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Knowledge River bridging the digital divide

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – When the current group of students within the Knowledge River scholarship program at University of Arizona’s School of Information Resources and Library Science graduates in May, 15 more librarians and information professionals, like Stephanie Joseph, will be ready and eager to work with Native American and Hispanic communities.

Joseph, project coordinator and librarian for the program in American Indian Community Health at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas, earned her master’s degree in information resources and library science through the Knowledge River program in 2003.

“One of the reasons I chose to be a librarian was that I only found false information about Native Americans in my library,” she said of growing up on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. “I thought, ‘This library shouldn’t have this trash.’ As a librarian, I would be able to find another piece of material that could provide many views of social issues.”

Since 2001, more than 100 new librarians and specialists in information technology have graduated from the program that began recruiting and paying for the studies of Native, Hispanic and other underrepresented peoples. According to a report from the American Library Association, American Indians represent less than one percent of all librarians and Hispanics represent only two percent.

In addition to paying for the two years of study to complete the degree program, Knowledge River provides opportunities for professional development, attendance at conferences, and internships with local and state libraries, tribal archives and museums during the academic year and summers. Students are grouped into cohorts based on their expected graduation year, and have frequent activities designed to build peer support. Each student is assigned his or her own advisor who acts as a mentor. Knowing students can lean on each other is particularly important to minority students, many of whom are first generation college graduates with no family background in higher education.

Monique Becerril, a current Knowledge River student of Mexican descent, is one of those first generation students. She grew up in Tucson exposed to a blend of Hispanic, American Indian and other cultures. The Knowledge River program appealed to her because it concentrates on putting students in the community to complement their studies.

“Often, academic programs are separated from what’s around them,” she said. “Knowledge River and the University of Arizona make deliberate connections with different cultural institutions. The Pasqua Yaqui Tribe near Tucson recently opened its first library, and many Knowledge River students intern there. In fact, the tribe’s librarian is a graduate of Knowledge River. The human connection is different and important and Knowledge River tries to get the word out in this way.”

Bridging the digital divide, the gap in access to information and information technology that exists for certain populations is especially important for Knowledge River. The goal is training students to positively change their communities by addressing this issue and others relating to tribal libraries and archives, cultural artifacts and artifact repatriation. “Many programs have diversity courses, but Knowledge River has a wide range of courses that focus specifically on these issues,” Becerril said.

Challenges exist in recruiting students, particularly American Indians, despite the generous financial aid package. Knowledge River uses media outlets that serve the Native and Hispanic communities, and works with tribal colleges to share information about the program with students who might not consider becoming a librarian or information specialist as a career. Tribal library staff are a natural pool of prospective students, and also make excellent referral sources. A strong alumni network has also resulted in new students for the program.

One graduate who came by referral, and who has referred a student herself, is Leigh Esquerra, Chemehuevi and Hispanic. She’s a youth services librarian in the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Library System. She never imagined she would someday be working at the library branch she frequented as a teenager.

“I was taking basic science courses at a local college, and a woman there told me about Knowledge River. It seemed really enticing, and the scholarship money was great,” she said. “They pushed students harder than other library students in terms of thinking out of the box. The field needs more Native and Hispanic librarians, in fact it screams for this program.”

Joseph agrees. “The demographics of the country are changing. In 10 years, the Hispanic population will be a majority, and Native groups are growing. But just because we’re a small minority group doesn’t mean we should be ignored in health care, the media or libraries and information services. When more Hispanics and Native Americans become librarians, they can choose resources that are representative of the whole country.”