Digital Inclusion Corps Member, National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Columbus, OH
MA, Museum Studies, University of Oklahoma, in progress; Elementary Education, Oklahoma State University, 1996
Tharp-Thee is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation and author of The Apple Tree (RoadRunner, 2015), a children’s story written in English and Cherokee and a finalist for the 2016 Oklahoma Center for the Book award and First Nations Community Read
Photo by Madison Horrocks
When Sandy Tharp-Thee started as director at the Iowa Tribal Library in Perkins, OK, in 2009, she didn’t even have a shoestring budget. As she was introduced around the tribal offices, Tharp-Thee carried a big bag and asked for supply donations for children’s crafts.
During her seven years at the library (she’s since taken a one-year job at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance [NDIA]), Tharp-Thee reached out, approaching local businesses, national foundations, and state and federal agencies. “I talked to everyone I met about what the library could do to make a difference,” Tharp-Thee says.
With donations and an incredible record for getting grants—more than 20—Tharp-Thee grew the library from a small room with books into a vibrant public service for the entire 2,000-resident community. The library offers homework help, summer enrichment programs, a modest digital archive, tribal cultural activities, family outreach, health literacy, and a GED program that has helped 81 people, aged 16 to 64, since 2010. “My advice is start with what you have and do what you know,” she says.
However, Tharp-Thee quickly moved beyond that to dive into the unfamiliar. When a GED student told her he couldn’t read the instructions, Tharp-Thee told him not to worry; she would find him a tutor. She then called the Oklahoma Department of Libraries to ask: How do you teach someone to read? “The GED program and any literacy programs are about building success and self-esteem, seeing individuals change with their goals,” Tharp-Thee says.
A few years later, after realizing that homebound tribal elders needed access to health information, Tharp-Thee applied for a federal grant to provide digital access and instruction on technology, online health resources, and social media. This allowed elders to make informed decisions about treatment.
Tharp-Thee’s work has been recognized by several agencies and she received the 2013 White House Champions of Change Award for Libraries and Museums.
“I have been trying for many years now…to see if there was a way to get the Internet to be free just like phones for individuals that need it the most—handicapped, disabled, social-disadvantaged, and low income,” she says. This year, Tharp-Thee will keep moving on that path, participating in a collaboration among NDIA, the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. She and a handful of other Digital Inclusion Corps members will visit rural libraries, schools, and tribes across Oklahoma to develop a plan to help underserved communities that lack access to technology and the Internet.