Tribal Libraries Committee Enhances Library Services in Oklahoma
An interview with Katherine Witzig, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, a Library Administrative Assistant for the Chickasaw Nation Law Library of Oklahoma City University, and Chair of the Oklahoma Library Association’s Tribal Libraries Committee
Recent research conducted by Reclaiming Native Truth revealed that 40 percent of respondents didn’t know that American Indians still exist. However, American Indians (i.e., Indigenous communities) are very real, as is their resiliency to centuries-old, seemingly indefinite oppression and violence. Indigenous communities (much like Black communities, other non-White or mixed-race identifying persons, LGBTQIA+ individuals, persons with disabilities [or Disabled persons], and any other marginalized groups not listed) often experience systemic marginalization and racism. For this reason, libraries should seek out Indigenous perspectives when working toward providing more equitable services to all library patrons.
Library-based organizations have made efforts in recent years to decolonize knowledge in libraries by increasing the representation of marginalized groups in collections. With regard to Indigenous communities, some libraries are using more culturally appropriate terminology to catalog their collection, while others are creating new collections that organize information through an Indigenous-informed lens. Others are choosing to facilitate changes at the institutional level by creating organizations or committees of preexisting library associations that invite Indigenous participation.
One such committee is the Oklahoma Library Association’s (OLA) Tribal Libraries Committee (i.e., “Tribal Libraries Committee”). This committee is said to be the first and oldest tribal library committee of any state professional library association. According to OLA, the Tribal Libraries Committee (TLC) “works to build collegial relationships between OLA members who work in school, public, college or university, or special libraries, and our colleagues who work in tribal libraries, museums, archives, cultural centers, or related areas of their tribal organization.” The TLC also strives “to serve as a clearinghouse, not only of information about events, but also of accurate and culturally sensitive books and other materials by and about American Indians, and libraries or other institutions with significant resources about First Americans, especially those [in] Oklahoma.”
I recently interviewed Katherine Witzig, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, a Library Administrative Assistant for the Chickasaw Nation Law Library of Oklahoma City University, and Chair of the Oklahoma Library Association’s Tribal Libraries Committee to learn more about the Tribal Libraries Committee. A special thanks to Ms. Witzig for taking the time to participate in this interview so that EveryLibrary readers can learn more about the TLC and why similar organizations are so important.
[This interview was conducted via email; Witzig’s responses were received on September 4, 2023. Some minor formatting changes were made to her responses to improve the readability of this interview.]
How did the OLA’s Tribal Libraries Committee come to be?
Katherine Witzig: Back in the 2007–8 service year, the Oklahoma Library Association had a theme to focus its learning and growing: “Keys to the Future.” The organization recognized that professional collaboration could not reach its full potential for serving all communities without including Indigenous stakeholders. In the interest of more explicitly involving tribal librarians and librarians working with Indigenous collections, OLA established an Ad Hoc Committee, and from there, it became a fully-fledged unit of the organization.
What does the Committee do? (You can provide a summary of committee-related business items or whatever you feel best answers this question).
Katherine Witzig: [To answer this question, Witzig provided a list of business items the TLC manages.]
- Resource List: [TLC] shares information about professional development, funding, and presentation/publication opportunities and events and resources that more accurately and sensitively reflect Native American cultures.
- Learning Modules: [TLC] offers educational and networking programs for our communities. TLC will be offering several sessions this year, including More Than a Month on January 11 and a Lunch & Learn session discussing representation of diverse communities throughout the year.
- Site Visits: [TLC facilitates] group visits to tribal libraries, museums, and other relevant cultural institutions.
In your opinion, what are the benefits of having a Tribal Libraries Committee?
Katherine Witzig: While there are larger national groups that advocate for Indigenous issues and representation (like the American Indian Library Association [AILA] or the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums [ATALM]), having a Tribal Libraries Committee is a way to address topics particular to a certain state or community. Tribal nations and their citizens live across the US, but the needs of Indigenous people living in Oklahoma will likely be different than those of any other state. Having a committee focused on providing access to information for local Native American communities as well as curated resources for those who serve them is a significant step toward more respectful representation and creating an environment for collaboration. Indigenous communities are here and have so much to contribute — so we have a committee for service to them.
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In your opinion, can you describe the ideal leader or leaders of a Tribal Libraries Committee? (I.e., what kind of experiences, interests, credentials, etc., should these individuals have?)
Katherine Witzig: Primarily, an ideal leader (or leaders) would be someone who listens — the role is about discovering perspectives and uplifting voices, so the leader should be able to actively listen to diverse input and find commonalities as well as to invite others to share their experiences and thoughts.
If possible, an Indigenous person should lead the group. While professional experience and education can improve a leader’s work, it should not be a requirement that excludes candidates for leading this group, especially when those candidates may be Native American themselves; in 2022, only 0.46 percent of employed librarians were American Indian/Alaska Native, so requiring professional experience may knock many of those individuals out of a chance to grow and learn while representing their own communities.
Do you have any advice for someone who may want to create a Tribal Libraries Committee for their library-based organization?
Katherine Witzig: I recommend having a very clear idea of why you want to create the committee (it might even be handy to have a short statement or elevator pitch prepared). There will be some who won’t understand the need or the relevance, and part of ensuring the group’s success is being able to articulate its purpose and goals.
Do plenty of research! With the help of Indigenous librarians in your organization, research local tribal nations, Native-centered events and organizations, and museums and collections with relevant content. Check out other organizations who have similar groups and contact them with questions. If your organization has a committee or other standing group that focuses on diversity and inclusion, try to loop them in, as they could be valuable allies.
"Keep in mind that centering Native voices is the purpose and the goal; there should be nothing about us without us."
Katherine Witzig invites readers of this article to reach out to her with any questions or thoughts. She can be reached via email at [email protected].
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