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Portrait of An Indigenous Librarian:
A Different Kind of Call to Service
~ Rhiannon Sorrell
“Do you have anything on the roles
of fathers in Navajo culture?”
“I need help printing my paper.”
“What is Sa’áh Naagháí Bik’éh Hozhóón?”
“Do you guys have a fax machine?”
“How do you make tóshchíín? Do you have a recipe?”
“Where are your fiction books?”
“What ceremonies feature ants?”
“I need help formatting my bibliography.”
“Do you know anyone who’s selling sheep?”
These are a handful of questions and requests I’ve encountered over the course of 4 years I’ve worked as a tribal college librarian. Some of them are frequently asked, some have only been asked once and to which I’m still trying to find the answers. A lot of the library help desk interactions don’t necessarily involve me answering questions, but instead, listening to campus and general community library users about a particular topic. Often times, I’m the one learning from my patrons, particularly from the older users, who speak the Diné language and have been embedded in the community for decades. They have become valuable resources themselves and I’ve sought their guidance in navigating questions that books, academic articles, and Google can’t answer. In many of my interactions, I must tread carefully between written book knowledge and unwritten cultural knowledge. Every day, I find myself mitigating the gaps between western education and indigenous Traditional Knowledge Systems (TKS) in providing information and information literacy services and programming to the rural Native American tribal college community I serve. After 4 years, I found that there are still misconceptions, both from the Native and non-Native point of view, about what I do, despite the fact that we live in an information-rich world (some say too much information!) and yet many of us still don’t know how to navigate it, especially across western and traditional sources of knowledge. I, and other Native information professionals, provide such guidance and programing services to our communities with the ultimate goal of empowering our people with the tools to find the knowledge they seek.
I didn’t initially set out to become a librarian. My passion took its initial roots in creative writing and over the course of my undergraduate studies, I cultivated my craft in the area of creative nonfiction. When I entered graduate school with a dual major in English and Library Science, I found a number of people in my classes who arrived at these professions from a myriad of disciplines. Over the course of my studies, I found my professional identity developing over a broad spectrum between two opposites – the abstract and the applied, the perplexing and the practical, the discursive and the definitive. In a way, it mimicked the endless meandering between the two western and traditional worlds Native people today experience in their everyday lives and careers. What was missing from my graduate training, however, was how I was going to apply this experience to a place as exceptional and unique as a tribal library, nor was I aware of the urgency of placing Indigenous librarians in the field to serve as the nexus that connects various aspects of the campus and general community, the disciplines, the departments, and sources of knowledge. I also didn’t know just how much of a role tribal librarians play in changing negative or misguided attitudes toward library services.
Library services to indigenous people in the United States is a relatively new concept. Prior to World War II, such services were almost non-existent and were more aligned with the general mission of the U.S. education system, where the emphasis of library services to American Indians was to “civilize” them by converting them to Christianity. (Rockefeller-MacArthur 1998). Therefore, Bibles and vocational training manuals were the only sources of written information initially made available to Native students. There was no respect for indigenous ways of knowing and dissemination of knowledge. Oral traditions, songs and dances, art, and astronomy are just a few examples of unwritten tribal knowledge that is at the center of learning, health, and tribal identity. Today, 50 years after the first tribally controlled college was established, as Native nations take more control of educating their own people, the incorporation of all aspects of “knowing” and the aforementioned forms of information into the curriculum is at the forefront of many tribal college missions. Libraries serving these tribal communities are essential in guaranteeing that its resources adequately support the curriculum as required both by federal accreditation standards, and by the missions of the colleges, where traditional knowledge is the guiding philosophical foundation and the inception of these institutions. Tribal librarians have a responsibility to help facilitate and guide learning and research between western and traditional ways of knowing not only among students, faculty, and staff, but also to the general community and to the outside world.
Navigating these responsibilities is no small feat. I’m grateful to the existing resources available to those who’ve made a career out of indigenous librarianship. The support network is strong, despite vast distances that separate us and our nations, but we work towards the common goal of raising the standard of education for our people. We also have the added difficulty of learning for ourselves how to best serve our communities. Nothing in library school can completely prepare you for a career in tribal librarianship; it requires total immersion in the community you choose to serve and a certain level of flexibility in order to provide services to all. Library school doesn’t prepare you for the fact that in a lot of cases, a tribal college library isn’t just an academic library – it’s whatever library or learning center the community needs it to be: a public library, a children’s library, a community center, a cultural center, etc. Academia and library school place the utmost importance on seeking truth, on citing “credible resources”; for the longest time, this has meant placing the written word as the most authoritative resource one can consult. It is the one of the most important tasks in indigenous librarianship to responsibly educate all library users in incorporating, disseminating, and documenting traditional knowledge as a credible resource in the discourses of their respective disciplines. Above all, library school teaches you to be an advocate for your patrons, however, they don’t tell you how often you come into conflict with numerous institutions that claim to have the same goals as you do in providing for your community. You’ll find that you have to repeatedly reassert your role as a Native educator, scientist, mentor, collaborator, and community organizer who does far more than just check out books to people.
Symbolically, on our campus, the library represents the fire place – the hearth – of knowledge and learning. Our building is located in the center of our campus, which is made up of a perfectly geometric circle. I like to think that the early founders of our college knew the importance of the library and what it represented and chose to place it at the middle of our community. I go back to this when other tribal libraries despair or are made to doubt their importance and influence. I go back to this when I make the case for our continued financial and administrative support. I also go back to this when encouraging indigenous professionals early in their careers to consider becoming librarians.
Rockefeller-MacArthur, E., MacArthur, P., & Rockefeller, R. (1998). American indian library services in perspective: From petroglyphs to hypertext. London: McFarland.