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Alex Soto named director of Labriola National American Indian Data Center

ASU Library-based center grows community reach, focus on Indigenous librarianship

A Native American man wearing shell and bead necklaces and a plaid shirt gestures with his hands as he speaks while seated at a conference table, with a banner for the Labriola Center visible behind him
August 27, 2021

The Arizona State University Library has appointed Alex Soto to the position of director of the Labriola National American Indian Data Center, the library’s dedicated Indigenous community space and notable collection of research and open-stack materials by, for and about Native Americans.

Soto, a member of southern Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Nation, was previously an assistant librarian with the Labriola Center, and will serve as the center’s first new director in more than 20 years and only the third academic professional in the center’s history. 

The importance of information literacy and the role of reparative archives within tribal communities inspired Soto toward a library career, following years of success as a touring hip-hop musician and activist. These experiences now inform his vision for Indigenous librarianship and the Labriola Center at ASU, which is situated on the ancestral homelands of the Akimel O’odham and Pee Posh peoples.

Indigenous librarians, archivists and curators are contemporary culture-keepers.

— Alex Soto, newly appointed director of the Labriola National American Indian Data Center

Under Soto’s leadership, the center will expand its community space in Hayden Library, the university’s largest library on the Tempe campus; develop programming and enhance partnerships for greater engagement and connection to the communities it seeks to support; and advance opportunities that prioritize Indigenous knowledge systems.

"ASU believes in leveraging our place in the Arizona communities we serve,” said Jim O’Donnell, university librarian. “We have a unique opportunity to build on the successes of Labriola to create a truly distinctive center closely tied to the people it represents and serves. We are lucky to have the ideal leader for this in Alex Soto.”

The Labriola National American Indian Data Center, part of the ASU Library, began in 1986 as the American Indian Library Materials Center at Hayden Library under the significant leadership of the late Mimi McBride, who established and maintained the center. 

McBride was instrumental in securing support for the center’s growth, which led to the Labriola Center’s official dedication on April 1, 1993, through a generous endowment gift of Frank and Mary Labriola. The Labriolas wished for the center “to be a source of education and pride for all Native Americans.” 

Additional funds were later provided by the Alcoa Foundation and the National Education Association. 

With locations in Fletcher Library on the West campus and Hayden Library on the Tempe campus, the Labriola Center brings together current and historic information by Indigenous authors across many disciplines through its international research collection in addition to research support for students and faculty and a growing set of community spaces — all of which Soto sees as vital to Indigenous success and scholarship. 

“Indigenous librarians, archivists and curators are contemporary culture-keepers,” Soto said. “Historically, there has been a disconnect between Indigenous communities and libraries due to the library profession’s disregard of Indigenous knowledge. My goal is to Indigenize librarianship to respond to the information needs of ASU students and Indigenous communities. The Labriola Center supports and affirms Indigenous knowledge in academia and beyond,  which I believe is crucial for Indigenous self-determination.“

Soto earned his bachelor’s degree in American Indian Studies from ASU and his master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Arizona, as part of the university’s Knowledge River Program. Before he began working at ASU in 2017, Soto provided public information services for Phoenix Public Library patrons, a part-time position that allowed him to pay his bills when he wasn’t touring with the hip-hop trio he co-founded, Shining Soul. 

“Within my first year of working for the Phoenix Public Library, my music partner and I were asked to lead youth workshops on songwriting and beatmaking,” Soto said.

For the first time, Soto began to view libraries as platforms for social justice.

“We would bring in turntables and drum machines,” he explained. “I saw that the youth coming to our workshops had stories, but they didn’t feel they had outlets to share them. The workshops allowed me to show how music — just turntables, mics and drum loops — was my strategy to build resilience when I was coming up. Like the kids that came to our workshops, I had to navigate social and class challenges within settler-colonial society while keeping my culture strong. Hip-hop rooted in tribal communities is a way for Indigenous peoples to share what matters to us and who we are today. In hindsight, I’ve been archiving before I realized it, since my music shares and documents information about my rez.” 

In presentations and scholarly publications, Soto advocates for an action-based research agenda for Indigenous librarianship, which he defines through a lens of relationship building and community activism. Indigenous librarianship, he says, often requires “difficult conversations and careful determinations” to give appropriate context to questions and issues surrounding materials, archival resources, and learning and research support. 

“As director, I plan to demonstrate the importance of Indigenous librarianship in Indigenous cultural preservation and in promoting Indigenous modernity at the same time,” Soto said. “The Labriola Center will serve as a hub that connects ancestral community knowledge with Indigenous-informed scholarship. Through our initiatives, we hope to equip Indigenous communities with information literacy and archival skill sets needed to defend tribal sovereignty into the 21st century.”

Since 2019, Soto has worked with units across the university, including the American Indian Student Support Services and the Office of American Indian Initiatives, implementing new programs and sparking new collaborations. He recently partnered with the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing to deliver programs for the NEA Big Read, and he has worked with tribal colleges, tribal libraries and tribal government leaders. 

Soto continues to be a frequent collaborator with the ASU Library’s Community-Driven Archives Initiative, which seeks to expand and enrich Arizona’s historical archives by reimagining them as inclusive, intersectional, decolonial spaces for engagement. Additionally, Soto was instrumental in the development of the library’s Indigenous Land Acknowledgement and plans to work with ASU’s Indigenous faculty and staff to see that the ASU Library operationalizes it within its overall services.

“The Labriola has been a resource for a long time at ASU,” said Traci Morris, the executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at ASU and a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. “However, under Soto’s leadership, I believe that the Labriola will become not only a central place for Indigenous issues on campus, but can be the premier data hub and resource for the community as well as ASU. I look forward to working with Soto as he implements his vision for Indigenous data sovereignty.” 

Morris and Soto are currently collaborating on the development of an Indigenous Leadership Academy for emerging Indigenous leaders from throughout Arizona.

On Sept. 2, Soto plans to make introductions and lead tours of the Labriola Center’s newly expanded space in Hayden Library, including its original second-floor space, as well as provide information on services, resources and the history of the center and what’s to come in the year ahead. Then, there will be a Sept. 9 Open Mic Night welcoming new and returning students and community members. 

“Community activism is about sharing information with the people, and librarianship is one way to do it,” Soto said. “Our students will return home, so here they need to know how important it is to use the library for self-determination and sovereignty.” 

Top photo: Alex Soto, a member of southern Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Nation, will serve as the Labriola Center's first new director in more than 20 years and only the second director in the center’s history. Photo by Kelsey Hinesley/ASU

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