The Importance of Indigenous Librarianship: Q&A with Knowledge River Alumnus Alex Soto

Nov. 16, 2021

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Alex Soto
Alex Soto. Courtesy of Arizona State University.

This fall, Alex Soto, who received his master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Arizona’s Knowledge River Program in 2020, was appointed director of Arizona State University Library’s Labriola National American Indian Data Center.

The Knowledge River, or KR, Program – which is housed in the School of Information in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences – has been training library and information professionals committed to the information needs of underrepresented groups for 20 years.

Soto, a member of southern Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Nation, spoke about why he chose to work in the field of library science, how the Knowledge River Program has helped him in his career, and why it is important to train library professional committed to serving Native communities.

Q. Why did you decide to work in the field of library and information science?

I worked part-time in a circulation role in public libraries for over 10 years in Phoenix. I was exposed to libraries and the social aspects of it and providing immediate support. I was also a musician then [with Shining Soul, the hip-hop trio he co-founded] and so it was very convenient. Later I was in a paraprofessional role at ASU and was exposed to academic libraries. And that really opened my eyes to the archives and research component to libraries, and how that could be meaningful for Native students and Native Nations.

Libraries really connected my past life as a musician and as a community organizer on the reservation. I could see the parallels of how it had the same core of helping people.

Q. Why did you choose the Knowledge River Program for your MLIS degree?

I was aware of Knowledge River as early as ‘07-’08. It was just rad to hear that there was a dedicated program for Native American librarianship. It resonated but I didn’t have my bachelor’s degree at the time. Once I got my bachelor's degree [in American Indian Studies at ASU], I was able to apply. Learning more about the program, meeting past Knowledge River cohort members, seeing examples of the work they were doing in other tribal communities – it spoke to my interests in social justice and Indigenous self-determination.

Q. How has the Knowledge River Program been helpful to you in your career?

It’s a unique network. The first day of Knowledge River orientation, you get to see the scope of that network, seeing past members participate in those sessions and knowing that a lot of the cool stuff happening in libraries most likely has a KR alum behind the scenes or part of it.

It is unique to have that network and support system – someone you can talk to and have some type of mentorship with. Knowing that what you're going through, maybe a past KR has gone through the same thing in a different institution where they had to insert the mission and vision of Knowledge River – which is to diversify the field – when you're the only person of color in that space.

As director of the Labriola National American Indian Data Center, I seek to cultivate Indigenous librarianship at ASU. As an Indigenous librarian, I must tackle various information concerns Native communities have with libraries, such as: How can academic libraries support Indigenous data sovereignty? What does meaningful implementation of the Protocols for Native American archival materials look like within non-Native repositories? What does an Indigenized content management system in O’odham territory look like? How can academic libraries support Native student success? All these things we learned about in the iSchool and the Knowledge River Program, but now I can put them into action.

Q. Why is it important to have library professionals who are trained in and are committed to the information needs of Native American communities?

It’s important to see a familiar face and speak with someone who understands your research needs. I’ve had the experience when you're talking to a non-Native librarian and you have to educate them on Indigenous-based topics and decolonization.

That’s why it's important to have BIPOC librarianship because each letter of that acronyms has different experiences, different points of entry that the majority doesn't understand. For example, Indigenous archival materials may need to be restricted due to a tribe’s traditional protocols or repatriated to the tribe all together. In my experience, non-Indigenous librarians and archivists do not fully understand why this is important for tribal communities and lifeways. This lack of understanding has historically plagued the library and archival profession. I've met Native folks who don't want to use a library because of these reasons, and/or they think it's a white institution that only supports white western knowledge, which inherently it is. But despite the systematic racism, I like to show that Indigenous voices, Indigenous history, Indigenous knowledge, and Indigenous data can be properly stewarded through Indigenous leadership.

Q. Why are you passionate about reparative archives?

When I was a Knowledge River graduate student I was introduced to Nancy Godoy, who was in a past Knowledge River cohort. She was able to establish a Community-Driven Archives Initiative (CDA) up here at ASU, which helps underrepresented communities document their own histories. Through this initiative, you start to see the reparative value of having BIPOC communities document and preserve their family archives since it takes into account colonization and historical trauma. By maintaining community memory, participants of CDA workshops are empowered to perserve their family and community roots, which in my opinion is an act of resistance. For Indigenous peoples, it also allows us to maintain access to traditional knowledge. At Labriola, I been able to indigenize CDA in our services, and have witnessed how it can be used as a way to engage decolonial work in tribal communities. Family photos, ephemera material or audiovisual recordings, when viewed, when read, when heard, when watched, can be a way to revitalize Indigenous cultural customs and Indigenous languages. I firmly believe Indigenous community-driven archives is key for Indigenous sovereignty in the 21st century.