By Kyle Reis, Senior Director, TechSoup
Like all libraries, tribal libraries are much more than a place to check out books. They play a crucial role in Native communities by serving as centers for education, cultural preservation, and access to information. They are community gathering spaces to foster cultural exchange, host events related to health and well-being, and offer resources and services that support entrepreneurship, help with job searches, and assist small business development. Their purpose also transcends basic tech access, serving as digital bridges for youth, seniors, and unhoused populations, fostering connectivity, and encouraging tech adoption.
Tribal libraries have a primary mission to serve the information needs of their respective Native communities. In addition to providing access to literature, they are expected to provide access to computers and internet services and be key drivers of digital equity. However, tribal libraries face distinct challenges, notably a lack of funding, capacity, skills, connectivity, and adoption.
TechSoup is pleased to announce that as of March 2023, we have begun to extend our public library services to tribal nations. This expansion is facilitated via a strategic partnership with the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums (ATALM). Our collaboration aims to offer solutions with resources and services to empower tribal libraries to surmount these barriers and enhance their community impact. ATALM, an institution with a rich 15-year history, has been diligently working to provide training and support for tribal institutions in their mission to preserve their cultural heritage. TechSoup is aligned with ATALM’s mission to bring digital resources, tools, and knowledge to tribal libraries.
In a conversation focusing on TechSoup’s enhanced support to tribal libraries, Kyle Reis, Senior Director at TechSoup, spoke with Susan Feller, President and CEO of ATALM, and Merida Kipp, Library Administrator of the Yakama Nation Tribal Library. Among many topics, they talked about the challenges tribal libraries face and reaffirmed our dedication to understanding their needs and goals, supporting their progress with tailored solutions for success.
Challenges of Tribal Nation Libraries
The disparity in funding between public and tribal libraries raises concerns about the limited opportunities. “In 2019, total per capita spending on public libraries in the United States was $41.90, on average. Tribal libraries average about $1.50 per capita,” said Feller. “That is why it is great that TechSoup is expanding its partnership to tribal libraries,” she added.
Merida Kipp underscored the transformative potential of the partnership. “Having access to these digital tools through TechSoup can be a game-changer,” she said. Kipp highlighted the challenges faced by many tribal libraries with limited technology budgets, which often can’t accommodate expensive software packages like Adobe Creative Cloud or Microsoft Office. “This collaboration holds the promise of bridging that gap and making a substantial difference,” she added.
According to ATALM’s recent national survey, hotspots and connectivity are top priorities for these libraries. The connectivity gap manifests as a hurdle for community members seeking internet access for essential tasks like job search, upskilling, and educational pursuits, including homework. Often, personal home internet access simply isn’t an option, due either to cost or to lack of infrastructure.
Also, technology adoption remains gradual. While some community members prefer physical formats such as printed books and DVDs over alternatives like streaming services or audiobooks, the objective is to gradually facilitate comfort and proficiency with digital resources. Kipp underscores that the primary concern isn’t the complexity of technology itself, but rather the trust and comfort around it. “You need to learn to make people feel comfortable,” she said, explaining her mission to break down the fear of technology among her patrons.
Yakama Nation Tribal Library’s Digital Transformation: An Exception, Not the Rule
Yakama Nation Tribal Library has gone through a significant digital transformation. Supported by the grants through the Washington State Library, it plays a pivotal role in providing essential digital services to a community where most members lack skills and connectivity. Yakama Nation Tribal Library underscores the transformative potential of these institutions when they are adequately supported. It serves as a case study, offering insights into the potential impact of enhanced resources, training, and adequate financial support.
It also assists patrons in their journey to employment. “To address the need, we collaborated with the Washington State Library and University of Washington. We built a computer lab and taught computer classes and provided Microsoft Office and Adobe certification training,” said Kipp.
Digital services provided by Yakama Nation Tribal Library extend beyond employment. With college applications and software training increasingly available online, the library supports patrons in familiarizing themselves with the latest software, acquiring skills that bolster their academic prospects.
The daily lives and aspirations of Yakama’s youth are notably impacted by their lack of home internet access. This can restrict career aspirations, particularly in STEM fields. However, ATALM and the Yakama Nation Tribal Library are working to change this.
Yakama Nation Tribal Library offers an array of personal tech support, assisting community members with tasks ranging from basic computer operations to setting up an email account or filing for unemployment. “Such intricate tech support is not typically seen in other tribal libraries. It is a capacity issue,” said Feller. “Most tribal libraries only have one person, and that person could be full time or part time. They’re doing the best with what they have, but they don’t have a lot.”
Yakama Nation Tribal Library also caters to leisure and communication. It offers a safe, supportive environment for patrons to explore digital pastimes and maintain connections with distant loved ones. The Yakama Nation Tribal Library’s free Wi-Fi access and hotspots are crucial for those otherwise disconnected. For many families, justifying the cost of a computer proves challenging when reliable internet access is uncertain. Instead, the library becomes a second home where digital access is temporarily within reach.
The Yakama Nation Tribal Library is not merely filling a gap — it is actively seeking to inspire its patrons and paving the way for other tribal libraries.
Assessing TechSoup’s Offerings for Tribal Libraries
Feller praised the attentiveness of the Washington State Library to the needs of Yakama Nation Tribal Library and told us that a similar partnership is being fostered with TechSoup. “We will focus on further strengthening ATALM and TechSoup partnership. As a starting point, we’ll acquaint ATALM with the benefits TechSoup can provide to tribal libraries,” she said. “And we will work together to replicate Yakama Nation Tribal Library’s digital transformation.”
To remedy the scarcity of hotspots, TechSoup will work on developing prepackaged hotspot programs for tribal libraries. “By developing comprehensive hotspot lending programs and exploring creative solutions, TechSoup can play a significant role in overcoming the challenges of limited connectivity,” she added.
TechSoup plans to cater to broader technological needs beyond computers and software. “We will also support tribal libraries’ IT departments, focus on digital skills development, and identify the libraries’ needs to increase the resources available to their communities,” said Reis.
TechSoup’s partnership with ATALM and expansion of our offerings to tribal libraries signal a critical step forward in promoting digital equity among Native communities. Recognizing the distinct challenges that tribal libraries confront, we will tailor our support to ameliorate issues such as limited connectivity, lack of skills, and scarce technology budgets. By ensuring the availability of hotspots, expanding access to essential software, and supporting IT departments, we will help them enhance their community impact. While each tribal library’s journey will be different, our shared goal is clear: to nurture digital equity, strengthen cultural preservation, and ultimately, help tribal communities thrive.