Everyone is Welcome at the Skokie Public Library

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by Steve Zaluksy

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Nazis threatened to march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, home to a large Jewish population.  A prolonged court battle ensued, resulting in a compromise – the Nazis would hold their march in a Chicago location.

In the meantime, the threat brought together groups of Christians and Jews in a show of solidarity, notably at a prayer service held at a local high school.

Today, as our nation faces the looming threat of intolerance and hate speech in the wake of a bitterly contentious election, Skokie, a community serving a population that is over 40% percent foreign-born, is once again standing up to social injustice and bigotry, this time through one of its enduring cultural institutions, the Skokie Public Library.  That commitment was literally front and center, with the library posting signs at both entrances stating, “Everyone is welcome here.”

Amy Koester, youth and family program supervisor, said, “We absolutely recognize the climate in the entire country, including our community, after the election, and so one thing that we have done is just reaffirm our library’s vision. It’s long been part of our library’s vision statement and values that everyone is welcome here and we welcome and celebrate a diversity of cultures and ideas and backgrounds.”

Koester said the youth department also has a display that says everyone is welcome. The department also carries a range of materials for all youth reading levels that specifically explore and celebrate the diversity of human experience, including “A Long Pitch Home,” about a boy from Pakistan who immigrates to America and, having been a star on his cricket team, attempts to assimilate by joining a baseball team.

The library’s message was clearly articulated by its director, Richard Kong, on its website, when he wrote, “(We) believe that our community is the very heart of the library. The work of our library, through its collections, programs, services, and partnerships, is fundamentally shaped and strengthened by the diversity of our community.

Addressing those “who may feel fearful or unwelcome in our current social climate,” Kong affirmed “the library’s unwavering commitment to maintaining an inclusive environment that serves and welcomes all people.”

He added, “The library will not condone any type of behavior that perpetuates bigotry, stereotyping, or racism. Anyone who experiences or witnesses such behavior at the library should notify our staff immediately so that we can take appropriate steps to address the situation.

“We open our doors daily to offer a safe refuge where people of all ages, backgrounds, and cultures can find a caring and supportive environment within which to engage in lifelong learning and discovery.  “Everyone is welcome here.”

Words have been reflected by actions.

Prior to the election, the library established The Civic Lab in a pop-up space in the corner of the AV area. As Amita Lonial, former comanager of Learning Experiences at the library, wrote in a blog post, the space offers “thought-provoking materials and activities that will allow us to engage in open conversation and grow together as a community.”

Lonial encouraged patrons to sit around the “kitchen table” and “practice the art of listening, particularly to perspectives that may be different than your own. Perhaps this is ambitious, but it seems important now more than ever to create intentional and physical community spaces for dialogue and reflection. And what better place than your public library?”

Focusing on six major issues, Black Lives Matter, Climate Change, Immigration, Income Inequality, LGBTQQI and Reproductive Justice, the Civic Lab offers related materials for kids, families, teens and adults, with the stipulation that the “selections are meant to provide distinct perspectives on these issues, but they cannot and do not represent the gamut of views on any given topic.”

The space was removed a week before the election, but the Civic Lab remains in force, with pop-ups placing an emphasis on current events such as Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline.  The Civic Lab provides the community with “opportunities to dig deeper into topics that they might be hearing about and to have thoughtful and respectful discussions,” Koester said.

In addition to focusing on the community, the library has also concentrated its efforts on its staff, with a staff committee that addresses equity, diversity and inclusion.  “I think it is incumbent upon libraries right now to recognize that even if you have policies and written values that espouse equity and that everyone is welcome, that just having those on paper is not necessarily enough right now in this climate,” she said.

Koester added that there has been much conversation revolving around the topic of libraries and neutrality.  “I think that’s an incredibly important conversation, and it is uncomfortable for a lot of people in libraries. I think we equate ‘not neutral’ with being specifically partisan, and oftentimes that’s implied partisan in one particular direction. But I don’t think that’s the case.

“We can’t be neutral, because we do stand for things. We stand for literacy. We stand for information. And so what does it mean to be that type of a public facing institution that does hold those values, in particular in our current climate?”