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.