Reading Nation Waterfall: An IMLS Grant Seeking to Increase Literacy and Library Access for Native American Children


Published: August 23, 2021 by Dr. Anthony Chow

As the new iSchool Director, I’m bringing a three year $1.4 million IMLS grant to San Jose State University. This project called Reading Nation Waterfall is focused on studying the unique barriers to literacy resources and libraries for Native American children and their families. One of our primary goals is to help jump start community wide book sharing and distribution by focusing on children 3-10 years old and working strategically with parents and caregivers, local Head Start programs along with school, public, and tribal libraries. As the principle investigator of the project, I’m taking a data driven approach to understanding the relationship each of the five partnering tribes have with reading and libraries, and identifying potential barriers and solutions unique to each tribe.

“Reading Nation Waterfall” spans from 2020 to 2023, aiming to increase access to literary resources and libraries for Native American children and families in the nation. The name of the project represents an aspirational and resolute metaphor for the vision and desired outcomes of the project. As waterfalls tirelessly carry pure water that turn into streams and rivers bringing the nutrients for life to flourish, the project hopes to do the same for tribal communities by saturating the daily ecosystem of children and families with carefully selected books for children and their caregivers and information about culturally relevant programs and resources at their local libraries.

This project is a direct response to findings of my previous yearlong IMLS planning grant, which revealed that despite Blackfoot parents seeing the value of reading to the future of their children, many of those children, due to a complex and interconnected web of barriers, appear to be growing up in book deserts with little access to books (Chow, Roy, & LaFrombosie, 2019). The project’s three primary goals are to increase: 1) Access to books and libraries to children and families, 2) The number of books and overall reading with parents/adults at home, and 3) The relevance and use of libraries for Native American communities.

By building and leveraging a strong network of existing libraries and community organizations, “Reading Nation Waterfall” seeks to maximize access and convenience while removing time, cost, and affordability as fundamental barriers. The project team represents three states (New Mexico, North Carolina, and Montana), five Native American tribes (The Crow Tribe of Montana, The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, Northern Cheyenne, and Santo Domingo Pueblo), two national community organizations (Head Start and Little Free Libraries), and two universities (UNCG and SJSU). The project team represents a robust and unique collaboration between tribal, public, school, national low-income school readiness program, national literacy experts, national community book exchange experts, and experienced and seasoned university researchers. The goal is to create a team of professionals who have the experience, culturally appropriate context, and expertise to study and address a complex problem – increasing access to literacy resources and libraries for tribal children and families by identifying and breaking down existing barriers.

The project will have national impact in seven ways: 1) It further pilots, scales, and extends activities previously funded and tested in the field through an IMLS planning grant; 2) Expands these activities to new audiences; 3) Is easily replicable and implementable across the field; 4) Addresses all three aspects of the core mission of IMLS – Promote Lifelong Learning, Build Capacity, and Increase Public Access; 5) Focuses on the Lifelong Learning project category by working with cross disciplinary partners working with children from 0-10; 6) Establishes a team with the expertise, experience, and culturally appropriate perspective to implement the project; and 7) Develops and disseminates, in partnership with local and national library associations and community organizations, a Native American literacy and library model. Our team will also develop and disseminate a process to be shared via web-based toolkit and traditional academic presentation and publications for easy replication.

For more information about “Reading Nation Waterfall”, please see our project website.


Chow, A., Roy, L., & LaFromboise, A. (2019). Reading Nation: Understanding Attitudes on Libraries and Literacy on Blackfeet Reservation. A presentation at the ALA’s Committee on Rural, Native, and Tribal Libraries of All Kinds (RNTLOAK), June 24, 2019 in Washington, DC.


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