ON LIBRARIES: A Safe Welcoming Space

In the aftermath of another school shooting, I felt this was an important topic to revisit because it is clearly an ongoing struggle. For learning to happen, students need to feel safe. Equally important, they need to feel welcome. It is our charge as librarians to create a space where both exist. Doing this is vital to your program’s success.

The way you have arranged your facility, the furniture, the displays, and how you greet students show them the library welcomes them.  To truly make all students feel safe and give them a sense of belonging requires a more concentrated effort. It starts with a collection that reflects a diversity of culture, ethnicity, and race of your students as well as the various lifestyles they lead. Even if your school is culturally homogenous, there is a need to show students what the larger world looks like. In addition, it’s important to be aware of differences that may not show so that these can also be addressed.

For example, how are socio-economic differences and physical disabilities being acknowledged in your collection? We need to pay attention to how these students access information, making it as barrier-free as possible. In creating a safe environment, you need to continually learn about those who are “other” in some ways and work to make them feel recognized, valued and welcome as well.

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Against a backdrop of differences and in a time when differences continue to face suspicion and prejudice, librarians need to develop a collection policy that consciously pays attention to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI).  While the three terms seem similar, they encompass important differences. Understanding them helps you be more attuned to your students’ needs.

Equity is often confused with equality. Equality is giving everyone the same thing, i.e. all students get a Chromebook. Equity is ensuring that all students have an equal opportunity. If a computer is needed for homework, do all students have access to one at home? Can they access the internet? If not, then you don’t have equity.

An illustration appearing on many websites explains the distinction. Three boys of different heights are trying to watch a baseball game from outside a solid fence. Equality shows them now standing on boxes of the same height. The tallest boy has an excellent view. The next one can just see over the fence. The shortest one still cannot see the game. Equity gives the boys boxes of different heights, so they all have a good view.  A third panel shows the boys viewing the game from behind a fence with an open weave. This takes access to a higher level by completely removing the barrier for all.

Diversity is usually thought of as referring to the various ethnicities, religions, and cultures, but it includes far more. Gender, gender identification, socio-economic status is part of diversity. So are physical and emotional challenges. Diversity is so all-encompassing it can be hard to wrap your arms around all the differences. Adding to the challenge is that so many of these differences aren’t observable, certainly not on the surface. Despite that, libraries must strive to meet the needs of all these students. Lower check out areas for students in wheelchairs. No fines so as not to penalize those having financial challenges or spending time in two households. Books which represent different challenges, choices, and traumas.

Inclusion means that all are a part of the whole.  It seeks to keep students in age-appropriate classes. Students are not judged to be inferior for any reason. Ever.

Another recent image going around social media captured the distinction among the three terms in this way: “Accessibility is being able to get in the building. Diversity is having a seat at the table. Inclusion is having a voice at the table. Belonging is having your voice heard at the table!”

Although EDI is the phrase used most of the time to describe what we are trying to achieve, a better visualization of what this means is the phrase Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors as coined in an essay by Rudine Sims Bishop. Mirrors are the stories that show students they are not invisible in the library collection. Bishop notes if children only see themselves, they develop an exaggerated sense of self-importance. These same books offer other students windows – the ability to see and better understand their peers and the challenges that they might face.

By now we are all aware of the importance of having books so that African Americans, Latinx, and Islamic students and others can see themselves in our collections. Many of you have acquired titles about LGBTQ+ kids and families while others face challenges to this step. But diversity goes beyond these areas.

The library’s collection needs books that include kids who have physical disabilities as well as mental and emotional problems. You also need stories about students who are homeless, have a parent or close relative who is incarcerated, or a parent who is in the military and is in an active war zone. Even Sesame Street, which has always worked to be diverse, currently has Muppets who have autism and are in foster care.

How do you do it all – particularly when your budget is small? There is no simple solution. Do your best to tune into the diversity that exists in your school population and make that your initial focus. Look for materials to meet them. And then check for grants. There may be an organization that offers grants to your school district.

It’s not easy and it takes time, but we all agree our students are worth the effort.  With windows and doors, we make our libraries safe, welcoming spaces for all.

