iSchool and Partners Win IMLS Grant to Support Indigenous Librarianship


A project aimed at increasing diversity of the library profession is coming to fruition. The San José State University School of Information, American Indian Library Association, the Alaska State Library are partners on a Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian grant worth over $700,000 awarded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services to the Alaska Library Network. The grant will fund Bridging Knowledge: Supporting Indigenous Scholars in the Field of Librarianship

The three-year project will provide financial, professional and peer support to 15 American Indian, Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian students as they pursue their Master of Library and Information Science degree in the iSchool’s exclusively online program. The students will also have the opportunity to concurrently earn an Advanced Certificate in Strategic Management of Digital Assets and Services.

The spark for the project was Dr. Sandra Littletree’s presentation at the Tribal Libraries Convening, says project co-director Julie Niederhauser, who is also public library coordinator at Alaska State Library. “She [Littletree] shared her dissertation, ‘Let Me Tell You About Indian Libraries,’ which mentions the need for more Indigenous librarians and library educators,” Niederhauser says. According to the Bridging Knowledge grant proposal, relatively few American Indians or Alaskan Natives pursue library careers, despite the profession’s crucial need for Indigenous librarians who can serve their communities and provide stewardship for Indigenous-focused cultural heritage organizations and institutions.

Project leads chose the iSchool as the educational partner because of the school’s previous involvement in a similar initiative: the IMLS-funded Circle of Learning program, which ran from 2010 to 2014 and also supported Indigenous students in earning an American Library Association-accredited MLIS degree. “San Jose State University’s iSchool previous success with the Circle of Learning made it the appropriate academic partner for this project,” says Niederhauser, adding that Sheila Gurtu, who was the Circle of Learning’s project assistant and is a member of the current project’s Advisory Committee, was “instrumental” in supporting the Bridging Knowledge project through the year-long grant-writing process. Niederhauser’s co-director is Valarie Kingsland, an iSchool alumna who earned her MLIS degree through the Circle of Learning program.

“We are all committed to increasing diversity in librarianship,” says Cindy Hohl, Bridging Knowledge’s project manager and a past president of the American Indian Library Association. She notes that employment data representing Native American and Native Hawaiian staffing has not changed much in the past decade. Indigenous people face significant barriers preventing them from entering professional programs in the library field, according to the grant proposal. The expense of not just school but also technology and broadband access can prove daunting. In addition, students who are the only Indigenous person in their program often experience a sense of isolation, which can be compounded by lack of support from their families and communities.

The Bridging Knowledge project aims to remove those barriers for its cohort of students. In addition to extensive financial support, the project has engaged iSchool Assistant Professor Michele Villagran, as the students’ faculty advisor as they begin the program. Later the students will be paired with mentors based on their interests and provided internship and professional networking opportunities.

In addition to the iSchool’s typical course work, Bridging Knowledge students will also engage with unique learning opportunities that incorporate Indigenous knowledge and protocols, cultural practices and oral storytelling, says Hohl. “The archival certificate program blends preservation and repatriation with acquisitions in special collections and proper cataloging terminology,” she explains. The supplemental curriculum will be made available through the Sustainable Heritage Network.

The Bridging Knowledge project will ultimately benefit librarianship on a broader level. Increasing the presence of Indigenous peoples in the information professions, says the grant proposal, will help “to decolonize librarianship and empower Indigenous librarians and library workers to benefit and strengthen urban and rural Indigenous communities.”

After a long period of hard work organizing and preparing, the Bridging Knowledge project launches its first phase in September 2021, attracting and recruiting applicants. Anyone who is interested in a library career and identifies as American Indian, Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian should complete the online application on the Bridging Knowledge website by November 15. The 15 students will begin their MLIS studies in the spring 2022 semester.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services RE-250081-OLS-21.