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: An Ethical Question

As librarians, we are accustomed to celebrating many months.  February is African American History Month.  March is Women’s History Month. And April is School Library Month, Poetry Month, and Math Awareness Month.  I am sure you have displays for all them, just as you do for the holidays in November and December.

June is GLBT Book Month.  Have you done anything to highlight it? I can hear a dead silence (crickets chirping) as I write these words.  Many of you won’t do anything.  Some of you have reason to believe you can’t do anything.  But what about library ethics?

Back in April I did a blog post on the “Many Layers of Diversity.” I was bringing ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee’s draft of the Library Bill of Rights Interpretation – Equity, Diversity, to your attention.  I dealt with all the aspects of the interpretation including meeting the needs of everyone in the school including LGBTQ students. (I am more familiar with LGBTQ rather than GLBT.) 

In June, these young people take center stage. Are you up to the challenge? Have you been avoiding books having LGBTQ characters?  I am not here to preach to those of you who are in untenable positions on the topic.  I know some of you work and live in communities where you would be vilified and possibly fired for purchasing these books. And you would not likely be hired anywhere else since the people in the surrounding towns hold the same views.

If you are sufficiently courageous, you might purchase some titles with your own funds.  Keep them in your office.  Your LGBTQ students in these communities are more isolated and fearful than in other more tolerant areas. When you have identified one of these kids, let them read the books you have in the library.  Taking them home could constitute a danger to you and possibly to them.  But you want your library to be a safe, welcoming environment for all your users.  And these students need to feel safe someplace.

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How far you go in marking this month is up to you.  If you are one step up from the most restrictive communities, consider an annotated booklist. In a more tolerant area you can put the titles on display and post it to your website.

Helen Adams, an active member in AASL and the Freedom to Read Foundation just did a blog for Knowledge Quest entitled “June is GLBQ Book Month.” In it she gives example of how to build a rainbow collection. She encourages you to include GLBT titles among others when you give a book talk, and offers suggestions for educating teachers.

Adams points out, “Of the 323 book challenges reported to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom for 2016, five of the top 10 challenged books for 2016 included titles that LGBT characters including two with transgender children.”  She reminds librarians if they are facing a book challenge, the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom is ready and able to offer confidential support.

Do check out the resources and links she provides in the article. Some of you might be surprised by the experiences of one New England middle school librarian who reported, “LGBTQ inclusion has become a normal part of the everyday activities in the library, and I think this has had a positive impact. This year, I’ve had an eighth-grade student ask me a couple times for good coming out stories, and earlier this year a sixth-grade student came to me to ask about pronoun etiquette.”

GLBT kids can be found in every school in the country.  Some are more obvious about it—when they feel safe. Others are desperately trying to hide who they are. They all deserve to know they aren’t alone and your library is a safe place for them. If you think you have a challenge – can you even begin to imagine theirs?

What are you doing for your GLBT students this month – and every month?  How much of a challenge is this for you?