It must be re-stated that there have been alarmingly few studies dealing with Canadian Aboriginals on-reserves and the public library system. The few studies published in scholarly journals have typically taken place south of the border within a library structure that has significant differences to the system in Canada. Much of the literature published regarding Aboriginals and public libraries in Canada are published in professional journals using a case study approach rather than carrying out in-depth academic research. As a result, the literature review for this research study will approach the issue of on-reservation Aboriginals in Alberta and their relationship with public libraries from a very broad and wide perspective, narrowing and focusing wherever possible.
Historical Perspective on Aboriginals and Libraries
Brendan Frederick R. Edwards (2005) wrote a unique and comprehensive book titled A History of Libraries, Print Culture, and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada before 1960. In the book, he writes that as early as 1901, Aboriginals in Canada began asking the Federal Department of Indian Affairs to establish public school libraries in their communities. This certainly deviates from the historical notion that Aboriginals have never wanted anything to do with libraries or learning and it is something that has been forced upon them by the prevailing European culture. In fact, the Euro-Canadian government in Canada was slow to respond to the request and it was not until the 1940s that Day School Libraries were established across Canada to provide leisure reading for young Aboriginal Canadians. These collections were not aimed at Aboriginals and were the same material that all young Canadians received in their schools. Therefore, it is apparent why these libraries were inadequate in serving the population. Inadequate though the libraries and collections may have been across most of Canada, they were abysmal in Alberta. A survey of these Day School Libraries in 1943 found only a single library located in the entire province with a total collection of sixty-nine items.
Another important perspective to take into consideration is the lasting effect of residential schools on Aboriginals and how that may affect their view of public libraries. When the Indian Act was revised in the early Twentieth Century, attendance at residential schools became mandatory for children between the ages of seven and fourteen years of age. Government policy was implemented in a manner that stripped the children of their native language, culture, religious practices, and, in essence, their entire identity. Barnes, Josefowitz & Cole (2006) argue that former students that exhibit the common effects of "low self-esteem, negative attitudes toward school or studying, poor educational background, or underdeveloped cognitive abilities" are less likely to peruse further education endeavours and are likely to pass this perspective along to their children and grandchildren (29). Libraries are often considered to be part of the educational system and the horrible nature of residential schools can be transferred over to libraries and viewed with suspicion and fear (Gallagher-Hayashi, 2004, 20). This makes it that much more important for public libraries to include Aboriginal culture in the collections and services of the institution to increase the welcoming nature of the library and reassure Aboriginal patrons that the sins of the past are not being repeated within their walls.
On-Reserve Aboriginals in the United States and Public Libraries
Susan K. Burke (2007) conducted a content analysis study on the 2002 Current Population Survey (CPS) as conducted by the US Bureau of the Census. The objective of her research was to identify the patterns of library use among Native Americans. Although Native Americans used the library less than their non-Native counterparts, she found that they used certain services of the library more often than other ethnic groups. The data for the research was gathered through the Census Bureau in the form of a door-to-door quantitative questionnaire. The author admits that as the Census was not conducted with her study in mind, the questions asked were not ideal, but she adapted her research as best as possible to fit the questions asked. There were 2,102 Native American respondents to the census. The author discovered that Native Americans were much more likely to use the public library to conduct school research and were twice as likely to use computers or the internet, but were highly unlikely to have their children attend storybook hour – perhaps, as the author states, because the Native community already has a strong storytelling culture. The author proposed that public libraries work closer with the Elders in order to create services – such as a Native-centric storytelling hour – that would benefit the Native American community. Although the study does not focus on reservation Aboriginals, they are included within the numbers of the data retrieved. It appears that the services that Aboriginals utilized in the public library were possibly those that they were unable to find closer to home (internet connection, a quiet place to study with books, etc.) but the resources that were available elsewhere were not used (story time). Typically, it appears that none of the resources of the library have been made with the Aboriginal perspective in mind. The Aboriginal is expected to use the Euro-centric services or not use them at all.
A reason why public libraries in the United States may have little incentive to provide Aboriginal-focused services is that the funding structure in the United States encourages library service to Aboriginals be kept to on-reservation tribal libraries. These tribal libraries are often popular with a high level of use but they face constant threats of closure due to limited resources available to maintain or improve the building, collection or staff (Patterson, 2002). In 1985, the Training and Assistance for Indian Library Services (TRAINS) program was launched by the US Department of Education to provide funding, training, guidance, and direction to 506 American Indian Tribes to improve the library and information services on reservations and villages. It was intended to be a three-year program. It was cancelled without reason after only sixteen months (Rockefeller-MacArthur, 1998). There is a common theme in the literature of tribal libraries being chronically underfunded although the services are enthusiastically received by Aboriginals.
