UW News

March 28, 2024

Q&A: UW researcher discusses the vital role of Indigenous librarians

UW News

Shelves of library books are out of focus, except for a few books in the center of the frame. Behind them, a window sheds bright light.

Sandy Littletree, a UW assistant professor in the Information School, discusses the importance of working Indigenous ways of knowing into libraries, archives and data repositories.University of Washington

Updated (April 2, 2024) to reflect Littletree is a co-author on the study. 

Asked to imagine a library, many people picture shelves upon shelves of books, but some types of information don’t fit that format.

That is often the case with certain forms of Indigenous knowledge, which can exist in many non-written formats frequently not represented in collections, from oral history to beadwork, says Sandy Littletree, a University of Washington assistant professor in the Information School and an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. “In libraries the written record has always kind of been the pinnacle,” Littletree said. “Like, if it wasn’t written, it didn’t happen.”

Littletree was recently the co-author on a study that set out to define Indigenous information literacy through interviews with seven academic librarians who identify as Indigenous. Littletree and her co-authors found that Indigenous information literacy is “the ability to use information and create or gain knowledge, while practicing the Indigenous concepts of relationality, reciprocity and respect.”

UW News spoke with Littletree about the field of Indigenous knowledge and the importance of Indigenous librarianship.

One of your research focuses is Indigenous knowledge. Could you explain what the field is? What are you exploring? What kinds of questions are you asking?

Sandy Littletree: You might think of it more as Indigenous ways of knowing — the things that we’re doing, the relationships that we have, the accountability that we have to people and places and ancestors, our kin. We’re looking at how that information manifests in things that get written or passed down in different ways. In my research I look at information institutions and think about libraries and archives and data repositories.

How do you see the role of librarians within that work?

SL: What it could and should be is another layer of understanding and respecting how knowledge gets passed down. I think librarians traditionally have been more concerned with the written record, or with providing access to everything. “Information wants to be free” is kind of the librarianship motto. But when you’re talking about Indigenous knowledge, you have to also understand some of the limitations.

In any community, there’s knowledge that’s not always written. But in Native communities, you have to think about how settler colonialism displaced people and disconnected people from their knowledge, from their lands, from families, from kinship, so that others could settle and use the resources. You have to think about the power dynamics, the resources, the historical trauma, people’s connections to land and family, and how libraries and archives play a role in that. Are they just upholding those colonial systems that were taking away Indigenous peoples’ access to that knowledge?

Now the question is: What can we do within our own systems to help uphold some of those protocols of knowledge transfer and communities? We also need to look at ways to understand how our library systems have played a role in the overspreading or manipulation of knowledge that never should have been shared. How can we understand the historical role that libraries have played and how can we move forward in a way that’s more respectful to Native communities?

What would be an example of information that’s been overshared?

SL: There is a lot of material that was taken without consent from Native communities. Maybe that’s sacred knowledge or observations of missionaries, researchers or anthropologists who were historically thinking about Native people as disappearing. These observations weren’t for the benefit of the Native communities. It was for outsiders to understand who the people were. They weren’t thinking how maybe this knowledge was only to be shared during winter, for instance. Some of that information is in historical records. Now we’re trying to figure out how we best provide or limit access to it, or return it to communities. Some things, like certain songs or dances, were never really meant to be recorded. Sometimes communities were okay with it at the time because they didn’t necessarily know what was going to happen with those recordings 50 or 60 years down the road. And it’s not only cultural heritage. Some research conducted in Native communities really focused on negatives and deficits, like alcoholism or health issues. So now that we have this information in our libraries, in our institutions, what do we do with it?

What should the public know about Indigenous librarianship?

SL: I would love for people to see Indigenous librarianship as something that’s upholding relationships to communities through our interactions with the information and knowledge that’s in these libraries or archives. Also important are the ways that Indigenous librarians are teaching about what’s in these collections and how we’re helping Indigenous students, especially, to navigate information to help our communities thrive. It’s not your traditional librarianship. There are a lot more nuances of respect, responsibility and reciprocity that really benefit Native communities.

What are some of the ways librarians can make considerations specifically for Indigenous students?

SL: I think people understanding that some of the information that they might encounter can be a little bit traumatic, particularly if it’s dealing with something like boarding schools, or with stereotypes. There’s a lot of not great, inauthentic information out there, to be honest. The more that these librarians know about the information that’s out there, the more they can help Indigenous students maybe deal with some trauma that might come as they’re encountering some of this material as research for different classes. I think the more that they understand some of the harms that can come through this the better prepared they are to help students. And the librarians might deal with some of that trauma themselves, so how do they take care of themselves as they go through this?

Is there anything else you want to add?

SL: I think some people don’t always understand what librarianship is, or information science. And some people don’t understand Indigenous studies or Indigenous issues. So, putting them together can make a difficult intersection. I hope that people can see how this intersection is really important. You know, it can be fun thinking about stories and the lighter side of librarianship. But there’s a lot at stake here. How can we rethink some of the ways that we’ve been doing business or how we’ve been educating people to go into these institutions? Indigenous people are still around, and we’re very diverse. This is not a historical issue. I know we seem invisible a lot, but there are Indigenous people that are using these systems. If we can get more people in these spaces who can understand these nuances, it’ll be a better situation for Native communities.

Nicola Andrews, an open education librarian at the University of San Francisco, and Jessie Loyer, an Indigenous engagement librarian at the University of Alberta, are also co-authors on this paper.

For more information, contact Littletree at sandy505@uw.edu.