Unsung hero has a million books he'd like you to check out

June 24, 2010

Unsung hero has a million books he'd like you to check out

By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service

NOTE: The National Museum of the American Indian is a Tanka retail partner and offers Tanka products in all of its gift shops and cafes.

Washington, D.C. -- Irving Nelson has had a desk in the director's office of the Navajo Nation Library since 1986, but good luck finding him there.

He's more likely to be discovered among the bookshelves, where he recently finished a three-decades-long project: He personally catalogued his library's 73,392 books.

"I won't get to see all the people the library touches," said Nelson, who is Navajo. "But we're touching the lives of people out there."

Nelson, 50, was one of two individuals recently honored with the Prism Award by the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. Given for the first time this year, the Prism Award recognizes unsung Native American heroes who serve their communities in innovative ways.

Hired in 1977 to drive the bookmobile, Nelson has built a formerly humble library of several hundred books into an eight-employee system encompassing a main library in Window Rock, Ariz., a branch library in nearby Kayenta and several mini-libraries across the Navajo reservation. Each day about 350 people visit the libraries, and not just for the books. Many come to use the free Internet. Some do homework or look for jobs, others email friends and family in the military. Some search archival records, which include Navajo land-claim documents dating back to 1675.

Many tribes established libraries in the mid-1970s after the National Indian Education Association released a series of pamphlets about how to start them.

"Now tribal libraries truly run the gamut," said Liana Juliano, president of the American Indian Library Association. "One library is in a house with bookshelves in the bathroom. Others are sophisticated libraries that function like a public library anywhere with storytelling times and computer access."

But the majority share a tradition of making the most of scarce resources, said Mary Villegas of the library development division of the Arizona State Library. "A lot of tribal libraries, I call them a library of one, providing all the services of a public library," she said. "Tribal librarians are an amazing group of individuals; they have amazing camaraderie among them."

The original library at Window Rock, capital of the Navajo Nation, was opened in 1941 by wives of Bureau of Indian Affairs employees. Located in the basement of the old BIA building, the library had asbestos-covered steam pipes running along its ceiling, and a heating system that didn't always work when Nelson joined the staff in 1977.

Driving the bookmobile took Nelson to far-flung corners of his reservation, roughly equal in size to the state of West Virginia. He navigated rugged terrain and rutted roads to bring books to all of Navajo's 110 chapters, each the size of a county.

The bookmobile went memorably kaput after two years. "The last time I drove the bookmobile, it broke down 90 miles out of Window Rock in January," he said. "We walked back, two of us with one jacket between us. We just passed it back and forth."

That was only the prelude to Nelson's journey to bring books to the Navajo people. It would take him to cities on both the East and West Coast, where he picks up donated new books by the truckload and drives them back to the Navajo Nation -- and not just to the library. The Navajo Book Project, which he ran until 2002, put more than one million new books into the hands of the reservation's readers.

Herbert Long Sr., who once supervised the library, said Nelson has also worked to provide computers to chapter offices so people in remote areas can have Internet access.

"When I was growing up, there was really nothing here for kids," Long said. "Up to at least the last year or so, even if you had a computer, you were pretty much limited to dial-up Internet service. Now he is increasing the access for people."

Nelson's resourcefulness has sustained the library for more than two decades. In his early days, he learned how to dry out books after a flood, spending months saving the collection. In recent years, he has worked with a company to digitize the leading newspaper on the reservation, the Navajo Times.

Nelson's current challenge is how to share and perpetuate his life's work through his staff and community, Long said. The lifelong reader, the man who has brought a million books to his nation, is losing his sight to glaucoma.

But like the country veterinarian in James Herriot's "All Things Great and Small," his favorite series of novels (which he rereads every year), Nelson is simply heading into a new chapter.

And it's not the books on the shelves or the catalogue of accomplishments that motivate him. It's serving people who like to read.

"I don't think that I am a leader," Nelson said. "Anyone can do it. They just have to have fortitude and a lot of passion for their work."

For more information: National Museum of the American Indian

Posted with permission from the National Museum of the American Indian.

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