On-Reserve Aboriginals in Canada and Public Libraries
A major issue with providing library service to on-reservation Aboriginals in Canada is due to the funding structure within the government. The Indian Act states that the federal government has exclusive authority to legislate status Aboriginals, their bands, and reservations. However, the responsibility of libraries fall to the provincial government and the majority of the funding for libraries comes from municipal taxes. As reservations fall outside these municipalities, they do not pay into the system that allows them to be members of the library. They have the ability to purchase a membership for all the members of their band, but as reservations cannot levy taxes, funding for inclusion into the public library system would have to come at the cost of other valuable services for communities that are often struggling and living well below the poverty level (Bright, 1992).
Many reservations in Alberta are located in rural areas and public libraries in these areas tend to receive less funding and have higher operating costs than libraries in urban areas. Amirault (2003) states that with the number of high speed computers funded by the government and the Gates Library Foundation, rural library development and efficiency has been excellerated. Although this is certainly true to an extent, given the low-literacy, low-education, and low employment levels of the majority of Aboriginals living on reserves, it is unlikely that even if these services were targeted toward their population – which there is no research to indicate that this is the case – they would likely be underutilized. This is another development that seeks to improve public library service to the majority (re: typically white), while ignoring the needs of the minority.
Mary Cavanagh (2007) wrote a report on a study whose objective was to determine the best practices currently in use across Canada in providing library services to Aboriginal people by sending a questionnaire to library bodies across provincial, national, and territorial lines. Although an exact list of the individual libraries who participated in the library was not given, there are representatives from every province and territory. The questionnaire consisted of only three very broad questions with suggestions given for each on possible directions the individual might want to take when answering. As a result, the length and depth of the answers varied greatly by province with Alberta providing little information and Ontario providing pages. The researchers discovered that the evaluation of current programs is essential for the continued improvement of services to aboriginal peoples and is lacking across the board. They also found that it is essential that provincial and territorial governments approach the federal government to enact initiatives to improve library services to Aboriginals as federal assistance is often lacking.
Alberta is singled out as being only in the preliminary stage of establishing libraries on First Nations reserves. Issues in the funding structure in the province, as mentioned previously, are listed as a possible reason for the delay (Cavanagh, 2007). Considering that in 1992 there was only a single library (a community library) in the entire province of Alberta – on the Brocket reserve – and the Enoch Cree Nation was waiting for funding from the government for a library that apparently has still never arrived, Alberta is sorely lacking in its ability to follow through with providing public library services to on-reservation Aboriginals – who make up over half the population of Aboriginals in Alberta (Bright, 1992). The Edmonton Public Library makes it quite clear in a 2005 report designed to improve library services to Aboriginals that "there is no provincial or federal support for the development and implementation of on-reserve public library services in Alberta" (Edmonton Public Library, 2005, 22).
Library and Archives Canada produced a report in 2004 titled Report and Recommendations of the Consultation of Aboriginal Resources and Services (Blake, Martin & Pelletier, 2004). The objective of the consultations conducted was to bring together a community of librarians from across Canada to discuss ways of strengthening access to Aboriginal resources in Canada and to identify and solve Aboriginal concerns regarding access to libraries. Twenty-five librarians met over a two-day period and provided a series of recommendations on how to improve service to Aboriginals and access to Aboriginal material. A number of recommendations stem from the need to include Aboriginals in the planning and consultation process. In addition, it was acknowledged that there is a significant lack of funding to spearhead new projects/libraries and it is necessary to put pressure on the government to increase funding to such projects. Although it is mentioned that members of the Aboriginal community were included in the consultation, their inclusion is not clearly reflected in the report. This is a problem becasue it has been clearly identified that their voice needs to be heard and yet it is written up in the report as though they are hardly present.
Of the few voices that speak out for better service for Aboriginals – both on and off reserves – in public libraries, most look at the improvement of services from the experience of the practitioner. A major issue in the research has been the exclusion of Aboriginals in active participation. There has not been enough research on the topic of Aboriginals and the public library and to start the research by asking a third party (the library/librarians) only further distances oneself from the individuals who could provide real suggestions/advice – the Aboriginal people themselves. This is the slant this research project will take as the Aboriginal voice is too often unheard.