By Erny Zah
WINDOW ROCK, April 15, 2010
In the back of the Navajo Nation Library sits a room that can only be accessed with a magnetic card. The room doesn't seem like much when the door opens, just dull white walls filled with brown filing cabinets.
But five of the filing cabinets have some archived information that Navajo Nation Library Director Irving Nelson calls "The Navajo Nation Encyclopedia," a collection of about 3,000 hours of recordings of Navajo cultural stories, songs and some ceremonies.
"I want to digitize them," he said. Right now, the recordings are only available on reel-to-reel tapes. Another cabinet houses the English-language transcriptions of the recordings, which give detailed information on songs about horses, sheep and even an entire Yé'ii-Bi-Chei ceremony.
Nelson estimates digitizing the tapes will cost about $350,000.
But this project is one of many in the 30-year career that started when Nelson became a library bookmobile driver.
Most recently, he was named Librarian of the Year by Reader to Reader, a nonprofit organization that donates books and computers to libraries across the U.S.
"He's an amazing person, in my opinion, by the sheer dedication he shows to the Navajo Nation Library," said David Mazor, executive director for Reader to Reader. "I don't think there's another library in the nation with a dedicated librarian like that."
Mazor added that Nelson was selected from a pool of 500 nominees nationwide.
"I was very surprised," Nelson said of learning about the honor, but the new award is just the most recent on a list.
He received the Prism Award from the National Museum for the American Indian and also was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums Conference for his continuous work in building the Navajo library program.
He keeps the awards on a table in his office.
Although Nelson has been recognized, Mazor said librarians as a whole seem to work without recognition.
"Librarians play such an unrecognized role," he said. "Every year we feel that librarians are often unrecognized in the tremendous roles they place in the knowledge that comes from reading."
Nelson said he often would work on holidays cataloging books, a detailed process that includes recording the name of the book, publisher, author, subject and even the number of pages it has.
"It's all part of the hard work of cataloging books. That's something the general public doesn't see," he said.
In all, the Navajo Nation Library now boasts a collection of about 76,000 books, making it one of the largest - if not the largest - in Native America, Nelson said.
His next project of digitizing the 1968 audio recordings and transcripts he wants to complete before he retires, he said.
"It's just amazing," he said of the 250-tape collection, of which he's listened to five tapes.
Nelson hopes the Navajo Nation Council will allocate the money needed for the project, though federal and state funding sources also exist. However, if he were to secure funding from those sources, he said, stipulations would include making the information available to the general public including non-Navajos.
"I don't believe the Navajo Medicine Men's Association would allow that to happen," Nelson said.
Although, he sees the digital Diné encyclopedia as a primary project, his dream is to have every chapter house equipped with a library.
"I don't know if that's going to happen in my lifetime," he said.
And true to his calling, Nelson also understands that the library serves a purpose beyond helping people educate themselves. It is also a clean well-lighted place to go for those who have few alternatives.
On Monday morning, the Navajo Nation Museum announced it would be closing early to repair a water line.
"It breaks my heart," he said, motioning to his chest. "I don't know if (the patrons) have any other place to go ... I wish they'd say 'leave the library open.'"
Copyright © 2010 The Navajo Times Publishing Co., Inc.