First Responders on the Front Lines of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

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By Steve Zalusky

In communities facing crises, libraries have been first responders.  They responded in many ways to a variety of situations.

In 2012, a library worker at Sandy Hook Elementary School rescued 18 children from the gunman in a deadly shooting by hiding them in a library supply closet.

In 2014, following the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and the ensuing rioting in the community, the Ferguson Municipal Public Library stood apart as an oasis that provided art programming and tutoring for students whose classes were canceled.

A sign posted in the library said it all. It read, “During difficult times, the library is a quiet oasis where we can catch our breath, learn, and think about what to do next. Please help keep our oasis peaceful and serene. Thank you!”

Libraries are transforming their communities, and one special way they transform is by responding to the need for a safe space that promotes equity, diversity and inclusion.  This is a need that promises to grow more urgent in the wake of a presidential election that brought racial and ethnic tensions to the surface.

As that need builds, librarians will require a place to find not only information and resources, but also to share experiences with other librarians.

With that in mind, the American Library Association’s Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services has created Libraries Respond, an online space for the library community to share information, find resources and connect as they serve their communities. 

Librarians are joining the conversation using the hashtag #librariesrespond.

The Austin Public Library, for example, used the hashtag on Twitter to post a message to its social media ambassadors, from Reference Librarian Cesar Garza, along with a picture of a sign saying, “My Library Is Love,” words spoken on a podcast by Social Media Ambassador Sherry Kleinert.

The message from Garza read, “With the presidential election over, I encourage you all to remember that regardless of politics, the Library is still the place we’ve always known it to be. It’s inclusive of everyone. Whether your candidate won or lost; whether you’re struggling or succeeding in life; whether you were born in America or elsewhere, you are welcome at the Library. You belong here.”

Jody Gray, ODLOS director, said ODLOS started the Libraries Respond hashtag in response to such incidents as the shooting of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, the shooting of five police officers in Dallas and the Pulse shooting in Orlando, Florida.

“We noticed that libraries were really stepping up," Gray said. For example, following the shooting of the officers, one branch of the Dallas Public Library provided counselors to assist area residents and library employees. ODLOS, she said, wanted to “cut out the middleman. People were doing incredible work and we needed for them to be able to share."

The hashtag provided the ideal medium - ALA already had the Libraries Transform campaign. ODLOS decided to opt for the more grass roots oriented Libraries Respond.

Also, she said, "We want people to not feel that what they're sharing is somehow being judged.

Following the 2016 presidential election, the need to go beyond the hashtag arose. So a website was developed that offers breaking news about such issues as the Dakota Access Pipeline and an election page with a message from ALA President Julie Todaro, resources such as a booklist to help parents share positive conversations with their children about the election, a list of free resources for libraries to address concerns of youth and their families and tools for library staff to improve understanding of GLBT users.

"The communities our office works with were in a bad emotional state," so the idea emerged to create a website that collected more formalized statements and toolkits that could be shared among libraries.

"Every day it feels like there is something. It is great to see the librarians using it. And sharing what is happening in their communities. We’re always thinking of it as an organic thing - it’s a living document that is going to need to change as the way that we communicate changes and as the way that people are responding to it changes.”

In addition to the website, there is a blog called Intersections, which highlights the everyday work of library and information science workers as they advocate for equity and inclusion as they relate to diversity, literacy and access among membership, the field of librarianship and the communities they serve.

The blog invites submissions from across the library profession that feature support for those from historically and disadvantaged racial and ethinic groups; those who experience socioeconomic barriers, people experiencing hunger, homelessness and poverty; immigrants, refugees and new Americans; those discriminated against based on nationality or language; those who are geographically isolated; those experiencing barriers in regards to access to literacy; and new and non-readers.

In addition, ODLOS is planning to work with librarians on a series of webinars.

The work done by ODLOS reflects trends in providing an atmosphere of equity, diversity and inclusion in libraries today. Gray said libraries are moving toward the idea of providing “brave spaces,” with the idea being that library is a space “where you can reflect who you want to be, your own identity. It’s not necessarily that you wouldn’t be challenged for that, but that if you’re challenged, it will be in a respectful way.”

She said, “What libraries can offer is the space where you could be in conflict with one another, but in a space where your civil liberties are being protected. The library’s role is to make a space where it’s about conversation and not about just pointing fingers, moving the conversation forward and not name calling.”