Libraries, Self-Determination, and Collaboration: Virginia Mathews and the 1978 White House Preconference on Indian Library & Information Services

This guest post is by Shir Bach, a 2022 Junior Fellow at the Library of Congress.

Program, White House Pre-conference on Indian Library and Information on white/beige paper with red writing and an image of a Native American warrior looking down and spitting lightning, Services on or near Reservations, 1978. Box 82, Virginia H. Mathews Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Program, White House Pre-conference on Indian Library and Information Services on or near Reservations, 1978. Box 82, Virginia H. Mathews Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

On October 19, 1978, more than two hundred people gathered at the Denver Airport Hilton Inn to attend the White House Pre-Conference on Indian Library and Information Services On or Near Reservations. In an article about the preconference published in the American Indian Libraries Newsletter, delegate Dennis Reed reflected on that first day of the four-day event:

“Speeding down the highway in the Hilton coach surrounded by Indians.

Out of the bus and inside the inn for registration.

Unfamiliar faces saying words of welcome and sign in please. (…)

New people all around, laughing and talking as they greet old friends.

Good times for all tonight; tomorrow is for getting down to business.”

Joyous community and hard work—these are the enduring preconference images. Over the course of four days, attendees changed the history of Native libraries in the United States. Their work was the culmination of more than a year’s worth of effort by Virginia H. Mathews, whose papers in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division document the significance of this meeting.

Mathews was not a librarian, but few have done more work for the field than she. In a 1998 interview, she self-effacingly remarked that though she did not have a library degree, she “may have earned one a few times”—an understatement if ever there was one.[1] The early decades of Mathews’s career, including as director of the National Book Committee, were spent advocating for children’s literacy and library access. In the early 1970s, Mathews began to focus on the issue of Native American library access. Mathews was the daughter of the great Osage writer John Joseph Mathews, who instilled in her the importance of education and cultural institutions in transmitting the knowledge and traditions of Native American peoples. She worked with a small cadre of other Native librarians during these years, including Lotsee Smith Patterson and Charles Townley, alongside non-Native allies at the Department of the Interior and the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (NCLIS).

First page of American Indian Libraries Newsletter 3 no. 2/3 (Winter/Spring 1979), including Dennis Reed’s article “White House Preconference on Indian Library and Information Services on or near Reservations: A Delegate’s Personal Reflection,” 1979. Box 82, Virginia H. Mathews Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

First page of American Indian Libraries Newsletter 3 no. 2/3 (Winter/Spring 1979), including Dennis Reed’s article “White House Preconference on Indian Library and Information Services on or near Reservations: A Delegate’s Personal Reflection,” 1979. Box 82, Virginia H. Mathews Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

In 1977, Mathews was chosen to chair an upcoming meeting, which provided an opportunity to forward her vision of Native library access. The gathering was the precursor for the 1979 White House Conference on Library and Information Services, which itself was the result of years of advocacy by the American Library Association and the NCLIS.[2] As part of the planning for the 1979 conference, each state and organized territory in the United States assembled individual preconferences to discuss issues relevant to their communities and elect delegates to the national conference. NCLIS associate director Mary Alice Reszetar, who had been a close ally of Mathews and other Native librarians for years, advocated for the inclusion of a preconference specifically for Native Americans living on or near reservations.[3]  She and others argued that since residents of reservations were not part of a state’s tax base, it was unlikely that state preconferences would consider issues specific to Native American reservations.

Reszetar was successful in her efforts. The NCLIS set aside funding for a special preconference, and delegated responsibility for its administration to the Office of Library and Information Services at the Department of the Interior, then headed by Mary A. Huffer.[4] In September 1977, Huffer appointed an all-Native Planning Committee to serve as the driving force behind the preconference, with Mathews as chair.

Photograph of Virginia Matthews in black and white, at a podium with a white screen behind her. Virginia Mathews speaking during the 1978 White House Pre-conference on Indian Library and Information Services on or near Reservations. Box 83, Virginia H. Mathews Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Virginia Mathews speaking during the 1978 White House Pre-conference on Indian Library and Information Services on or near Reservations. Box 83, Virginia H. Mathews Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

The six boxes holding thousands of documents related to the preconference in Mathews’s papers show that she hit the ground running as soon as she was appointed chair. She worked closely with Huffer and the rest of the Planning Committee on everything from programming to delegate selection to hospitality arrangements. Included in her papers are documents detailing the goals and objectives of the preconference, which focused on bringing Native American people together to discuss the importance of libraries and what was needed to support them.

