ON LIBRARIES: Taking a Stand Against Racism

The Oxford Dictionary defines racism as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.”  In our schools, virtual or physical, we must actively fight racism – in our collection, in our educational community, and in ourselves. Many of you have been working on making your collection more diverse, but when creating a collection which includes “mirrors and windows,” ensuring that our students can find books that reflect their lives and let students see into the lives of others, how successful have you been?

Sadly our efforts have fallen short if too many of our diverse books fall into one of the four “F” categories: Folklore, Fashion, Food, and Festivals. This not only misses the mark when it comes to multiculturalism, but potentially veers into stereotyping cultures in terms of language, ethnicity and traits. True multiculturalism can only happen when significant attention is given to many different backgrounds in a particular setting.

What proportion of your books on Blacks are about slavery or the Civil Rights Movement?  That isn’t a mirror.  We need to be more pro-active about having a more representational collection. There are some very helpful websites such as https://diversebooks.org/ and if you do searches for titles under Own Voices.

Even better is to do a Diversity Audit. Library Collection Shelf Audit for Diversity and Inclusion is a relatively simple one. As you check the books, note whether the author is writing in their own voice.  Too many books are authored by those not sharing the history they are writing about, although more publishers are now actively seeking those who write from their own voice. Diversity audits take time, and you probably cannot accomplish it in the virtual world, but plan on doing one when you have physical time in your library.

To make a change in your educational community, you need to step out and lead. Adding diverse books to your collection does not mean that students – or teachers- will read them.  How can you promote them?  One way is a book tasting with book jackets covered as you offer students a sample of what’s inside the book, piquing their interests without engaging biases. New books that increase your collection’s diversity and inclusion should be shared with teachers along with suggestions for ways to bring them into either library or classroom projects.

Going further, look for ways to curate information on microaggressions and related topics and make it available to teachers and administrators – this can go beyond books to websites, podcasts, and videos.  Become informed and give a workshop on it. You want the entire school addressing the issue. If there are books in your collection which are problematic, use it as an opportunity to create a program about racism and how race is portrayed (don’t remove the books or we start down the slippery slope of censorship). See if the PTA/O is open to doing an event around resources available at the library and offer support for parents who want to talk more with their children.

While it’s important to fight racism in our collection and look for ways to lead our educational community in becoming anti-racist we also need to look at ourselves. The more we learn about how we’ve been taught and raised to look at the world through a white lens the better we become about changing how we think.  I know I have benefited from White Privilege. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect people no matter their ethnicity, gender, religion, or any other of the many ways are different.  It means my life has not been made harder because of the color of my skin. When I am in a store, I don’t expect to be watched by security.  When a policeman stops me, I am not afraid.  I don’t worry about my grandkids going out with their friends at any time of day.

Recognizing White Privilege is only a start.  As a lifelong learner I am committed to learning more, to leading by example, and to speaking up when I see racism. I am a leader for change, and I accept that this starts with me. The Chicago Public Library posted Ibram X. Kendi’s, author of How to Be An Antiracist, Anti-Racist Reading List, and I highly recommend it. (It is also a good list for expanding your collection, especially at the high school level).

As librarians we are staunch defenders of the First Amendment. We are committed to making our libraries safe, welcoming spaces for ALL. We support Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion as a basis, along with curriculum connections, for building our collections. We have not been just talking the talk.  We have been walking the walk, but it is likely we can and need to do more. We are not only responsible for our actions but tremendously influence the future of the communities we serve.

ON LIBRARIES: Seasons’ Decisions

In many ways, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, but holidays bring their own stress, and there is one in particular which impacts many librarians.

There was a time when only Christmas was celebrated in public locations such as municipal buildings and schools. Department stores only featured Christmas displays, and no one thought much of it. Eventually, other December holidays were included as well. Schools reacted to this expansion in different ways, usually depending on location. Some continued to feature only Christmas decorations. Some had both Christmas and Hanukkah. Others included Kwanzaa.  And then there are places that don’t allow any indications of a religious celebration.

Where does that leave librarians?  How do you decorate for the holidays? Some of you live in an area where it is expected that you be inclusive.  Others have more restrictions.  How and why do you decide what to do?

This is an ideal time to look at your philosophy. You probably have something in it about creating a safe, welcoming space. You might address equity, diversity, and inclusion.  To what extent do your holiday decorations reflect and promote those ideas? If they don’t, then you might keep any December theme focused on the season rather than the holidays.

You also need to consider your student population. What is its religious /ethnic make-up? The more diverse it is, the more your displays need to reflect that.  We want to have “mirrors” for our students. Their feelings of safety come from seeing themselves reflected in the school community—and the library. If their holiday isn’t represented, they feel invisible.

