Librarians, on the whole, are people who like to organize, categorize, strategize, and spell-it-out. Librarians are also often staunch frontline defenders of intellectual freedom, diversity, and the right to privacy. This potent combination of characteristics in librarians has led to a large body of literature and policy on “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion” as well as intellectual freedom; including the Library Bill of Rights and its many official interpretations by the American Library Association (ALA Bill of Rights, 2018).
Since its inception, the library system of America has served as a lynchpin of democracy, a stalwart defender of intellectual freedom, and a friend to the marginalized. Well run libraries across the country are not passive upholders of equity and diversity, intellectual freedom, and privacy but active defenders who consistently reach out and bring in those who need the library the most.
I believe Margo Gustina and Eli Guinnee said it best in their 2017 article for Library Journal, “A radically inclusive library goes beyond inclusion. It seeks out and works to diminish and, ultimately, eradicate systemic barriers. It asks difficult questions, amplifies voices, and magnifies talents.”
Public libraries bear the lion’s share of these tasks, by the nature of their existence. They exist to provide access to all members of a community regardless of age, gender, nationality, primary language, or any other identifier. They are tasked with serving diverse populations in a variety of creative ways, not just by having books that might provide appeal or usefulness to these diverse populations, but by bringing them in, meeting them where they are, and providing tailored services to meet their unique needs. Fortunately, no library is an island and there is a myriad of resources available to assist librarians in this lofty goal.
Definition of the Topic
Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion are three of the principles that help form the basis of the professional ethics guidelines set out by the American Library Association (Diversity, ALA, 2018). They, along with the Library Bill of Rights and the concept of intellectual freedom lay the foundation for a nationwide library system that promotes the unfettered access to information that makes democracy possible. Not only is democracy supported by these principles and the libraries that uphold them, but the community is strengthened and made healthier as well. An informed and connected community is a thriving community.
Equitable access is the primary guiding principle in the ALA’s Code of Ethics (Gustina & Guinnee). If the LIS community strives for truly equitable access to information, resources, and programming, diversity, inclusion, and intellectual freedom along with privacy and the freedom to read will naturally become a part of the conversation. A library that strives to be truly equitable will seek out feedback from marginalized community members, increasing inclusivity. The library that completes a population survey and diversity audit will have a clearer idea of community needs and those needs can be met (SIA Tookit, 2015).
First Things First
Conducting a diversity audit is the first step for any library wishing to align itself more closely with the principles of diversity and inclusion. It would be a giant misstep to attempt to provide what a community needs without first knowing who that community is. There are a variety of different ways one can conduct a diversity audit and a multitude of resources on the subject can be found on the internet and in the stacks. The one thing they all have in common is that they begin with a population survey. This survey can be conducted through a variety of methods but perhaps the most thorough and easily implemented way is to utilize the information that can be found online, such as places like www.census.gov and www.city-data.com. Often counties and municipalities will have their own trove of demographic information that can be used for the purposes of a diversity audit (Jensen, Part 1, 2017).
It is not enough to merely know the racial or gender breakdown of one’s community for this process. A good diversity audit will include information on the community as a whole, such as environmental factors, industries present, homelessness, healthcare, and schools. Does your community have shelters, food pantries, and community outreach centers? Does your community host refugees or other immigrant populations? What languages are spoken? What are the crime rates and rates of juvenile incarceration? What are the societal problems faced in your community and what are the strengths (Jensen, Part 1, 2017)?
Once this information has been gathered, dig further and drill down to find out more about the individuals in your district. Gender ratios, nationalities, religious beliefs, well-being, educational attainment, marriage and birth rates, and more. Jensen suggests compiling all of this information into a binder or notebook for quick reference during a diversity audit or any other time the information may prove useful (Jensen, Part 1, 2017). This information should be updated regularly to ensure that it is accurate and timely, providing the best basis for collection and programming decisions.
According to the Community Led Libraries Toolkit published in 2008, libraries should not rely on population surveys and polls conducted within the library, as these only show information about current patrons and will exclude information on community members who are marginalized and yet to be reached by the library’s services. In addition, libraries should involve the community in each step of the diversity audit and any changes to be made as a result of the audit. This will increase community buy-in and help ensure that the new programming and materials are actually desirable to the members of the community that they are intended for.
