Merida Kipp remembers the elder who came into her library looking to learn more about computers.
Kipp, the library administrator at the Yakama Nation Library in Toppenish, Washington, said the man was apprehensive at first, but over time, he learned to use the machines and its various programs. He eventually purchased his own laptop to do research and continue learning new skills and programs.
“He was intimated at first, but he just took off with it,” Kipp said.
It’s stories like this that are highlighted in a recent first-of-its-kind study examining the role of tribal libraries and recommendations on how to improve broadband access and digital literacy in Native communities.
The study, released by the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums, an Oklahoma City-based non-profit organization, found that while 100 percent of public libraries offer visitors access to the Internet and computers, only 89 percent of libraries in Indian country can offer patrons access to the Internet and only 86 percent can offer access to computers. At least 40 percent of the tribal libraries in the study aren’t able to offer broadband Internet access either.
“In many cases, tribal libraries are the lifeline that provides vulnerable populations with their only access to computers and the Internet,” the report said, adding that results indicate, however, that tribal libraries have significant digital access needs in terms of high-speed Internet connections and technology infrastructure.
On rural, remote Indian reservations, the Internet can be an equalizer, said study author Traci Morris, director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University.
“They can get jobs through that. It is access to the outside community and other places,” she said.
Many homes on Indian reservations don’t have computers or access to the Internet, Kipp said, and that’s why tribal libraries need them.
“Without it, it’s affecting their job skills, education skills and today’s form of communication,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to be able to have it at the library.”
In 2010, the Federal Communications Commission issued the National Broadband Plan, which set a goal of all governments playing a part in the move to broadband Internet service. Digital inclusion, according to the study, means that people have access to high-speed, affordable Internet and it’s available to those who may not have access to it at home.
But the study, which was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, found that tribal libraries are lagging behind public libraries.
“All libraries are underfunded in my opinion, but tribal libraries are severely underfunded. They just don’t have the tax base,” said Susan Feller, president of the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums.
In the study sample of libraries in Indian country, only 42 percent were able to help visitors with technology training while 87 percent of rural public libraries and 90 percent of public libraries could. One of the reasons is that tribal libraries often don’t receive discounts known as E-Rates that make digital access more affordable for schools and public libraries. Only 15 percent of Indian country libraries in the study received the discounts compared to more than half of public libraries.
“It’s the same reason we don’t have cell phone service in 100 percent of Indian country,” said Morris when asked why tribes were lagging behind their non-tribal libraries. Cell phone service in Native communities, she noted, is still far behind the rest of the country.
“It’s part of the rural, rugged nature of tribal lands,” she said. “Part of it is it takes a special kind of regulatory push to get folks out there. It takes more approval. It’s also extraordinary cost-prohibitive. There’s more bang for your buck in an urban area because there are more households concentrated. So it’s extremely expensive to put in and it has to do with rules and regulations and the amount of approvals necessary and the rural and ruggedness of tribal lands.”
But while tribal libraries lag in some areas, they are leaders and can be used as examples in others, Feller and Morris said. Both women noted the strong cultural connections libraries in Native communities play: helping with language preservation initiatives, cultural preservation programs and workshops and meeting centers.
“Tribal libraries are unique because they’re more than just having books on a shelf that they distribute free of charge. They also serve as cultural centers at times,” Feller said.
The study makes 35 recommendations on how to improve digital inclusion within Native American libraries among five key areas: leadership, training, resources and services, policy and advocacy, and research. The recommendations include creating a Tribal Library Action Network to serve as a voice for tribal libraries; evaluating state libraries’ digital literacy training programs and seeing if tribal libraries can be included; making culturally appropriate tribal library digital literacy available; advocating that the FCC’s E-Rate policies include tribal libraries at the same access available to public libraries; and assisting other entities with collecting data on tribal libraries when possible.
Tribal libraries, the report states, are doing a lot with few resources to serve Native communities and are helping to strengthen Native culture and provide new options for education and training. But if the needs of the libraries in Native communities are left unaddressed, “these gaps stand to contribute to tribal communities’ vulnerability.”