths (77 percent) of these libraries had open hours for the public. Only a third (38 percent) of the libraries had salaried personnel on site and none of these staff members had an entry–level professional degree or school media certification. [8] Unfortunately, to those involved in tribal library development, these figures do not sound unusual.

The Alaska State Library sponsored a workshop for Alaska Library Directors that resulted in a document referred to as the "Culturally Responsive Guidelines for Alaska Public Libraries." [9] These guidelines cover the categories of the library environment, services and programs, collections, and staff. Tribal libraries could also benefit from the creation or customizing of other planning documents, including output measures for tribal library settings and quantitative standards. Similarly, tribal librarians should work with community members to develop interpretations of reference and library instruction guidelines such as the Big6 for information literacy and the Reference and User Services Association's Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Services Professionals. [10]

The New Mexico Library Association is the only state library association with a membership unit devoted to Native librarianship, the Native American Libraries Special Interest Group (NALSIG). NALSIG established the New Mexico Friends of the Tribal Librarians, a non–profit organization that can lobby and fundraise to support tribal library efforts. The New Mexico tribal library community is also involved with promoting statewide library development efforts such as a recent referendum to increase general operating expenditures for community libraries through a General Obligation Bond.

In New Mexico the State Library also has special services for tribal libraries. Their Tribal Libraries Program (TLP) receives $270,000 per year from the New Mexico State budget to support tribal library services. TLP received additional support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to assist tribal library staff in converting their cataloging records to a common automation system. In addition, TLP provides small grants directly to tribal libraries and additional training.

Tribal School Libraries [11]

Approximately 50,000 of the nearly 600,000 Indian children in the United States attend the 185 schools managed by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). [12] Children also attend public schools off reservation, private schools (including religious mission schools), or are homeschooled. Funding for tribal school construction typically excludes funding for school libraries. School library budgets are also usually low to nil, depending on the prerogative of the school principal.

Like other school media specialists, tribal school librarians are generally required to have teaching certification along with their library training. Since Native Americans have smaller numbers of secondary school and college or university graduates than people from other underrepresented groups, the pool of potential Native school librarians is initially small. The need for two degrees results in a double barrier for Native people to assume professional positions at tribal schools. As a result, Native school library staff tend to be in assistant or clerical positions. When local schools lack a clear understanding of the role and potential service of a school media specialist, the librarian or library assistant ends up serving multiple roles within the school setting. One library clerk at a tribal school in New Mexico served as the sole librarian, manager of a computer lab in a location apart from the library, lunch break playground monitor, school bus driver, and girls' basketball and track coach.

Tribal school librarians deserve a national consultant who can provide guidance on needs ranging from facilities planning to the development of culturally centered library instruction plans for Native children. Greater effort is needed to acculturate tribal school librarians into the profession of librarianship. Incentives should be provided locally for tribal school media center staff to attend and participate in state and national library conferences and to take advantage of continuing education opportunities available to other information professionals.

Tribal College Library Services

There are 33 tribal colleges within the United States. Since 1990, tribal college librarians gather annually at an institute organized by librarians at Montana State University—Bozeman. The Tribal College Librarians Professional Development Institute is a continuing education event with tours, presentations, and workshops.

Tribal colleges are ideal settings for promoting librarianship as a professional career. Yet, no tribal college offers an undergraduate major or minor in library studies. Few tribal colleges offer four–year degrees, so it is not surprising that no tribal college offers an American Library Association–accredited master's degree program or school media center certification. Students majoring in American Indian studies at one tribal college, Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, may enroll in one undergraduate class on tribal archives, but this educational opportunity is rare. Distance education programs or substantial financial aid to attend in–residence programs may be the answers to recruiting Native students to schools of library and information science. There currently exist several grant or scholarship programs to assist Native students to pursue graduate degrees in information studies or school media centers. These include the American Library Association's Spectrum Initiative Scholarships, and the Knowledge River Center for the Study of Hispanic and American Indian Library and Information Issues at the University of Arizona. Over the five first years of the Spectrum Initiative, fewer than ten of the 277 initial scholarship recipients were Native students. Twelve, or half, of the first cohort of graduating Knowledge River students were Native. The American Indian Library Association has a new scholarship to assist a Native library school student.