If your population is mainly Christian, you probably will make Christmas central to your displays. Most of these are not overtly religious, although some occasionally include a crèche. But should you also have some Hanukkah decorations to acknowledge the diversity that is out there? It depends on your community and their concerns, but this is where you have the opportunity to create “windows.”  While mirrors let students see themselves in books – and displays – windows show them the lives of those who are not like them. In her essay, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” , Rudine Sims Bishop says when children only see themselves they develop an exaggerated sense of self-importance. A thought to consider.

What can you do if your community is not open to diversity and inclusion? The choice is yours, but you can make tiny inroads. Consider a small display of books on Hanukkah (and maybe Kwanzaa) with no decorations.

This is the same approach you can take with “controversial materials.” I have written before about the choices librarians make to purchase or not purchase a title. No one wants to risk their job and possibly lose friends by making choices the school and community would emphatically reject. Once again, the key is usually in small steps. They are hardly noticeable, but each one puts you a little further down the road and creates a library with more windows to the world at large.

Hopefully, as communities become more diverse, there will be an increasing number of schools open to having students discover how their neighbors celebrate.  Then you can mark the month of Ramadan beginning on April 24, 2020, and the 5-day Diwali celebration beginning on November 14, 2020. In the meantime, enjoy your holiday, whatever and whenever it is and however you choose to celebrate it.

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.

 

 

ON LIBRARIES: The Many Layers of Diversity

An unquestioned tenet of librarianship is that the library collection will encompass diverse materials to meet the needs of all users.  Sounds good, but in practice this is not always easy to accomplish. There are challenges librarians must face along with difficult choices.

On the surface, a diverse collection contains fiction and non-fiction and all genres are represented in as many formats as possible. While it took a while in some places for graphic novels to be accepted, they now are in most if not all libraries. But there is far more to diversity.

As the liaison to ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) from ALA’s Committee on Professional Ethics, this topic is on my mind frequently. Currently, IFC has a draft resolution in the works on Library Bill of Rights Interpretation – Equity, Diversity, Inclusion. In fully defining what those terms encompass, the draft is a strong reminder of what libraries stand for—and the challenging decisions implicit in this stance.

Here are some highlights of the document:

  • Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. In a school library, this means you can’t be limited to what the jobbers make available. If you need books in languages other than English (and Spanish), you need to seek out those publishers who have books for whatever ethnics are represented in your school. Fortunately, this information is becoming more widely available. Your collection should also include materials representing difficulties many students face such as homelessness, a parent in prison, a parent serving the military, foster homes, learning and physical limitations of self or siblings, and the stressful situations.  It’s important they see themselves reflected in the collection.  Those who have more traditional lives benefit from being made aware of their good fortune as well as developing empathy for their classmates.
  • Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval. Although those working in parochial schools which have a strong doctrinal view on certain subjects do not have to adhere to this, public school libraries are expected to follow this principle. Among the “current” issues that can cause a school librarian to pause before ordering would be climate change and evolution. In some places a sizable group does not accept the general scientific viewpoint.
  • Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment. This another area where it gets difficult for librarians, particularly those who are the sole librarian in their school. You are charged with meeting the needs of everyone in the school.  This means those who have same sex parents or are LGBTQ.  In some communities these topics are a red flag and are likely to bring forth challenges. It is easy to just not purchase them.  Who would know?  Your budget is limited in any case.  You can’t afford to put your job at risk.  All true statements. Each librarian needs to make a personal decision between doing what our ethics and philosophy require or taking the safe route. I can’t condemn their choice. But I do applaud and acknowledge those who face this head on.  We are supposed to create a safe, welcoming atmosphere for all our students.  Our LGBTQ students struggle to feel safe, in and out of school.  Countless adults have told stories of how important their school library was in giving them a measure of security and acceptance.
  • A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views. This is one is obvious, but it harkens back to the days of segregation. It’s important for students to know our history – the bad as well as the good- so they see injustice can be corrected. There is much nonfiction on the subject, but it’s in fiction—including picture books –that students can discover what it was like in those days, and develop empathy for those who lived then and extend it to those now who are targeted as being “other.”

It’s incumbent on every librarian to be familiar with the ALA Code of Ethics, the Library Bill of Rights, and the Access to Library Resources and Services for Minors. Protect yourself and your students by having a Selection Policy approved by your Board of Education. You can get help in doing so from the Workbook for Selection Policy Writing.

Also, celebrate Choose Privacy Week May 1 -7, and Banned Books Week September 24-30.

Have you been faced with a difficult choice in purchasing a book for your collection?  What did you do?  How do you make your library a safe, welcoming environment? What help do you need or can you offer to others?