by Karen Frances
WINDOW ROCK – Starting as a bookmobile driver and now working as program manager of the Navajo Nation Library system, Irving Nelson has seen the library grow in the past 32 years.
Now he is being honored for his service to the public with three national awards.
Nelson has won the first-ever Prism Award from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, a Lifetime Achievement Award for the Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums Conference, and the Librarian of the Year award from the Reader to Reader program.
Nelson said winning three prestigious awards within two months is “unbelievable” for him.
“I’m just doing my regular job duties, but I’m finding out that we’re doing more than other libraries,” Nelson said.
He said he gives a lot of credit to his staff.
“They are so hard-working. They helped every step of the way,” he said.
On Monday, Nelson is flying out to pick up his latest award – the Librarian of the Year – and to transport a truckload of books back to Navajoland.
Nelson had met David Mazor, the CEO of Reader to Reader, over the summer, and Mazor had a goal of collecting 100,000 books and 100 computers for the Navajo Nation Library.
“They’ve been collecting books over five months,” Nelson said.
Nelson and some staff members will pick up a U-Haul and drive the 2,300 miles back with the donated books and six computers.
When asked how it was to be one of the first two recipients of the Prism Award from the National Museum of the American Indian for public service, Nelson broke out into a huge smile. “Oh, that was so awesome,” he said.
His expenses were paid to stay at a five-star hotel and attend an opening reception and the awards ceremony on Oct. 7.
“It was like something out of the movies,” he said.
Nelson was introduced by actor Wes Studi and spoke for more than 20 minutes when he accepted the award.
The award itself is made from the same material used to construct the Smithsonian museum, Nelson said.
NMAI director Kevin Grover said, “We were looking for those quiet heroes from our hometown who are good hearted and committed to the betterment of peoples’ lives.”
These individuals go largely unnoticed by the outside world, Grover added.
The next award Nelson won was the Lifetime Achievement Award on Oct. 21.
“When I first heard about the Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums award, my legs turned to jelly. I had to sit down. It was a tremendous shock,” he said.
He is winning awards now, but when Nelson and the library program first moved into the Navajo Nation Museum where they are now located, there were only about 17,000 books. Now there are more than 77,000 books, many of which have been donated.
Nelson has made many trips across the country to pick up those books. He has established relationships with various people and organizations that collect the books, but it all started with Greg Smith, who also nominated Nelson for the Prism Award.
“From there, I started working with other organizations,” he said.
The book collection has grown, and so has the number of visitors. When the library first opened at its present location in October 1997, it was receiving about 200 visitors a month. “Now we’re at 300 a day,” Nelson said.
“When people came to this library they would say, ‘What kind of library is this? There’s no books.’ I took it to heart and started working to get books,” he said.
The mission for the library is to increase literacy on the Navajo Nation, and the library does so by sending out donated books to the chapters.
“People in outlying areas, they’re not picky about what they get. They just want anything to read. They’re hungry to read,” Nelson said.
One project that the library is working on is distributing the book “Little Black, A Pony” by Walter Farley to all the first graders on the Navajo Nation.
The hard-cover book is written in English and Navajo, and is illustrated by Bahe Whitethorne Sr. The books were donated to the Department of Diné Education by the Black Stallion Literacy Foundation in Florida, Nelson said.
Other ways the library helps to increase literacy are the summer reading programs and special loans available for teachers on the Navajo Nation.
Nelson has seen the many changes that libraries go through. “When I started there were no computers, no Internet, no video games on the Navajo Nation and I used to use an electric typewriter to type catalog cards,” he said.
Now the library has 11 computers, which draws people in all the time.
“We have a waiting list everyday, people wanting to use computers,” Nelson said.
The library has an extensive Native American collection including 1,200 books on Navajos and oral Navajo history recordings.
It’s one of Nelson’s goals to digitize those recordings. Doing so would cost about $300,000, he said.
“Once we have that done we’ll be able to put that on a server so all that information will be available,” he said.
One of the most recent developments for the Navajo Nation Library system is the establishment of a library in Kayenta last year.
The Kayenta library is noisy because it is currently in the recreation center, but Nelson and the community are working to relocate it. Navajo County library district is donating a mobile home to house the library and the Kayenta Township is making plans for it, Nelson said.
Copyright © 2009