Obviously, a variety of educational approaches are needed to increase the number of Native librarians in the workforce. These include degree–granting in–residence and distance delivery master's and bachelor's degrees as well as workshops and online courses that contribute to skills development without awarding an academic degree. The key is flexibility at all levels of program development, from admissions and coursework to modes of delivery.

Tribal Community Libraries

Public libraries on tribal homelands are referred to as tribal community libraries. Like other information settings, they have been greatly impacted by technology and especially by the arrival of public access computing. While they may receive one–time donations of equipment and software, they are often unable to afford upgrades. Staff at tribal community libraries also feel pressure to upgrade their skills, especially in areas related to technology troubleshooting.

Another pressure that tribal community libraries experience is the constant need to build community support. They need to develop a direct communication line to tribal governance so that their needs are known and so that they can tailor services that support tribal sovereignty initiatives.

Some tribal community libraries are trying to initiative traditional programs such as after school programs for children and book clubs. Tribal libraries probably have yet to reach their potential as unique sites where community members can create content, preserve culture, and develop new skills.

Recommendations for Funding and Training

As with American public libraries, tribal libraries must develop stable financial support at the local level. This involves tribal librarians engaging in well–developed and multi–faceted marketing efforts and developing coalitions with educational institutions and cultural heritage efforts. Tribal community libraries especially need to be "at the table" at tribal initiatives, especially those involved with literacy efforts and native language revitalization.

As colleges and universities are rediscovering community service and engaged citizenship, they are one category of potential fruitful collaborative partners for tribal libraries. The Universities of Michigan, Texas, and Washington provide three examples.

The School of Information at the University of Michigan secured funding from the Kellogg Foundation to provide technology training for tribal college librarians to develop websites for their libraries.

The School of Information also hosted a meeting on "Indigenous Digital Collectives," held in Hilo, Hawaii in 2001, providing an opportunity for indigenous librarians from around the world to meet with academics to initiate planning on collaborative efforts. This meeting resulted in the publication of a special issue of the online journal, D–Lib Magazine, in March 2002. The School also offers an annual Cultural Heritage Preservation Institute at Dine College in Tsaile, Arizona as a technology workshop for Navajo teachers and students.

The University of Washington's Student Access and Computing Group provided the Quileute Tribal School library with 20 computers they refurbished, along with technical support in the winter of 2002. [13]

A Native Professor and her students in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin developed "If I Can Read, I Can Do Anything" in the fall of 1998 for ALA President Sarah A. Long. The program has evolved from a pilot program at one tribal school to a national reading club for Native children attending schools at or near reservations. By the summer of 2003, volunteers with "If I Can Read" had delivered over $100,000 in new books to tribal school libraries, and helped organize a variety of activities promoting reading. These include a national art and writing contest, annual scary story online chats, donations of new dictionaries to children, and onsite cataloging. [14]

Children at the 20 participating sites receive membership cards and reading incentives throughout the school year. "If I Can Read" staff includes a director with a half–time graduate research associate, a local team of graduate student volunteers, a national advisory board, and volunteers who serve as sponsors or liaisons to individual schools. Still, the largely volunteer–run project has focused more on collection development than on other needs of tribal school libraries, including continuing education and training and assistance in developing policy documents such as collection development policies.

At the beginning of the twenty–first century, the greatest accomplishments in tribal library development are reflected in regional efforts. Similarly, individuals involved with tribal communities are endeavoring to be included at large scale efforts to make sure that tribal library concerns are included in the development of new initiatives. ( was launched on May 12, 2003 as a Website that will replace the Gates Foundation state–by–state support. It provides a virtual space for developing an online community plus content, such as sample policies and purchasing advice, for librarians providing public access computing. Online courses are available for those who desire to extend their skills in such areas as XML, HTML, and computer troubleshooting.