 

ON LIBRARIES: A Safe Welcoming Environment – For All

The library must be a safe, welcoming environment.  We all say this and mean it.  But how is that translating into reality? Having furniture appropriate in size for students?  Featuring student work? Rules that are positively stated? Do you have students who choose to stay in the library during lunch because they feel different or unaccepted by their classmates?  All this is important, but there is more to creating a safe, welcoming environment for all. Those last two words are the key and to create it we need equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Creating a welcoming environment is behind the call for more diversity in our collections. A great website for this is We Need Diverse Books. Under the Resources tab, in addition to a downloadable Booktalking Kit, there is “Where to Find Diverse Books” which gives links for sources for African, African American, Disabilities (only one). American Indian, Islam, Latinx, and LGBTQIA+.

Take the time to look at your current collection.  Do most of your diverse books fall within Sonia Nieto’s description of foods, festivals, fashion, folklore, and famous people?  For students of these diverse backgrounds, this is merely the tip of the iceberg in capturing who they are.  Is your African American collection heavily tilted toward slave days and the civil rights movement?  Certainly, there is much more to present.

As mentioned on the website We Are Teachers, we need to provide Mirrors and Windows.  Mirrors allow students to see themselves in the books in our collections. The same titles provide Windows for other students to see the bigger picture, helping them become the global citizens necessary in our world.  Hopefully, these Windows become Sliding Glass Doors, creating comfort and ease with others who are different from us.

It’s important to see diversity in a somewhat larger setting.  The phrase used in business, education, and especially for our libraries is Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion or EDI.  The three words are obviously related, but there are substantive differences among them.

ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee just completed the process for further defining the Library Bill of Rights.  The document, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights is one you need to be familiar with.  Among other explanations, it presents definitions of these three key areas.

Equity, according to the document is: “{Takes} difference into account to ensure a fair process and, ultimately, a fair outcome. Equity recognizes that some groups were (and are) disadvantaged in accessing educational and employment opportunities and are, therefore, underrepresented or marginalized in many organizations and institutions. Equity, therefore, means increasing diversity by ameliorating conditions of disadvantaged groups.”

Equity should not be confused with equality. Equality means everyone gets the same.  Divide the pie into equal portions.  But should the toddler get the same size piece as the teenager?  Obviously not.  Equity is about giving more to those who need more.  A graphic, attributed to the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette (left), shows 3 children of different heights behind a fence watching a baseball game. Equality is giving all three a box of the same height to see over the fence.  Equity is giving them boxes of different sizes.

My favorite version goes beyond even equity. When the planks covering the fence are removed, nobody needs assistance.  The assistance can make students feel different which is not what we want.  For example, if you charge fines for overdues and forgive those who can’t afford them or let them work off their fines in some ways, you are making the situation equitable, but differences are still felt. Eliminating fines eliminates differences.

Diversity according to the ALA document, “can be defined as the sum of the ways that people are both alike and different. When we recognize, value, and embrace diversity, we are recognizing, valuing, and embracing the uniqueness of each individual.” The words “valuing” and “embracing” are what contribute to making the library a safe and welcoming space.

Diversity shows up throughout the National School Library Standards. The standard for C. SHARE III. Collaborate states: “Learners work productively with others to solve problems by: involving diverse perspectives in their own learning process.”  It’s not just your book collection that should be diverse. Integrating diversity within research projects makes it a part of students’ lives.

Inclusion, as stated in the document, “means an environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully; are valued for their distinctive skills, experiences, and perspectives; have equal access to resources and opportunities; and can contribute fully to the organization’s success.”  To me, this is the welcoming statement.  All belong, all contribute.

The National School Library Standards identifies Include as the second of the Shared Foundations, stating that it “Demonstrates an understanding of and commitment to inclusiveness and respect for diversity in the learning community.”  As part of what we do as school librarians, we need to recognize the diverse range of our student population.  In addition to ethnicity, gender identification, and disabilities, we need to be aware of those who are homeless, have an incarcerated family member, a parent serving abroad, or other ways their lives may make them feel different.

It’s not easy. It won’t happen overnight.  It’s an ongoing process of learning for us as well as the communities we serve, but the bottom line is the library must be a safe, welcoming environment for ALL. The work we do with this has a far-reaching – even unlimited – impact.