Interview with Bridging Knowledge Scholar: Molly Ouellette
Published: December 3, 2023 by Kesheena Doctor
I was first introduced to the iSchool while researching scholarship opportunities for Native American students. As part of an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) funded grant, the iSchool partnered with the Alaska Library Network, the American Indian Library Association, and the Alaska State Library to form the scholarship program, Bridging Knowledge: Supporting Indigenous Scholars into the Field of Librarianship.
The three-year program selected 15 Native American, Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian students seeking an MLIS degree and offered full tuition for three years, a mentorship program and many professional development opportunities. As a Native American MLIS student, I appreciated that the iSchool was helping recruit Indigenous people into the library profession. I also enjoyed having Bridging Knowledge scholars in my classes, which enhanced my learning experience. In fact, I first met Bridging Knowledge scholar Molly Ouellette in INFO 200 – Information Communities in my first semester. We recently met in person at the 2023 International Conference of Indigenous Archives, Libraries, and Museums (ATALM 2023). In honor of Native American Heritage Month, I chose to interview Molly about her experience as a Bridging Knowledge scholar and as an Indigenous librarian.
First, tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? Tribal affiliation?)
Boozhoo. Baangii et a go ojibwem. Molly indizhinikaaz. Anishinaabe-kwe indow. Gawiin ingiikendenziin nindoodem. Indoonjibaa Montana. My nation is the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana. I am Métis and Ojibwe-Cree.
I am a teen librarian at a public library in Montana. As a teen librarian, I do programming, collection development, oversee a makerspace for teens, do outreach, and [perform] all kinds of other duties and activities. This is my second year in the MLIS program.
How did your interest in librarianship start?
The first part of my career, I was an elementary school teacher. My undergrad degree was in Elementary Education (K-8) and Reading (K-12). After teaching elementary school, I shifted gears and got a job as an assistant children’s librarian at a public library. I discovered I really enjoyed working in libraries. I love stories. I like working with people, especially youth and children. So, a public library was a good fit for me. I love the community engagement aspects of librarianship.
What do you plan to do with your MLIS degree?
I would ultimately like to use my MLIS degree to pursue opportunities that will allow me to work with Indigenous communities in more direct and intentional ways. I am not sure what that looks like yet, but I am open to all of the possibilities.
What have been your favorite classes while at the iSchool?
My favorite class so far has been INFO 281 – Seminar in Contemporary Issues: Building a Critical Culture: Information Ethics, Diverse Communities, and Critical Librarianship. I took it over the summer and it was a wonderful course. I took INFO 281 – Seminar in Contemporary Issues: Graphic Novels course this summer and that was fun, too. I am taking INFO 281 – Seminar in Contemporary Issues: Indigenous Cultural Institutions and Practices of Librarianship and the professor, Dr. Ulia Gosart, shared a lot of great resources so far.
How has the Bridging Knowledge scholarship impacted your educational goals?
The Bridging Knowledge scholarship has allowed me to pursue an education that I can use to support the communities that I hold close to my heart. It has made Indigenous librarianship possible for me.
What has been your favorite part of the Bridging Knowledge program so far?
I have enjoyed meeting the other Bridging Knowledge students and facilitators so much. It has been amazing being in a community together, getting to know each other, working together and supporting each other. There have also been a lot of professional development opportunities, which have been awesome. I just went to ATALM 2023, and it was amazing. Bridging Knowledge has been such a blessing.
Since starting the iSchool, have your career goals changed, and if so, how?
I think that when I started the iSchool program, I was pretty sure that I would remain in public libraries for the rest of my career, but now I have a better understanding of things you can do with your degree and different types of opportunities so that has definitely expanded my conception of what my career could look potentially look like.
How can libraries support Indigenous communities?
This is a big question, but it’s so good to think about. Honestly, I have agonized over my answer because I want to be intentional and concise. I would say that I can only share from my own lens, but I think that it is super important to recognize how institutions like museums, archives, and libraries have interacted with Indigenous communities historically. How have these institutions undermined tribal/Indigenous sovereignty, oppressed or excluded Indigenous Peoples, and how do they continue to reinforce settler-colonialism? How has colonization, settler-colonialism, assimilation and genocide impacted the way Indigenous Peoples interact with these institutions or influence the access they have to resources available within these institutions? These aren’t the only questions, but they can definitely help guide how you uplift Indigenous communities within your role. In my lifetime, I would love to see complete sovereignty in regard to data. I would like to see everything that belongs to a community go home if that is what the community decides is best. I feel like communities should also get to choose how things are repatriated, too. I would like to see equitable access to resources and materials. I want to see intentional and culturally responsive programming in libraries. I would like to see Indigenous communities telling their own stories in their own words. We deserve agency. Of course, I want healing, but beyond that, I think we deserve more than just healing and reconciliation. We deserve empowerment. We deserve to engage with these institutions in ways that elicit joy or make us feel seen and valued.
Is there any aspect of Indigenous librarianship that you feel all MLIS students should know about?
First of all, we are still here. Additionally, we are not a monolith or a single, homogenous group. I think sometimes it is easy for people to think of Indigenous people as coming from one community. While we all have Indigeneity in common, we each come from different communities with different traditions, ceremonies, stories, beliefs, languages, connections to the land, histories, relationships to the government, etc. That said, I am not a spokesperson for my whole tribe. I am just one Little Shell person. My tribal chairman isn’t even the spokesperson for our whole tribe. It’s all of us together. I can tell my own story, but together we tell our shared story.
It is hard to explain, but I wish people understood that libraries and other colonial or Western institutions have practices, policies, and collective ideas or values that do not always align with our ways or the beliefs of our communities. That can definitely be a struggle. That ties into the last question on some level, knowing the truth. There is a lot of history to know about, but it is more than possible to learn. In saying this, I think it is also important to ensure that you’re not relying on Indigenous people to constantly take on this role as educators. It’s great to ask questions and it is great to defer to an Indigenous person in the room if you are not sure of something or to platform them in that moment instead, but if there are concepts that you can learn about on your own to help us streamline the process of educating others, please do that. If you can help educate others, please do that. I would also recommend working with Indigenous communities, organizations, or individuals in your roles or eventual roles, but if you are able to compensate them for what they share, please do.
I think most of all, I wish that people in this field would see that we don’t have to do things a certain way just because they have always been done that way. The rules are not real so we can change them.
Graduate students don’t often get leisure time, but are there any books, music, or other media that you have been able to engage with lately?
For better or worse, I am obsessed with Hello Kitty Island Adventure right now. You’re on an island with a bunch of Sanrio characters making friends, going on quests and doing other silly little tasks. My brain is like the inside of a lava lamp lately, so I like to spend my spare time as a cat in a mermaid outfit trying to give each Keroppi or Chococat the best possible gifts in the game. I am just a cat picking up seashells.
Ahéhee’/thank you to Molly for sharing her experience with the iSchool! Please check out my Indigenous Peoples’ Day blog for more information about librarianship and Indigenous people.