Tribal communities should seek partners in native language revitalization efforts. This includes collaborating with large–scale digitization efforts. One such effort is the International Children's Digital Library (ICDL). ICDL is a five–year research project managed by the University of Maryland and the Internet Archives. In addition to studying reading habits of children in five countries, the ICDL will digitize 10,000 books for children. Books suitable for 3–13–year–olds will be selected and will be digitized in their entirety. This is an opportunity for tribal communities that have produced children's books with Native language text to have them professionally produced and made available to anyone who has access to the Internet. Titles would be available at


This paper has discussed several solutions to address the needs of tribal community libraries. Many of these involve targeting financial aid to improve facilities and support the infrastructure of personnel and technology. Although networks of Native information specialists and librarians exist, few individual librarians can afford to travel to conferences. The dearth of Native professional librarians must be addressed by marketing librarianship as a career in tribal communities and providing scholarships at all levels of higher education for Native students.

Partnerships among state libraries, library associations, universities, and tribal community library organizations have begun to form, but these relationships need to be nurtured and exploited. There is a vast body of knowledge among library and information science professionals and we must find the means to apply it to the needs of the tribal community. Guidelines describing collection development and the role of library personnel need to be tailored for Native libraries, so that they might be implemented even in tribal communities and schools without the funding for a professional librarian or certified media specialist.

Library services in tribal communities are becoming more sophisticated but still lag in some aspects behind their peers in the library world at large. One reason for the disparity is the heterogeneous nature of their missions, governing bodies, and communities served. This diversity should also be celebrated and indulged. No two communities have the same resources, or needs.


  1. Loriene Roy, "From Tribal Records Repository to Corridor on the Powwow Super Highway: Library Development for American Indians Since the Late 1960s," Swedish Library Research 14 (3) (2002): 127–134; Loriene Roy, "Indigenous Peoples and Library Services in the United States," in Chris Szekely, ed., Issues and Initiatives in Indigenous Librarianship (Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand: Te Ropu Whakahau, 1999): 36–48.
  2. Loriene Roy, "The International Indigenous Librarians' Forum: A Professional Life–Affirming Event," World Libraries 10 (1/2) (Spring/Fall 2000): 19–30; Loriene Roy, "Second International Indigenous Librarians' Forum," International Leads 15 (4) (December 2001): 6.
  3. IFLA. "Statement on Indigenous Traditional Knowledge." Available at Accessed on 14 September 2003.
  4. Loriene Roy, Antony Cherian, and Daniel Alonzo. Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums: Preserving Our Language, Memory, and Lifeways. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 2004.
  5. Jessica Dorr and Richard Akeroyd, "New Mexico Tribal Libraries: Bridging the Digital Divide," Computers in Libraries 21 (8) (October 2001). Available at Accessed on 7 September 2003.
  6. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Native American Access to Technology. Available at Accessed on 7 September 2003.
  7. American Indian Library Association. Available at Accessed on 7 September 2003.
  8. Bonnie Biggs, "Library of California Tierra Del Sol Region Tribal Library Census and Needs Assessment Project Final Report." Available at Accessed on 7 September 2003.
  9. Alaska Native Knowledge Network. Alaska State Library Culturally Responsive Guidelines for Alaska Public Libraries. Available at Accessed on 7 September 2003.
  10. "The Big6." Available at Accessed on 16 September 2003; Reference and User Services Association. "Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Services Professionals." Available at
    . Accessed on 16 September 2003.
  11. Loriene Roy, "American Indian Literacy and Reading," School Library Media Activities Monthly [Forthcoming].
  12. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Office of Indian Education Programs. OIEP Home Page. Annual Report. Available at Accessed on 24 August 2003.
  13. University of Washington. Educational Partnerships and Learning Technologies. Quileute Tribal School Computer Center. Accessed at Accessed on 7 September 2003.
  14. "If I Can Read, I Can Do Anything." Available at Accessed on 3 September 2003.

About the Authors

Loriene Roy is Professor, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Texas at Austin.
Email: loriene [at] gslis [dot] utexas [dot] edu

A. Arro Smith is the Technical Services and Business Manager of the San Marcos (Texas) Public Library. He graduated from the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Texas in 1990.
Email: smith_arro [at] ci [dot] san–marcos [dot] tx

© 2002 Loriene Roy & A. Arro Smith


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