Originally published in Library Journal.
In the latest of our In-Depth Interviews with Library Journal Movers & Shakers from academic libraries, we caught up with Omar Poler, an Associate Outreach Specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS). Omar Poler has a deep and personal connection to the American Indian community that has been enriched by his library work and has motivated him to form the Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums (TLAM) Project, one of the few projects to incorporate American Indian topics into LIS education.
LJ: Could you tell me what drew you to library work in the first place?
Omar Poler: It really probably starts with my family. My dad was one of the founders of a tribal library in our tribal community, the Sokaogon Chippewa community, in the late 1970s. He was also involved in an archives project in the early 1980s. So that was sort of where I first experienced libraries, but it wasn’t until I came to UW Madison, [where I] was working in the historical society as a history major, that I got really excited because I came across the work that my dad had done with the archives project. So that was kind of a revelation on the importance of archives to tribal communities because it does so much in helping us understand our history in relationship with the U.S. government.
In this interview series, sponsored by SAGE, LJ goes in depth with this year’s Movers & Shakers from academic libraries, delving into just how and why they pulled off the projects that brought them recognition as innovators, change agents, and more.
You once found and read a handwritten letter by your great-grandfather in an archive. Could you talk about this experience and how it shaped your views of the importance of libraries, archives and museums?
Going through those archives you saw the people that were suffering, you know, the smallpox that was going through, the tuberculosis. People who were like my great-grandfather who were trying to get treatment, trying to get into sanatorium and were being denied. Just awful deplorable conditions leading to people’s deaths. Reading those stories and connecting with them and understanding that’s where we come from and that’s the struggle we went through, that’s what we overcame to survive and become a recognized community. It enriches almost every part of your life, gives you a perspective of who you are and what your obligations are in the world. I can’t speak enough to the experience I had and the experience libraries and archives can provide [to] communities if they’re done the right way.
You founded the Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museum (TLAM) Project. Why did you decide to create it?
I have to say it’s always been a team effort here and I think that’s one of our great successes. So I feel I can’t take credit but I have been involved in every step of the way. I’m really proud on the way that we work together. How I got involved and interested, it goes back to recognizing the tremendous value of native history and native culture. Coming to SLIS, we had this opportunity to work with the Red Cliff tribal community in northern Wisconsin to reopen [its] public library. Seeing the way that librarians and library school students can work with tribal communities and support the endeavors of tribal communities was kind of an amazing revelation, that we can play an active and meaningful role right now in supporting the capacity and sovereignty of tribal communities and by doing so we can help library school students get a different perspective on the profession, hopefully grow in ways that deepens their understanding of the cultural diversity of information and knowledge. It shows the way that librarians can act as community builders—professional community builders—and specifically support tribal communities.
TLAM is one of the few programs to incorporate American Indian topics into library and information science education. Tell me about how it can be a model for serving underserved populations.
I think we’re one of the few that have ongoing service learning partnerships with tribal communities. I think we figured out a good way to reach out and build and sustain the relationships through meaningful work by supporting one another. Through introducing students through topics in the class, getting them out in the communities, and service learning projects that extend year to year so there is new cohort of students passing through every year, we maintain the relationships with the tribes and listen to what their needs are and try to respond to them with the professional development gatherings we offer. It’s kind of this integrated approach that allows for this sustainability and for authenticity over time that I think is critical [to] working with all underserved communities.