From Empty Spaces to Community Places

Catawba Indian Nation Opens Doors to a New Community Resource Center

Catawba Nation Community Librarian Rachel Hooper, MLIS, shares how the library will be open to the public and will share invaluable resources with the tribal community.

An essential component of many communities is the educational and cultural social hub of a local library, and Catawba Indian Nation is quick to recognize the importance of this resource. With this in mind, they reached out to First Nations for support for the Catawba Community Resource Center, a new gathering place to access not only books and publications, but also Native literature about and by Native people.

The resource center was part of a vision of the Catawba Indian Nation’s Catawba Cultural Preservation Project, which the tribe created to preserve, protect, promote, and maintain the rich culture and heritage of the Catawba Indian Nation. Through the project, Catawba Indian Nation operates the Catawba Cultural Center in the historic schoolhouse on the Catawba Indian Reservation in South Carolina. Since 1989, the center has showcased an inventory of Catawba-designed products, arts, and connections to Catawba artists, and it has provided a community clearinghouse of books and other reference materials.

Yet, according to librarian Rachel Hooper, MLIS, project leaders knew there was potential to increase the center’s impact and bring more benefit to the Catawba community in the form of a library or resource center.

Collecting and Curating Culture

At that point, the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project had already compiled and curated a number of materials. There were over 3,000 books and other resources, but they were spread out across multiple buildings, without any way to track and share the materials. At the same time, the center had established a Community Seed Library and acquired new digital technology, including a 3D printer, laser cutter, large-format printer, and high-powered graphics and video-editing software.

Before work on the Catawba Community Resource Center began, books and materials were scattered in boxes across multiple buildings, with limited access and organization.

Still, there was a need to bring the materials and tools together in one place, where they could be easily tracked and shared with the community. Project leaders also wanted to create a space to facilitate the Tribe’s educational projects, and to encourage literacy and lifelong learning. Importantly, they also wanted to address the lack of books and materials written by and for Catawbas and Native Americans. Hooper explains that there is a public library in the area, but it does not have a specialized collection on Native American literature, nor is there up-to-date, non-biased information portraying people in Indian Country.

“People want to see themselves reflected in literature,” she says. “It’s good for people, especially children, to see all different colors and shapes of people and have exposure to titles, authors, and characters that showcase people with whom they can identify. It’s important to be validated by the things you read and look at.”

Knowing all they wanted to achieve, the project set plans in motion for the Catawba Community Resource Center.

Building the Infrastructure

The grant from First Nations allowed project leaders to purchase and install essential shelving for displaying publications, including Native American literature and materials.

In the beginning, DeLesslin “Roo” George Warren, a Catawba Tribal member, activist, consultant for the Tribe, and member of First Nations’ 2020 Native Fundraisers Community of Practice (NFCoP), reached out to the NFCoP team to explore possible resources for the library, including publications, such as First Nations’ Reclaiming Native Truth research and messaging guide. George Warren then connected First Nations to Hooper,  who helped First Nations learn more about the Catawba Community Resource Center.

Hooper explains that the next step was to transform an empty space of the cultural center into a library. The intended space was small and awkward, with an L-shaped room surrounding a section of the center’s archives. Soon, they knocked out a wall and brought in desks and furniture.

From there, with support of the First Nations grant, they purchased and installed library-quality cantilever shelving. They next began the process of inventorying their books and creating an online cataloguing system. The system is integral to any library operation as it tracks not only data on the books, but also, who checks the books out and how often the books circulate through the community.

Moreover, cataloguing the books gave project leaders the opportunity to assess their collection, determine which books are relevant to which audiences, and identify where more books may be needed. Hooper, who has a master’s in library and information science, explains that a library doesn’t just function to lend out books. “It’s important to keep a pulse on who your audience is — what people are interested in and what the library provides. From our cataloguing, we knew there were classics we wanted to keep, but also that there was a need in the community for more materials about the Catawba Indian Nation and Native Americans, overall.”

Intern Bree inputs book spine information in a detailed process of inventorying and cataloguing all publications.

Along the way, they consulted with the Qualla Boundary Public Library of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for advice, and Hooper says reaching out to colleagues in this way was a great strategy for hitting the ground running. “People are more than happy to help,” she says. “And learning about their operations and best practices helped us streamline our own build-out.”

A Special Resource

Now, with shelves up and resources catalogued, Catawba Indian Nation is preparing to open the doors of the Catawba Community Resource Center. It will be a resource for the public offering mainstream books and materials, along with cultural education programs, youth activities, storytimes, programs for older adults, and computer literacy classes. Yet predominantly, Hooper asserts, the center will be a gathering hub for Tribal members and families, as a special library focused on Native American literature.

“I think for me the whole concept of a library is a place where the community can meet and build, and where children can see themselves in the community around them,” says Hooper. “Investing in this library is an investment in that community.”

First Nations is proud to be part of this investment. Like many aspects of infrastructure, bookshelves may seem of little consequence, but they are an essential part of a library’s operations and sustainability. For Catawba Indian Nation, they lay the foundation for organizing, storing, and displaying a wealth of resources, and bolstering the education, literacy, and identity of a Native American community.

First Nations President and CEO Michael Roberts paraphrases the essayist Nassim Taleb in adding that a library is as much about ambition as it is about accomplishment. “In the case of the Catawba Community Resource Center, I say it is about both. We at First Nations are honored to be such a small part of a great ambition and accomplishment by the Catawba Tribe.”

Catawba Indian Nation: A Long-Time First Nations Community Partner

In addition to the grant for library infrastructure, First Nations has helped support Catawba Cultural Preservation Project’s Youth Fellowship Program, which was created to connect elders and culture keepers with Catawba youth, ages 16 to 23, to help them become the next generation of Catawba culture keepers. First Nations is also investing in Catawba Indian Nation’s efforts to create a breastfeeding and first foods program that will increase access to nutritious traditional foods and the practice of breastfeeding.