The Collection Audit
Once the makeup of your local population had been identified and vulnerable populations likely to exist in your community have been recognized, the next step is to survey the library’s collection for gaps in the diversity of provided materials (Jensen, Part 2, 2017). For example, if your population is primarily African American, does your collection have a strong representation of African American authors and protagonists?
If a collection audit focusing on diversity has never been done at your library or was done so far in the past as to be irrelevant, the initial audit will be a painstaking process, best approached by a team of people. It is well worth the time and effort to ensure that you are reaching out to the marginalized populations of your community and providing them with equitable access to information, as the central tenet of librarianship prescribes (Diversity, ALA, 2018).
When auditing a collection, it can be helpful to create categories for the characteristics of the populations that you wish to reach. For instance, do you have materials that support immigrants, youth, elderly, impoverished, low literacy persons, sexual minorities, religious minorities, homeless populations, single mothers, English language learners (SIA Toolkit, 2015)? The list goes on. Once those in charge of the audit have obtained and interpreted data on the local population, a decision can be reached about what groups should be focused on for the initial increase in diversity programming and literature at the library. The next step is to evaluate how many materials the library has that are relevant, useful, and engaging for the populations targeted. In addition, what programming is available through the library to assist and inform these members of the community and how will they find out about these resources?
Serving Marginalized Populations
Once the community survey has been completed and the community needs assessed, it is time to decide which minority groups or marginalized communities the library wishes to reach out to. Perhaps the community has a large number of homeless persons or is a refugee host city with a large population of English language learners who are new to the country. Is the GLBT+ community well represented and supported in the library collection and programming? Does the library have support services and information for the differently-abled members of the community? Is there adequate representation of minority populations in the community within the library collections? Let us take a look at what equity and inclusivity at the public library might look like for some of these populations and how a library can attempt to meet some of the needs unique to each group.
Homelessness is as much of an issue of lack of social connectivity as it is an issue of a lack of housing or financial stability. Homelessness is a consequence and a cause of social disenfranchisement and the library is poised to serve as a way for members of the homeless population to find and connect to needed resources and reintegrate into the community in which they live.
One of the primary complications in providing services to the homeless population is their lack of permanent address. San Francisco Public Library found a unique and replicable solution to this problem through cooperation with city officials and local non-profit organizations that served the homeless population. The homeless shelters agreed to provide a letter on letterhead affirming that the person in question utilizes their services, resides in San Francisco and that the library could send mail for the patron, such as late return notices, to the shelter. A six-month study following this agreement found the program to be successful in increasing library circulation and library access to the homeless population while not significantly increasing the amount of lost or unreturned materials (Landgraf, 1991).
Once a library has found a way to meet the logistical needs of serving the community’s homeless population, the next question to ask is “What services does this population need?” Julia Hersberger lists a range of services and information considered vital by homeless library patrons that is worth listing in its entirety.
- Relationships with Others
- Health and healthcare (for self and others)
- Education (for self and others)
- Public Assistance (for self and others)”
Hersberger, J., 2005.
Libraries have been sanctuaries for the homeless across the United States for decades upon decades. The value of having a climate-controlled environment where one can rest, find useful information, or simply connect with people is an invaluable service to this vulnerable group. The library can be a first stop on the path towards independence and social reintegration, but this will not occur if the homeless patron feels unwelcome at the library (Hesberger, 2005).
Refugees and Immigrants
The United States has long been known as the melting pot of the world, with a long history of immigration. Immigrants, and especially refugee populations will typically be concentrated in urban areas and immigrants from certain regions will gravitate towards areas that already have established populations from their home country. Libraries whose regions encompass these international communities have an opportunity to provide immense support to this vulnerable population that has the potential to provide great value to the community upon successful integration.
The first and foremost consideration a library must take when considering the immigrant population is that they likely will not know what services can be found at the library. It is possible they have never had experience with any public library prior to entry to the United States.
According to Susan Burke’s 2007 publication, the library is best promoted to immigrants through schools, religious institutions, community centers, and radio. Another possibility is market library services in local publications created by and for the international community members. Burke also suggests innovative service models such as book-mobiles and having suitable hours for people who may do shift work or have transportation limitations (2007).
Once the immigrant community knows about the library, how is this special population best served?