One of Mathews’s biggest jobs for the preconference was overseeing the selection of delegates. From the beginning, the organizers of the preconference were committed to self-determination: only Native Americans were considered for delegate nominations. Both librarians and non-librarians alike were selected as general delegates, with the goal of balancing expertise with public input. The Planning Committee also aimed to select delegates to represent the great diversity of Native nations in the United States. To bolster further a diversity of Native voices, the committee invited every federally recognized tribe and a multitude of Native-led organizations to each send one delegate to the preconference at the committee’s expense. Finally, non-Native library professionals from the Department of the Interior and NCLIS were invited as observers, participating in discussions but not in voting. In the end, 113 delegates and 73 observers attended the preconference.[5]

A listing of the pre-conferences "Goals and Objectives," White House Pre-conference on Indian Library and Information Services on or near Reservations. Box 78, Virginia Mathews H. Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Goals and Objectives, White House Pre-conference on Indian Library and Information Services on or near Reservations. Box 78, Virginia Mathews H. Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The preconference was structured around the interplay between large and small group dynamics. General sessions featured speakers and panel discussions on issues such as funding, programming, and staffing at tribal libraries. These sessions were followed by small group discussions, where delegates and observers reflected on the presentations and shared their own knowledge and experiences. Each small group generated a list of concerns and recommendations, which were sent to seven topically organized task forces, which used them to generate a list of resolutions that delegates voted on at the end of the preconference. The Mathews Papers contain a full list of all notes from the small group discussions. The fifth and final recommendation from Group 2 reads, “Create a National Indian Library Association with chapters in each state composed of a representative selection of people as defined by the tribal government residing in each state.”[6]

According to Janice Beaudin Rice, this recommendation was originally made by a non-librarian Native delegate in her discussion group, a testament to the power of including the whole community. Though the recommendation did not make it into the ten resolutions that delegates voted on at the end of the preconference, Rice was determined to see it through. The proceedings of the preconference show that during the voting session, Rice approached the mic and stated that she had a sheet of paper to pass around to collect the names of people interested in forming an Indian library organization. Mathews ruled her out of order, and Rice recalls being intimidated by Mathews’s authoritative presence and the banging of her gavel. At the end of the voting session, Mathews brought Rice back up to the microphone, apologized for cutting her off, and gave her an opportunity to send the paper around. Rice’s efforts bore fruit, and the American Indian Library Association (AILA) was founded in 1979 as a direct result of the preconference.

Another incredibly impactful outcome of the preconference was the drafting of the National Indian Omnibus Library Bill (NIOLB), which was sent to the national White House Conference in 1979 and adopted as one of its official resolutions. The NIOLB directly led to the passage of Title IV of the Library Services and Construction Act of 1984, which provided a federal funding source for libraries serving Native populations.[7]

Transcript of proceedings, White House Pre-conference on Indian Library and Information Services on or near Reservations, showing Virginia Mathews inviting Janice Beaudin Rice to the microphone. Box 83, Virginia H. Mathews Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Transcript of proceedings, White House Pre-conference on Indian Library and Information Services on or near Reservations, showing Virginia Mathews inviting Janice Beaudin Rice to the microphone. Box 83, Virginia H. Mathews Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Beyond the more tangible effects of the preconference, many delegates today remember the event for the role it played in their personal and professional development. It was the first opportunity that some delegates, especially young Native librarians, had to gather and learn from one another. It was not a conflict-free utopia; serious disagreements existed on everything from funding sources to the definition of “Indian American,” and these issues were not resolved in those four days. But the delegates I spoke to in preparation for this blog post emphasized the collaborative and productive atmosphere of the event, including a strong commitment to self-determination. This focus was underlined in Virginia Mathews’s choice for the title of the preconference report: “Self-Determination Requires Information Power!”

Though Virginia Mathews passed away in 2011, her legacy lives on through her papers at the Library of Congress and through the generations of Native librarians and information professionals she inspired.

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[1] Kathleen de la Peña McCook, “Virginia Mathews Interviewed by Janice Beaudin,” in Women of Color in Librarianship: An Oral History (Chicago: American Library Association, 1998), 70.

[2] “Summary of History of the White House Conference on Library and Information Services,” Box 78, Virginia H. Mathews Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[3] Zora Sampson, “An Interview with Dr. Lotsee Patterson, a Founding Member of AILA,” July 30, 2014, American Indian Library Association website, last accessed October 29, 2022.

[4] White House Pre-Conference on Indian Library and Information Services On or Near Reservations, Self-Determination Requires Information Power!: The Report of Record on the White House Pre-Conference on Indian Library and Information Services On or Near Reservations (Washington, D.C.: Center for Information and Library Services, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, 1980), 3.

[5] White House Pre-Conference, Self-Determination Requires Information Power!, 94.

[6] “Complete Set of All Recommendations of Small Group Discussions Received in Conference Office,” 1978, Box 80, Virginia H. Mathews Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[7] Sandra Littletree, Let Me Tell You About Indian Libraries’: Self-Determination, Leadership, and Vision — The Basis of Tribal Library Development in the United States (PhD diss., University of Washington, 2018), 133.

One Comment

  1. Katherine A. Schlech
    November 17, 2022 at 1:18 pm

    I am a docent at LOC. I thought you or the blog readers might be interested in knowing that among the books LOC acquired from Thomas Jefferson in 1815 were two dictionaries of Native American languages–the Mohawk and the Delaware tribes. They are shelved in the Jefferson Library exhibit at LOC.

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