University of Wisconsin-Madison Law Library: Empowering Libraries

September 9, 2020

The University of Wisconsin Law Library recently received an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant for their Digital Publication of Tribal Laws Pilot Project. The project will develop an open platform that will empower libraries to improve access to tribal laws published into the public domain and more fully serve the needs of diverse users – tribal members and leaders, legal, business, and government professionals, academic researchers and learners, and the public.

“The right to know the law by which we are governed is a fundamental right,” notes Bonnie Shucha, Associate Dean and Director of the Law Library. “This project addresses a critical gap in the availability of published and accessible tribal laws by developing tools to provide this content freely online.” The University of Wisconsin Law Library has partnered with the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians, the UW Law School Great Lakes Indigenous Law Center, the National Indian Law Library (NILL), and the Open Law Library (OLL) on this pilot project. Together, they will address the national need for public access to tribal law.

One of the biggest reasons more Native Nations do not publish their laws is lack of funding to do so. When asked what one of the biggest obstacles facing tribal courts was, “Money,” Korey Wahwassuck, associate judge of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Tribal Court, replied, “I think that’s a huge problem.” The Digital Publication of Tribal Laws Pilot Project combines a low-cost publishing platform which addresses issues that plague other publishing methods – tribal control, currentness, authentication and preservation – with a newly created open source library platform that combines the law of many tribes via an open access, federated search portal for enhanced discovery.

“Through my work as a tribal court trial judge and appellate justice, tribal court staff attorney, and tribal court administrator for several tribes over the past two decades, I have seen first-hand the need for a simple and coordinated way to digitally publish and access tribal law,” observes Jill E. Tompkins (Penobscot) of the National American Indian Court Judges Association, “This pilot project will undertake the critical work of gathering and publishing tribal laws with direct input from members of the Native Nations. Tribes will retain full control over their laws and this tool will allow them to publish their laws in a standardized digital format, enabling unified access and search functionality across the laws of all participating tribes.”

The project has been endorsed by the National American Indian Court Judges Association, the National American Indian Court Judges Association, the Tribal College Librarians Professional Development Institute, the American Association of Law Libraries Native Peoples Law Caucus, WiLS, as well as by Lisa R. Carter, Vice Provost for Libraries and University Librarian. The Libraries have no doubt in the exceptional work that the UW-Law Library and their partners will accomplish with this grant. We look forward to seeing the success of the Digital Publication of Tribal Laws Pilot Project!