Burke offers several concrete suggestions for how a library can best meet the needs of the local immigrant population. Her first suggestion is highly practical but rarely found in practice: libraries should have an up to date collection in the primary languages of local non-English speakers. An equally important offering is to provide information on immigration law, citizenship, public services, English language classes and resources, and job searching. Burke also highlights the importance of cultural competency among library staff and the significance of creating a warm and hospitable environment.
New immigrants who seek out the library on their own typically do so in order to access the computers and internet (Van der Liden, 2014), providing the library a golden opportunity to show these new community members the various ways in which the library can be useful to them. Van der Liden notes that once the immigrant gains internet access at home, they will stop coming to the library to use the computers and an opportunity to the single-purpose library patron into a regular library user could be missed. One member of the immigrant community that Van der Liden interviewed noted that the library has many wonderful offerings, but she needed help learning how to access and utilize all that was available. This is where an enthusiastic librarian has a chance to step in and make a difference.
Gender and sexuality minorities continue to be targets of ostracization, hate speech, and hate crimes. LGBT+ materials are consistently among the most challenged titles for any given year and equitable access to resources and literature on the subject are frequently banned, restricted, “set aside”, and excluded from book talks, pathfinders, and book displays, if they are even presented in the library at all. Many libraries do a great job of providing equitable access to these materials and appropriate programming, especially with vulnerable teen populations but just as many do not have such offerings (Alexander & Miselis, 2007).
A library that wishes to reach and assist this unique, but not uncommon, population can do several things to that end. The first step suggested by research is to create a Teen Advisory Board and listen to their needs. For example, do they want a Gay-Straight Alliance supported by the library or do they simply wish there were more books about the LGBT+ experience (Jensen, Part 3, 2017)?
Teens in particular benefit from a strong LGBT+ collection due to the importance of identity focused resources, the lack of support, and the need for strong LGBT+ role models, which teens can find in find in fictional works (Alexander & Miselis, 2007).
Alexander and Miselis also point out that librarians who seek to avoid controversy by not including or highlighting LGBT+ materials in library collections do a great disservice to this minority community who need support, guidance, and advocacy on their behalf (2007). Another important consideration is intersectionality. Many people identify with more than one social sub-group. For instance, a gay Native American or disabled African American woman who patronize the library should be able to find representation as well as the cisgender, heterosexual white man (Jensen, 2017). Jensen also points out that not all LGBT+ stories need to be coming out stories and not all coming out stories are the same (2017). Just as when tailoring services to any unique group, cultural sensitivity and awareness is vital to success.
There are many other minority populations with needs to be considered. The population survey completed at the beginning of a diversity audit can help the library staff determine which groups in their own community would benefit most from a focused initiative to increase programming and materials to meet their needs. Perhaps once services have been increased for the highest priority groups, new groups can be assessed for need and new initiatives can take place. A diversity audit and the initiatives that are born out of it are not one-and-done tasks but a process that should be ongoing in the life of the library. For further ideas on how to keep the process alive, consider the ALA highlighted trend Design Thinking, a process that allows for constant assessment and revision through creativity and end-user feedback (Design Thinking, 2018).
In conclusion, equity and diversity is not simply a matter of making sure the library has a wide variety within its collection but ensuring that underserviced and underrepresented groups are able to access and utilize materials and programming that meet their unique needs and actively reaching out to these populations proactively. Equitable is not the same as equal and in the case of the public library, equitable often means offering more service and attention, more specialized materials, and more outreach. If we are to live up to the lofty standards of the ALA Code of Ethics, we will seek to enrich the lives of our most vulnerable populations, even if it causes discomfort or disquiet among the majority. As has often been said, a library is not simply a building full of books, it is a service to the community that aims to strengthen, enlighten, and support members of that community so that they may become active members of society and participants in its democracy.
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Jensen K. (2017), “Doing a YA Diversity Audit, Understanding Your Local Community (Part 1). Teen Librarian Toolbox. http://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2017/11/doing-a-diversity-audit-understanding-your-local-community/ (Accessed December 3, 2018).
Jensen K. (2017), “Doing a YA Diversity Audit, The How To (Part 2). Teen Librarian Toolbox. http://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2017/11/doing-a-ya-collection-diversity-audit-part-2/ (Accessed December 3, 2018).
Singh, S. et al (2008). Community Led Libraries Toolkit. The Working Together Project. https://www.librariesincommunities.ca/resources/Community-Led_Libraries_Toolkit.pdf (Accessed on December 3, 2018).
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