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Encouraging Diversity and Equity in Public Libraries

by on July 29, 2016

As recent news coverage attests, this summer has had several unfortunate events involving violence and conflict. Within a very short time span, the United States bore witness to the death of a young man in Falcon Heights, Minn., during a traffic stop,[1] and the deaths of five police officers in Dallas, Texas, during a shooting incident.[2] These recent events were preceded by the deaths of fifty young adults in Orlando, Fla., during a shooting at Pulse, a nightclub.[3] Although these are three separate incidents, they share some common attributes, including concerns about racial equality, gun violence, gun possession policies, and law enforcement policies.

As a result of recent events and historical reflection, public libraries are increasing efforts to advance racial equality and provide resources for conversations and greater communication between diverse groups of people and more engagement with local libraries and their programs. These efforts are particularly important for children because childhood is the life stage when people first develop not only reading skills and emotional regulation but also respect, concern for other people, and awareness of diversity.

As year-round community organizations with free membership and access to resources, libraries serve crucial roles in community education and dialogue. Several public libraries have created Black Lives Matter programs, such as a Young Adult Reading List at the Hennepin County Public Library, crisis counseling services at the Dallas Public Library, and a LibGuide on Black Lives Matter teaching materials at the San Francisco Public Library.[4]

In a recent article on diversity, equality, and equity in public libraries, Erin M. Schadt argues that while libraries are open to the public, not every public library is easily accessible to those reliant on public transportation.[5] Car ownership has decreased over the past few years,[6] and the national average unemployment rate is presently about 4.9 percent.[7] These statistics are important because a job is usually necessary to purchase and maintain a car, and vice versa, suggesting that it is prudent for communities to focus on cost-effective ways to improve public transportation, increase library accessibility, and expand job-finding and -creation programs. Some libraries work to increase access with bookmobiles, car pools, ensured and extended evening and weekend hours, new satellite locations, book delivery programs for hospital patients and homebound individuals, collaborations with schools, recreation departments, and juvenile and senior citizen transportation programs to facilitate transportation to and from libraries.

Furthermore, librarians are encouraged to represent libraries by speaking and/or hosting tables at community institutions, such as schools, retirement communities, health clubs, farmer’s markets, fairs, and other events. Schadt’s article also quotes Sandra Hughes-Hassell (a school library media professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill), who makes the point that library boards (and other library-related organizations) should strive for diverse memberships (e.g. age, religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical ability, professional expertise) so that multiple points of view and community concerns are expressed and ultimately reflected in administrative decisions. Another strategy is for libraries to create more student diversity internship programs for library students from underrepresented groups to work in public libraries.

One example of these efforts is for libraries to consider hosting restorative justice discussions, during which a trained facilitator engages participants in a discussion of how conflict impacts stakeholders and what can be done in the future to prevent violence and resolve conflicts in nonviolent ways. Another idea is for libraries to host guest speakers from diverse equality-focused organizations such as the NAACP and the Human Rights Campaign, so that library patrons can learn more about diversity and respectful communication among different groups of people. In addition, education-related organizations such as Thrive Washington, provide worksheets and other freely available resources for teaching children about diversity, equality, and nonviolence. A further option is to host lectures by local university professors in fields such as sociology and other social sciences so that patron communities can explore historical and contemporary issues in group discussions.

Library directors and collection development librarians may also partake in activities such as organizing readings by authors from diverse backgrounds and compiling resource guides that focus on diverse authors and/or subject matter.

Libraries make a difference for children every day, and I look forward to continuing to work towards these efforts so that all children in a community can benefit from public library programs and resources as we deal with the aftermath of the recent summer events and focus on nonviolence and productive, healthful, safe, and educational futures for our children. For these reasons, I believe that equal opportunities begin and grow/thrive with public libraries.


WebJunction: Extended Racial Equity Resource Guide for Libraries

Library of Congress: Student Diversity Internship Program

Further Reading

[1] Associated Press, “The Latest: Hundreds Gather at School After Castile Funeral,” ABC News, July 14, 2016.
[2] Joel Achenbach et al., “Five Dallas police officers were killed by a lone attacker, authorities say,” Washington Post, July 8, 2016.
[3] Tyler Pager, “Justice Dept. to review police response to Orlando shooting,” Politico, July 15, 2016.
[4] Jody Gray and John Amundsen, “Libraries Respond to Recent Crises,” American Libraries, July 11, 2016.
[5] Erin M. Schadt, “Racial Equity in the Library, Part One: Where to Start?WebJunction, February 10, 2016.
[6]Hitchin’ a ride: Fewer Americans have their own vehicle,” Michigan News (University of Michigan), January 23, 2014.
[7]National Unemployment Rate Rose to 4.9 Percent in June 2016,” National Conference of State Legislatures, July 8, 2016.

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