An interview with Dr. Lotsee Patterson, a founding member of AILA

By Zora Sampson

In order to honor the 35th anniversary of the American Indian Library Association, our AILA, it was my privilege to interview one of the founders, Dr. Lotsee Patterson, Professor Emeritus of the School of Library and Information Science, University of Oklahoma. My remarks are based on an interview with her and her own writings.

AILA’s roots reach back much further in time than thirty five years ago. It began with dedicated educators trying to serve native students who had limited access to libraries, bookstores, and books; some schools were built without any library at all. When Native Americans attended college to get teaching degrees and more, those who turned back to serve their communities found needed resources lacking.

While the passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in the mid-1970s helped, enabling tribes to contract for services with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), libraries were still staffed by non-professionals as tribes could not afford professional salaries. The Native American professionals who did attain their Masters in Library Science and PhDs were sought after by universities to increase diversity. These scholars were torn between serving their communities or earning a better wage where they lived in cultural vacuums.

Though there is no formal record of the first “tribal library,” the Colorado River Tribal Council in Arizona established its own library in 1958. Tribal libraries serving the Mohawks of New York State and the Shoshone-Bannock of Fort Hall Idaho followed in the 1960s. In the 1960s, Vista volunteers placed small collections of donated books in tribal buildings. Then in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the US Department of Education issued competitive grants under the Higher Education Act Title IIB targeting minorities; many practicing Native American librarians were the recipients of Title IIB Fellowships.

In the 1970s, Mary Huffer, director of the Department of the Interior (DOI) Library, asked a small group of individuals to assist her in drafting a plan of action to improve library services on tribal lands. Her purpose was to ensure that Native Peoples attained access to library, media, and information services and resources equal to other American citizens. She brought Lotsee Patterson, Charles T. Townley and Virginia H. Matthews to Washington, D.C. where they worked on her action plan(1). The four of them sat up nights and weekends in the DOI Library working to improve funding.

In 1972 at a meeting of the American Library Association, Matthews, Townley, and Patterson discussed their frustrations in a Dallas hotel. How could they best bring attention to tribal libraries, to the uphill tasks of tireless tribal librarians, or even get people to realize that there was such a thing as tribal libraries? ALA seemed to be the best place to start, but how could they elicit that help? A committee seemed logical, but they knew that forming a new ALA committee was a long process, so they focused their attentions on creating a subcommittee within the Office of Literacy and Outreach Services. They brought the issue to the next ALA conference, and the Subcommittee on Library Services to Native Americans was formed.

Mary Alice Hedge Reszetar, Associate Director of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (NCLIS), was also an important advocate for tribal libraries. Dr. Patterson was appointed as an outside consultant to NCLIS, which sent commissioners to visit Indian Country and to hold hearings on issues related to library services on Indian reservations. When planning for the first White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services, Ms. Reszetar saw the need for American Indian issues to be heard, and she secured funding to support the Native American Pre-Conference in Denver in 1978. It was at this pre-conference that the Subcommittee on Library Services for Native Americans conceived of an association solely dedicated to the issues affecting tribal libraries and formed the American Indian Library Association.

With the help of Jean Coleman, AILA became an ALA affiliate. Dr. Patterson is still grateful for the support that ALA continued to provide to AILA. The Office of Literacy and Outreach Services provided funds for meeting rooms and the production and distribution of the AILA Newsletter. Following the White House Conference on Libraries and Information Services in 1979, AILA passed resolutions to seek funding from the Department of Education.

When I asked Dr. Patterson what the greatest impact AILA has had over the 35 years, she responded, to simply recognize the great work done in tribal libraries and the passionate commitment of tribal librarians. AILA has continued to grow and is now the vehicle tribal librarians look to for strength, support and contribution. AILA has become a welcoming home for all people dedicated to providing and improving library services in Native American communities.

1: The DOI Library Action Plan produced by Huffer, Townley, Matthews, and Patterson served as the planning tool for an omnibus bill for library services for American Indians produced at the 1978 Native American Pre-Conference in Denver. For a more detailed history of legislation supporting library services for Native Americans, see Dr. Lotsee Patterson’s article, “History and Status of Native Americans in Librarianship,” Library Trends v.49 no. 1, Summer 2000, p. 182-193.