Funding is one of the biggest challenges impeding the creation and development of tribal libraries. Poverty is an issue for many indigenous communities, particularly those on reservations. This means that funds are not available from the community to create new libraries or improve existing ones, since funds must also be allocated for basic services like roads and utilities. (Dunn 96) If there is one single challenge that needs to be overcome in order to improve tribal libraries, it is to increase available funding. According to the ALA, this lack of funding causes deficiencies in almost every aspect of tribal libraries from inadequate collections, to outdated or absent technology, to a lack of qualified staff, to substandard buildings.
Native Americans in the Library and Information Science Profession
Another major issue is that of recruitment of indigenous people into the library and information sciences professions (LIS). In fact, "the segment of the population least represented within LIS education in the nation happens to be American Indians." (Patterson) This dearth of qualified individuals in the profession translates into virtually no professional librarians available to work in tribal libraries. According to the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (NCLIS), there are fewer than 100 Native Americans working in tribal libraries, most of whom do not have a MLS degree. Usually if a tribal community wishes to hire a Native American with a MLS degree, the lack of funding means that the community is unable to pay an appropriate salary. In fact, even if the community wishes to hire any person with a MLS degree, "it is usually a non-Native American who is unaware of the special needs of the community”. (Dunn 96)
Technology has the potential to improve information access for Native Americans, but in reality many Native Americans do not have access to the technology itself. In fact, Native Americans have fewer telephones than any other ethnic group and 12% even lack electricity. (Patterson) Ideally, tribal libraries can offer an access point to information technology like computers and the Internet. Unfortunately, again due to funding issues, "most tribes are without even the most basic types of technological support e.g., modems, computers, fax machines, etc.” (NCLIS) Without the technology most of the United States takes for granted, tribal libraries will not be able to offer the same level of access to information that most public libraries are able to do in the rest of the country.
Another problem related to the lack of funding is that of poor collections. Tribal libraries do not have the budget to purchase large, up-to-date, relevant collections so they end up with inadequate, inaccurate, outdated, small collections that do not fully serve the needs of the tribal community. Many of the more readily available commercial publications about Native Americans contain inaccuracies, distortions and stereotypes that in addition to being culturally inappropriate and useless to the tribe are actually offensive. (NCLIS)
Another issue that is more of an intangible challenge rather than one of funding is that of the feeling of isolation from the rest of the country. Research has shown that “tribal librarians felt isolated and disconnected from … tribal libraries in particular”. (Biggs 8) An ALA task force on rural and tribal libraries found a sense of “pervasive alienation – geographical, institutional and social”, as did the NCLIS study. This challenge to overcome a complex cultural divide is a much deeper issue than can be solved simply by providing additional financial assistance.
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