Libraries and the Preservation of Indigenous Culture


A great deal of research has been done on how Indigenous communities use libraries and how libraries can serve those communities. The majority of this research has focused on tribal college libraries, rather than simply tribal or public libraries. Usage of public libraries by indigenous communities is simply too low to yield relevant data. And as we shall see, many public library systems aren’t even aware of tribal libraries operating in close proximity. Often, the conclusions recommend a variation on the standard theme of tailoring services to meet patron needs. Research suggests that libraries should develop culturally relevant collections, provide information and services to alleviate population-specific social problems such as unemployment, assist in preserving history and language, and encourage staff to act as role models in the community.

However, the library is a western institution. Its goals and objectives of literacy and job placement, no matter how altruistic, are goals of integration, not preservation, and even today, colonialist. Libraries help indigenous communities navigate dominant culture. And while that may be a priority for those who do use the library, it may not be as much of a priority to indigenous communities as librarians would like to think. Indigenous patrons, particularly those who maintain a connection to tradition, value forms of knowledge that cannot be preserved in libraries as much if not more so than those forms that can. It may not be possible for additional research to reveal how libraries might meet their objectives in indigenous communities.

Literature Review

Reviews of data that compare Native American public library use to that of white populations, as in Susan Burke’s “Use of Public Libraries by Native Americans,” indicate that “for many types of library use, Native Americans used public libraries similarly to other patrons,” yet they do so at much lower rates. She had anticipated that Native Americans would have higher rates of attendance at storytelling programs, due to the importance of storytelling in indigenous cultures. But in considering why the data did not bear this out, she does not suspect a cultural misunderstanding, that perhaps storytelling in indigenous cultures might serve a different purpose than it does in the library. Instead, she supposes that Native storytellers “are not widespread enough in children’s programs,” or that there was a problem with the wording of the question. She does consider “whether library access is an unquestionable good for any population” to be a philosophical issue. However, she also believes that “increasing Native American access to library and information services” to be “part of equalizing opportunities to a population that has experienced unequal and biased treatment at the hands of the dominant society,” failing to recognize the assimilation and integration these equalizing opportunities entail.

Another cultural barrier to library use that could use more investigation is instructors at tribal colleges who discourage use of electronic resources. No motivation is given for this position in Luther and Lerat’s “Using Digital Resources: Perceptions of First Nations University Students.” Instead, the focus is on a method for convincing “tribal elders, who may be resistant to providing access to digital resources,” to see the error of their ways. The implication being that this resistance is due simply to lack of familiarity with technology, rather than cultural priorities that might differ from those of western educational objectives.

Dilevko and Gottlieb further reveal lack of cultural understanding among library staff working with indigenous communities in their study, “Working at Tribal College and University Libraries: a Portrait.” Again, there are courses that “do not require students to use the library for research,” and lack of support for the library and its resources, indicating value placed on different methods of learning that both researcher and subject fail to recognize. One subject is unable to understand how being called out as racist is not mutually exclusive of being “friendly, helpful, and sharing…before and since.” Another doesn’t understand how an older person with no formal western education could be considered more learned than herself. Others attribute to themselves what rightfully belongs to the community, expressing a “sense of ownership of the library, having basically put it together from scratch.” Another likes her job because she can “mold and shape the library to her liking.” Yet another believes that “truly, there are folks who think I walk on water [because] of the help I give.” It is difficult to understand how these libraries could be meeting the needs of their communities.

In contrast to these, Becky Hebert’s “Role of Libraries in Native American Communities in Louisiana” provides some cultural perspective as she surveys small tribal libraries. All are run by members of their communities. Only one librarian has an MLS. Most have less than an eighth-grade education. Nevertheless, they do manage to meet their community’s needs. Two of these libraries have sewing rooms. One uses it for sewing regalia, another for quilting. Others offer traditional arts and crafts or language programs. Most of the libraries are housed in community centers and may include thousands of items, as well as outdated but functional computers and internet access. Another stores its books in a kitchen. One is housed in a museum built in temple mound. This ritually stores artifacts. There is a little more insight into the attitudes of elders toward technology in their confusion as to why a computer mouse is called a mouse. But a theme that recurs over and over in this survey is that very, very few of the local public libraries are aware that the tribal libraries exist, and few of the public libraries have made any attempt to provide services directly to tribes. In each instance, the tribal library felt it was the public library’s responsibility to reach out to them.


If serving indigenous communities means incorporating elements of indigenous culture into libraries, this is not going to be accomplished by adding some relevant books to the collection and inviting elders to storytime. Where research is lacking is in determining what cultural representation in the library means, and what the community’s own priorities are. Rather than focusing on eliminating common barriers to library use, a new perspective is needed in service to indigenous communities.

Burke, S. K. (2007). The Use of Public Libraries by Native Americans. Library Quarterly, 77(4), 429-461.

Dilevko, J., & Gottlieb, L. (2004). Working at Tribal College and University Libraries: A Portriat. Library & Information Science Research, 26, 44-72.

Hebert, B. (2002). The Role of Libraries in Native American Communities in Louisiana (Unpublished master’s thesis). Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College.

Luther, F. D., & Lerat, P. (2009). Using Digital Resources: Perceptions of First Nations University Students. School Libraries Worldwide, 15(1), 45-48.

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