FCC proposes rule change to help tribal libraries with broadband

The Navajo Nation, which spans over 27,000 square miles, officially has only three libraries. But there are over 100 chapter houses: local governments and community centers that function much like libraries.

“In each chapter house there is a very unique collection of books and materials in circulation,” said Donovan Pete, program supervisor of the Navajo Nation library system.

The Nation is currently expanding the internet capacity of 90 of these chapter rooms through E-Rate, a Federal Communications Commission program that helps schools and libraries access affordable broadband. But getting those Chapter Rooms designated as Libraries for E-Rate purposes was not easy. This required coordination with the state libraries in Arizona and New Mexico.

“We also had the help of a focus group. Just to sort of navigate the paperwork, ”Pete said.

For tribal libraries with fewer resources, this process is out of reach.

Under current FCC rules, only public, academic, and research libraries automatically qualify for the E-Rate program, leaving most tribal libraries out of the loop.

“[Libraries] are much more complex entities on tribal lands, ”said Traci Morris, director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University. “Often these are also meeting spaces, they are cultural spaces, they can have a cultural repository of items as well as books and public computers. They are often also community centers and places of learning.

The FCC proposed a rule change that would expand its definition of “library” to include tribal libraries. Morris says it’s a good start, but there are other obstacles in place.

“Part of that is the ability, too,” Morris said. “The reality is that someone wears several hats when working in a tribal library.”

Tribal libraries can be lifelines for the communities they serve, but they are sorely lacking in resources. Morris research shows that many only have one full-time or part-time employee.

“You serve your customer first before requesting an E-Rate. Then it’s the heavy nature of E-Rate, ”Morris said.

She said the app is a lot for this staff member besides running a library, not to mention the compliance documents that come after the library approves E-Rate.

Then there’s the fact that many tribal librarians haven’t even heard of E-Rate – nearly 40%, according to a recent survey by the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums.

“It’s a cascading set of problems,” Morris said.

Agency spokeswoman Paloma Perez said the FCC knew it had engagement work to do in the Indian country.

“This is part of the reason why we are trying to build a stronger case to understand the field experiences of the librarians who have gone through it and who have done this work,” said Perez.

The FCC will hear from several of these librarians in a virtual panel discussion on Wednesday. Perez said bringing tribal libraries online was part of the agency’s strategy to tackle persistent broadband inequalities on tribal lands, which were exposed during the pandemic.

On the Navajo Nation, E-Rate connectivity helps Window Rock’s main library expand its reach.

“There is this opportunity where these chapter rooms can be partially transformed into libraries. With these fiber optic connections being built to libraries in Chapter Halls, it’s a very effective way to bridge the digital divide, ”said Pete.

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