Back when I was in school settings, first as teacher and later as librarian, I greatly adored the publication Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. When I left educational institutions and entered the public library system, my commitment to issues of diversity, equality, and justice remained strong.
Over the years in the public library, I have struggled with how to continue to “teach tolerance” while not in the role of “teacher.” I have tried to pursue these values in different ways for not only the public but also for the staff and my library board. For my community, I have engaged these concepts through collection development, displays, and programming. For staff, I have provided both formal professional development opportunities and informal discussion on the distinctions between difference and danger. For the library board, I’ve crafted policy to support these values and explained the importance of being conscious of these issues and implementing policy.
In some ways, these have all been “teaching moments.” But I always hated that phrase, not believing that teaching should have time boundaries any more than learning should. There also seemed to be a didactic nature in the phrase that is inaccurate. Now, I am also troubled by this phrase as librarian’s don’t “teach” exactly, yet I still feel a responsibility to these issues and I see powerful and positive effects based on my direction.
Examine the mission statements of public libraries – the key action areas for the American Library Association, The Library Bill of Rights, or Freedom to Read statement, and you will see that the values of diversity, equity of access, education and continuous learning are present front and center. The public library may not be an institution of formal education, but we are an institution of influence. We influence by example and we influence by exposure.
How often have we heard tales of youth inspired to greatness because of something they were exposed to at their public library? It is important to remember that the potential for the reverse is also possible. If the public library did not support diversity, equality, or justice then the visiting youth could just as easily be inspired to prejudice, discrimination, or injustice. As librarians, we are keepers of a powerful institution in the small and quiet way that ants can move mountains. Trying to come up with a better description for what I do, I have lit upon the phrase “leading tolerance.” At times, this does mean I teach and explain. At other times, I opt to set an example, as actions can speak louder than words. Sometimes I argue, sometimes I give praise. I always try to consider various perspectives, and I always try to encourage thought.
Leading tolerance is not an easy path. I suppose no leadership ever is, but in this context it can be particularly difficult. It can challenge some deeply held beliefs, including one’s own principles. But I believe we are in a point in history where is it greatly needed. The public library is a defining location for a community. It is the best place for leading tolerance.