As indicated by the ALA’s response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, libraries have an obligation to act on behalf of racial justice with genuine systemic change, not just statements or book lists. Hosting a book club on a topic that explicitly addresses race relations in the United States is among the items on the ALA’s plan for action.
One example is the Toledo Lucas County Public Library (TLCPL) BLM Book Group in Ohio, facilitated by King Branch Assistant Manager, Franco Vitella and Teen Librarian, David Bush. The first meeting was on July 30. They agreed to answer some of my questions about the initiative.
PL: What are the goals of your BLM book club?
FV & DB: The goal is to promote Black voices, perspectives, authors, and books that focus on the Black experience in an effort to lift an otherwise marginalized portion of society. The group will aim to construct a meaningful and compassionate conversation about anti-racism and embrace the diversity of the library’s collection, patrons, and surrounding community. The group will be guided by TLCPL’s value of being welcoming – respecting and valuing diversity, equity, and fairness – while recognizing that racism is not in line with these values.
PL: What kind of engagement and feedback did you get from participants in the first meeting of the BLM book club?
FV & DB: Participants were thankful that that group was happening. We asked each participant to introduce themselves at the top of the meeting, and if they wanted, to share anything about themselves. Many of the participants shared why they were attending, primarily to become more comfortable talking about race and understand the issues.
PL: Will you change anything for the next meeting based on how the first went?
FV & DB: It did take a while for the conversation to get moving – I think everybody was a bit uncomfortable in terms of how to talk about the subject matter – but about a quarter through the meeting the conversation began to pick up. We opened the conversation with a general question for participants to chime in on what they thought, but it was the more specific questions that initiated the most conversation. If anything, I’d like to see us start with those specific questions.
PL: The first book for discussion was Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad. This workbook can trigger strong reactions. Was this an issue, and/or how do you handle strong opinions or reactions within the group?
FV & DB: Quite a few participants were either not able to read the book or finish it by the meeting. A few participants said they mostly wanted to sit back and listen because of this. But on the whole, while people expressed they did have strong reactions, it wasn’t an issue during the discussions. People were forthright and honest and nobody ventured into expressing negative opinions that would be considered a detriment to the group’s purpose.
PL: Do you anticipate a different crowd for the next title, or did most participants express a desire to continue with the group next month?
FV & DB: Participants did express interest in attending next month and we also solicited title ideas from participants for future meetings. Our next book, Five Days by Wes Moore, which documents the death of Freddie Grey while in Baltimore police custody, is definitely a pivot away from Me and White Supremacy in terms of it not being a workbook, but I think it will attract the same, or at least similar, audience.
PL: Do you have advice for libraries starting similar book clubs?
Really think about what you aim to do in starting a book group like this. Be mindful and aware that it may not be easy. Discussing these topics can be difficult on a variety of levels and knowing that participants are coming from all different places is important to keep in mind.
PL: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
FV & DB: Not every library needs to have a book group similar to this, but every library must consider the impact they have on access, equity, and even the roles they play in being part of systemic racism. A book group won’t solve the greater systemic issues that exist in society and within many libraries, but it can be a vehicle for individuals to incite positive change through engagement. TLCPL’s director Jason Kucsma recently wrote in a post to Medium that “it is the job of all library leaders and staff to acknowledge that our work around access and equity is not finished and we must ensure our actions reflect a substantive, measurable, and honest approach to address systematic equity.” Libraries do need to be honest about what has happened in the past to contribute to these systemic issues and what actionable things we can do to undo that harm.
Other libraries launching BLM book clubs include the Alexandria Library in Virginia, where books to be discussed include So you Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibriam X Kendi, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. That group is facilitated by Librarian Ruth Rasby of the Charles E. Beatley, Jr. branch. Ann Arbor District Library in Michigan has started a BLM initiative to encompass an array of programs, including a book group.
Some libraries are organizing book discussions for staff. The Library of Virginia is facilitating a “group read” specifically for public library directors on White Fragility. According to Nan B. Carmack, Director of Development & Networking, in addition to discussion prompts provided by the author, they will explore the question: “What does this group do next in regards to continuing to explore equality in librarianship?”