WASHINGTON - For the first time in 131 years, the leading librarian in the land is an American Indian - ''although there are a lot of great Native librarians,'' Loriene Roy was quick to add.
The American Library Association, oldest and largest of its kind anywhere, elected Roy to a one-year term as president beginning June 27, when an inaugural celebration in Washington included an indigenous peoples' procession. Roy is an enrolled citizen at White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Her mother was Pembina Band and her father, Mississippi Band Ojibwe. ''And my dad was ... Bear Clan, so I'm Bear Clan.''
The 64,000-member ALA plays an enormous role in public education, and Roy intends to take full advantage of its resources on behalf of Native youth. She has already founded ''If I Can Read, I Can Do Anything,'' a nationwide reading and literacy club for Native young people that also aims to improve tribal libraries. Working with the University of Texas School of Information, where she has taught for 20 years, Roy has taken the program to thousands of Native young people in dozens of often-overlooked communities. Wherever the program has gone, book donations associated with the program have improved community library collections. But above all, reading among the young has flourished, providing a good foot forward in a world where literacy rules.
The purposes of the program will be brought to her ALA presidency through a Circle of Literacy Task Force. ''Under the Circle of Literacy, we're organizing a Gathering of Readers,'' Roy said. '''Gathering of Nations' is the largest pow wow in the U.S., so with Gathering of Readers we're going to invite 50 to 100 schools that serve indigenous children around the world to share examples of how they celebrate culture and reading in their schools. And we'll feature Native writers' messages and then invite the world to visit the [Internet] site. It'll be during National Library Week next April, April 15th to 18th. And then the theme actually of National Library Week next year is 'Join the Circle at Your Library,' so it's connecting to what we're doing.''
At a time when libraries are changing, Roy is true to a long tradition of librarians who went from cataloguing materials by specially handwritten standardized index cards, then by the typewriters that were a cause for concern in their day, and now by computerized retrieval systems. But the opportunities of library adaptation to the Internet today can serve Native communities as never before. Native community libraries may contain Native language materials, but they are usually limited collections. Native language materials can circulate over the Internet, however, as a kind of virtual library. ''In fact, that's one reason we're developing this Web site related to the Gathering of Readers, to show that Native kids are involved not only in reading, promoting literacy in the English language, but also expressing themselves as whole and fulfilled Native people through language recovery.''
The circle of Native-language literacy will grow through the virtual library, Roy expects, as it has already grown across imposed international boundaries. ''Native language revitalization is so hot in tribal communities. And especially the connections with Native Hawaiians and the Maori, who've led the way globally, with the formation of the language nest schools in Aeteoroa, in New Zealand, and then the Native Hawaiians looking at that model and replicating it.''
But at the end of the day, computer use is still limited in many Indian communities. Getting a fix on the number of Native libraries isn't easy - in fact, the very concept of a library is flexible enough in much of Indian country to include not only textual sources, but oral culture and tribal documentation. All that considered, Roy estimates the number to be at least 200. ''Of course those are tribal community libraries, and in some studies a tribal library is really the information center. So it often has the tribal records office, it often has the archives, sometimes the museum, sometimes the tribal school library is the library for the community. In some cases, the tribal college library ... is also the tribal public library.''
But in every case, Roy added, ''The presence of a library providing access to print, to electronic resources, is even more important in Indian country.''
Her personal story is a case in point. Neither of her parents had a diploma coming out of high school. They had eight children, so money was never abundant. Roy began to read as a retreat. ''You know I'm the oldest of the eight, and I think it provided me with a place to be on my own in a household of eight or 10 people. And I remember we had an agreement: I was allowed to read as long as I was in the room with everyone. So I had my corner on the floor next to a freezer, and I could read anything I wanted. And I think, too, I remember seeing my parents read, and we know that parents are the first teachers of reading. And so Native parents, when I'm asked, 'What do we do?' - Read. Read with your children.''
In any case, she began a lending library within the family. Later, working as a medical technician, she needed patient care information and could only access it by taking library classes. She got started on the first of several degrees and hasn't looked back.