As a kid, Sol Gomez was no stranger to the library. He'd visit with his folks, pick out a book—and leave.
Today, it's his job to make the library a place where people like to linger, one where they can easily get information without feeling intimidated by language or cultural hurdles. Where he works, in the southside Mission and Valencia branches of the Pima County Public Library, that often means extending a hand in Spanish.
But that's just the beginning. For Gomez, parsing the thicket of reasons some people avoid libraries began when he signed on with an innovative UA program called the Knowledge River Project. Now in its 10th year, the project aims to help Hispanics and Native Americans feel more compelled to visit libraries by diversifying library staffs, where nationwide the percentage of minorities hovers in the low single digits.
"The program talked about how, as a librarian, we could do a lot of immediate service," says Gomez. That means helping people realize that modern libraries, wired to the Internet, have become far more than mere book repositories.
But mostly, his task is to ratchet down the intimidation felt by some library visitors.
"I try to picture my dad going into a library," he says, "or even my (younger) self, where you come in and you don't ask too many questions. You know what you're looking for, but you don't know how to look for it."
Today, Gomez glances around the back room of the Mission Branch, where his colleagues sit at computer screens, or push along carts that groan under piles of books and CDs. "I know a lot of people who would come in, they'd give the library a shot, and just walk out," he says. "Part of the job is letting people know where we are. And once they're in, I really try to make it a welcoming, comfortable environment."
With luck, that setting will become increasingly friendly to minorities, at a time when the roles of libraries are changing at a rapid clip. In recent years, they've evolved into places to find information about social services, and Internet portals for people who can't afford home connections. They provide computer training, offer family literacy programs, and even link schoolchildren with online tutors.
But first, librarians such as Gomez must bridge the gap for those to whom libraries remain foreign and daunting. That's where Knowledge River is key. The program dates back to the 1970s, when a group of UA faculty members began fashioning educational programs aimed at library students from Native American and Mexican-American communities, often in rural areas. Then, as now, the core idea was simple: training librarians who innately understand the cultures they serve.
Formally created in 2001 within the UA's School of Information Resources and Library Science, the masters program has since graduated well over 100 Hispanic and Native American students. Increasingly, it is also recruiting non-minorities who may be fluent in those cultures.
Such efforts have not gone unnoticed. This year, Knowledge River received nearly $1 million in grant funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. That money will go toward training, and boosting the program's Internet profile and web-based classes.
The program likewise benefits from close ties with partners such as the UA Library—which hires students as grad assistants—and the Pima County Library, which provides jobs and scholarships.
Still, Knowledge River is just the beginning, in a country where the so-called "digital divide" has sped past many minority communities, and libraries are too often filled only with white faces.
Knowledge River "is a response to the lack of diversity in the library and information-science field," says the program's manager, Sandy Littletree. "That's the whole idea of this: to bring in people who understand some of the information-access issues, and to work with communities to make sure everyone has that same access."
Not surprisingly, barriers to those goals can vary. "Sometimes with Latino communities it's a language (issue), of having Spanish-language materials and databases or Internet access in their language," she says. "These information needs are sometimes different from mainstream communities. Having librarians in there who understand some of these issues that other people don't think about, that's really what we're trying to get at."
Another set of issues is raised among Native American communities, says Littletree, who is part Navajo and Eastern Shoshone. On one hand, libraries have become crucial archives for those hoping to revitalize their native languages. On the other, libraries must often grapple with thorny freedom-of-access questions raised by Native American cultural sensitivities. "There are issues with the restriction of Native American information in the archives—having the control over who sees certain things, such as photos," says Littletree. "For some communities, that's very important."
It's a delicate dance for librarians steeped in the First Amendment. "The library world believes that everything should be free, and everyone needs access," she says. "But some of these communities are pushing back, saying that there are certain things they don't want other people to see. Some things may be only for males or only for females, or can only be seen during certain seasons.
"It's an ongoing issue. A lot of it is about respect, and that's much of what the Knowledge River program is about. I'm hoping that what we're doing is educating people about these issues, so that they're more culturally competent."
That effort seems to be paying off. In the decade since it was started, Knowledge River has seen many of its alumni assume leadership roles in the field. They include Mark Puente, now director of diversity programs for the Association of Research Libraries, and Jennifer O'Neal, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, who serves as head archivist for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center in Maryland.
They also include former students such as Sol Gomez, who concentrates on making library visitors on Tucson's southside feel welcome. "We often just start with a greeting and go from there," he says. "We don't get into their space, if we feel they don't want us around. We're not pushy or anything, but we do let them know that, if they have questions about anything, we're here to help."