Associate Outreach Specialist
School of Library and Information Studies, Continuing Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison
MLS, University of Wisconsin-Madison SLIS, 2010
FOLLOW, VISIT, LEARN
Tribal Libraries, Archives and Museums Project, tlamproject.org
Photo © 2014 by Michael Pilla
Teaching Tribal Librarianship
From the 1850s to the late 1930s, the Sokaogon Chippewa tribe of Wisconsin lacked any legal right to its own lands—a history community member Omar Poler learned in a college class called Writing Tribal Histories that delved into an archival collection co-created in the early 1980s by Poler’s own father documenting the tribe’s winning fight for federal recognition.
“I discovered an amazing story of activism…. Not only that, I got to read the handwritten letters of my great-grandfather,” Poler says. As a result, “I recognized the importance of libraries, archives, and museums to community and personal identity.”
An outreach specialist in continuing education for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Library and Information Studies since graduating from the school in 2010, Poler tries to provide the same opportunity for research and connection through the Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums (TLAM) Project, which he created to incorporate American Indian topics into LIS education. It’s one ofthe few such programs in the United States.
Among TLAM’s initiatives are a graduate course cotaught by Poler, in which students learn about American Indian information issues, including indigenous languages, tribal histories, colonization, and cultural sovereignty; the Convening Culture Keepers professional development miniconference for Wisconsin tribal librarians, archivists, and museum curators; and a student group that brings students to tribal cultural institutions for service-learning projects.
“It’s not enough to study tribal institutions; you have to experience the living part of them,” Poler says.
“The TLAM Project has become the model both for library schools that want to teach students how to provide service for underserved populations like American Indian communities, as well as for states that want to create networks of tribal information and cultural professionals,” says Robin Amado, a school librarian at Madison’s Memorial High School who as a graduate student in 2012 was Poler’s student assistant for Convening Culture Keepers. She continues to help organize the conference. So far seven conferences have been held, each attended by 50–60 people.
In May 2013, the project received an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant to take the conference regional for 75 tribal librarians, archivists, and museum curators from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
“We’ve done this by finding creative ways to support each other,” Poler says. “And I’ve been lucky enough to be a facilitator of all of it. It’s been life changing.” His efforts have the potential to change many more lives.