Exploring Tribal Library Opportunities and Challenges via Information Visualization


Published: April 4, 2019 by Dr. Michelle Chen

I met former iSchool student Tawa Ducheneaux (who is currently an archivist at Oglala Lakota College) in one of my Information Visualization classes, and the idea of using information visualization to further assist tribal library operations emerged from there. After the semester, Tawa approached me with an abundance of data from Oglala Lakota College Library and, with tremendous help from Tawa and her colleagues at Woksape Tipi Library and South Dakota State Library, we analyzed the data and eventually published a paper in Library Management [1]. In this blog post, I would like to share a little more about our research.

The study of tribal college libraries has a relatively short history. As stated in Tradition and Culture in the Millennium: Tribal Colleges and Universities [2], the educational and governing systems of American Indians have been neglected by most educational settings. Tribal libraries aim, as their primary mission, to serve the literacy, information, and preservation needs of their native communities. Differences among tribal libraries are reflective of the many unique challenges that they face in the communities they serve. What’s more, tribal libraries belong to the people; they serve as “culture keepers” for tribal-specific history, culture, and consortiums. They are expected to serve not only as centers of education and literacy but also as archival hubs for the recording and preservation of tribal heritage.

While the importance of tribal libraries has long been recognized, they continue to struggle with a lack of resources – not only financial but technical and human resources too. Many tribal libraries rely primarily on the Institute of Museum and Library Services for funding, but few have been able to take advantage of such funds. Research has shown that most tribal archives, libraries, and museums have faced significant challenges and need for resources, staffing, and training [3]. So, how have tribal libraries managed to serve tribal populations and provide academic services on par with urban libraries, despite limited funding and staff?

Our research explores the operation and management of the Oglala Lakota College Library through five different lenses:

  • general operations and management;
  • staffing and human resource management;
  • financial operations;
  • service/program management; and
  • technology-related activities.

Here, we present each visualization result from the report data in each category and discuss its implications. Our findings reveal precisely how tribal populations can be well served despite limited funding and staff resources. The results also provide strategic insights and suggestions to help tribal libraries stay competitive, continue improving, and tackle challenges that arise.

Our goal is to provide practical insights in order to help people understand how tribal libraries are doing, as compared to urban public libraries, and what underlying factors have led to the challenges they face. The study also adopts information visualization techniques (using Tableau software) for data analytics. Information visualization has proven effective as a way to analyze unstructured data, identify outliers, and discover new insights. This study, however, like all research, has its limitations. Drawing a comprehensive account from the data has proven difficult, as biases have been created by the state data in comparison to the reported data. While tribal college libraries do belong to some national consortia, the manner in which they translate or disseminate data to the state becomes a key concern.

Ultimately, while our findings and discussions may be insightful, they are based on the analysis of one tribal library in particular. Thus, using similar settings, studies should be carried out in other tribal college libraries or different expanded contexts. These studies can only benefit tribal college libraries by raising awareness of their needs and their contributions to society.

The originality of this paper’s contribution was recognized with a 2018 Emerald Literati Award from Library Management, and we look forward to bringing the research to the next level!


[1] Chen, H., and Ducheneaux, T. (2017). How are we doing in tribal libraries? A case study of Oglala Lakota College Library using information visualization. Library Management, 38(1), 20-44.

[2] Warner, Linda Sue, Ed., & Gipp, Gerald E., Ed. (2009). Tradition and Culture in the Millennium: Tribal Colleges and Universities. Educational Policy in the 21st Century: Opportunities, Challenges and Solutions. IAP - Information Age Publishing, P.O. Box 79049, Charlotte, NC 28271-7047. Tel: 704-752-9125; Fax: 704-752-9113; e-mail: infoage@infoagepub.com; Web site: http://www.infoagepub.com.

[3] Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums (2013), “Preserving tribal language, memory, and lifeways: a continuing education project for the 21st century”, ATALM, available at: http://www.atalm.org/sites/default/files/FinalReport2009-2013.pdf (accessed September 12, 2016).