Alumnae/i Feature

Protecting the Freedom to Read: Anna Kelly ’23MS Reflects on the Importance of Indigenous Perspectives in Literature

Anna Kelly ’23MS

“The classes [at Simmons] give you a good sense of what working in a library is like and allow you to find what interests you.”

Anna Kelly ’23MS grew up on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in northern New York, and is an enrolled member of the tribe. Like many Indigenous tribes and communities, oral history and storytelling is an important part of Mohawk culture, and Kelly has always felt its impact in her life. “Stories have always felt like a special way to bond with my family,” says Kelly. “There are stories shared in quiet conversations with my Totas (grandparents) or other older family members, and constantly retold family favorites that everyone knows the ending to but laughs, anyway.”

This connection to stories also linked her family to the local library. “The Tribal library was part of the public library system,” she recalls. “It’s pretty rural up there, and the libraries are quite small.” As a child, she remembers visiting for story time. Those formative experiences later inspired her to get her Master’s in Library and Information Science from the School of Library and Information Science (SLIS).

As someone who began her studies before working in a library, she feels that “[Simmons SLIS] gave me the tools to feel confident in myself and in my library knowledge.” For Kelly, SLIS faculty “created spaces where students are encouraged to voice their thoughts and opinions and think critically. They’ve prepared me to do that in the field, including thinking of how to make spaces inclusive and welcoming for people who may not feel they belong in the library as patrons and staff. Simmons gave me the tools to lift those voices. I love libraries, and I love thinking critically about what we’re doing and how we can make things better.”

While reading was an important part of her childhood, it wasn’t until middle school that Kelly read a book that resonated with her own personal experience of living on a reservation. Reading books by author Sherman Alexie (Spokane and Coeur d’Alene), “I felt like he was really capturing something that I knew,” she recalls. “It was the first time I read about an experience that resonated so deeply with my own lived experience. The books used humor and language that are prevalent in Native communities, and felt so familiar to me. While that was my first experience reading a book that I connected with on a deeper level, it luckily has happened many more times since then.”

Given the importance of this experience of seeing herself in a book, Kelly is eager to work in public libraries and protect access to all books for all readers. At the Library Discussion on "Banned Books and Challenged Ideas" during Alumnae/i, Family and Friends Weekend in October, 2023, Kelly noted the importance of how children see their lives and experiences reflected in books, as well as learning about the lives of others. “[It’s] important for children from marginalized groups to see themselves in the books they and others read,” Kelly said at the event. “The message that is sent when books by and about marginalized people are banned or challenged is that those experiences are not of value or not important, that they do not matter. And if these books are banned, not only does it hurt those who see themselves and their experiences in these books, it inhibits those who are not in those groups from learning about them and their experiences. It takes away the chance of cultivating empathy and understanding through reading.”

Kelly sees the value in reading books that are banned or challenged, supporting the authors, recommending their books, using them in library book displays, and continuing to buy them. “This is a tangible way that [we] can fight against challenges,” she says, noting larger scale efforts, like attending town meetings where book bans are discussed, to offer an alternate point of view.

“As an Indigenous woman, it is hard for me to not take personally the challenging and banning of books by Indigenous authors and about the Indigenous experience,” Kelly said at the Banned Books event. “Among the books being banned or challenged are stories of resilience, beauty, and culture, and are opportunities for non-Native people to really learn and appreciate Indigenous people and culture. And this, for me, is why it’s so important to fight book banning, to talk about intellectual freedom, and to work in a field that is actively combatting the silencing and erasure of particular groups of people through book bans and challenges. When I tell people I will soon be a librarian, this topic comes up. I often say that, if I have to have a fight, this is the one I want to take on.”

For those eager to take on this fight with her, Kelly recommends the American Indians in Children's Literature website for resources about challenged books by Indigenous authors. She cites the importance of reading the reasons given for a book challenge. For example, We Are Water Protectors,by Carole Lindstrom (Anishinaabe-Métis) and illustrated by Michaela Goade (Tlingit-Haida), faced opposition for its reference to protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline by Indigenous tribes. One of her favorite books is Firekeeper's Daughter by Angeline Boulley (Chippewa). “Everything resonated with me: the experiences of the characters, the setting. It felt like she was writing about my experience as well!” Kelly praises Boulley’s handling of serious issues, like drug abuse, that have impacted reservations across the country, while also showing how colonization did much to create these issues in the first place.

Kelly loved her time at Simmons SLIS, and looks forward to starting her career in public libraries. “I opted for the Design Your Own program, so I could pick whatever I wanted to take and explore different paths. It felt incredible, because I didn’t know what I wanted to [focus on]. The classes give you a good sense of what working in a library is like and allow you to find what interests you.”

Anna Kelly’s Reading Recommendations

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Alisa M. Libby