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Socioeconomic Mixing: Creating Public Libraries Where Everyone Belongs

by on July 17, 2023

Saturday, June 24, 2023, Shamichael Hallman (Harvard Graduate School), Bridget Marquis (Reimagining the Civic Commons), and Keenon McCloy (Memphis Public Libraries), kicked off a jam-packed event, a program entitled “Power of the Commons.” With attendees standing along the wall, and sitting on the floor, the group discussed the underwhelming efforts from libraries and other institutions to prioritize and strategically plan socioeconomic mixing in their programs. Panel speakers expressed how librarians may consider the ‘how’ to use the space that they already have, but do not consider widely the power of designing and layering the appropriate opportunities for socioeconomic mixing. The panel argued that “interactions of socioeconomic mixing have to be designed, managed, staffed, programmed and maintained…” They must explore programs, metrics, outreach, strategies, safety, marketing, staffing, collections, partnerships, and physical design to create a more welcoming space.

Bridget Marquis proclaimed  “nobody wants to actually do it!” She learned that not enough institutions are focusing on this mission and how as a community and country, it is not healthy for us to co-exist independently. There were suggestions offered to attendees of things they can try to encourage socioeconomic mixing such as organizing events around “Universal desires like eating together. If there is an existing language barrier in the community, maybe try a dancing class that promotes movements instead of talking. Hiring people who speak other languages could help bridge a connection with those of different cultures. A way to look at planning is to answer the question “How can we encourage people to talk to each other?”

After questions were posed, the panelists recommended actions for the people in the room to implement this new information. For librarians who need to run these ideas up the chain of command, it would be best to consider how their managers respond to suggestions. Librarians should affirm the mission aligns with the values and data of their institution. For those managers and directors, the panelist posed a call-to-action to rethink their perspective and ask new questions: How to institutionalize this mission? And is there a need to reconsider positions in practice to accommodate these changes?

Shamichael Hallman explained the staff training element to the project: Routine training for staff, understanding your demographics and the reality of demographic shifts to come. He suggests booking podcasters and visual artists to provide a fresh new design on library programming. A way that these libraries chose to collect the data to attempt to represent everyone in the community was by collecting zip codes. To help measure impact they focused on outcomes and outputs for specific channels, such as civic health, and civic education like initiatives and awareness.  You can visit their official website at www.civiccommons.us.

Culture in My Neighborhood: Bringing the Arts to Every Community and Every Library

Mary Ellen Messner (Chicago Public Library), Jennifer M. Lizak (Chicago Public Library), and in partnership with the Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events (D-Case) & the Chicago Park District (CRD), presented the outcomes of hosting a full year of events in libraries centered around different cultures. Year One was an expansion project for One Book, One Chicago 2022. This major partnership pulled off a total of 167 events in 73 library locations with over 3,500 attendees. A partnership called Everyone Chicago was able to host black programs, finding performers using a collection of zip codes. These events explored programs such as making headwraps, celebrating Kwanzaa, and hosting bilingual performers.

During Year Two in 2023, Chicago Public Library (CPL) also celebrated 150 years young since the Chicago fire in 1870. They celebrated 150 years by throwing a birthday party in 87 branches! Yes 87 birthday parties at 87 branches. They enjoyed music, refreshments, concerts, puppet shows, foam parties and animal shows appropriate for all ages. When they sat down to plan this phenomenon, they asked themselves, “what is a birthday party?”

These birthday parties helped increase sign-ups for the Summer Reading Program. They offered walking tours of the neighborhood, and D-composed concerts by Black composers. They held a community quilt making art project in ‘Grab & Stay’ Kits at each branch. Other art programs they hosted were “Be the Head of Your Community” head sculptures, marbleizing paper, and “Architecture in your Community,” since architectural design is a staple of many Chicago neighborhoods. They even hosted Drag Queen Storytime.

Another innovative program Chicago Public Library held towards their mission to bring art to every community is hiring an “Artist in Residence.” Antoine taught Haitian Culture, portraiture, food, farming, and physical labor. She was on a stipend and was offered a studio space for two years.

How to Design a Comprehensive Culture Initiative

Goals & Resources
First, the panelists explained that you should establish your goals. Then inspect the type of resources you have: how much money do you have? What about venue space available? Who’s Your audience? Consider your marketing strategies, any existing partnerships you have, and existing art programs.

When you consider future partnerships, think about who you can work with: Museums, artists, authors, ethnic organizations, parks, schools, colleges, chambers of commerce, and businesses, then you call them. The panelists suggest considering who their partners may even be, and if you can work with them as well.

Share Goals
What are your shared goals with the community? Is your mission centered around economic development? How about to showcase the value of the library to the community or the community value to the surrounding areas? Maybe collectively, you all want to just celebrate in general, or enable safety in the community.

What Can You Offer One Another?
How can the library benefit from a partnership with the Chamber of Commerce? The local music schools. Or the community center? How can the Chamber of Commerce benefit from a partnership with the library? The Music School? Or the community center?

Pilot Everything- Allot time and grace in the process to test all your vendors, performers, and institutions. Not all participants’ goals will initially align with your own policies. For instance, a performer may not understand that they cannot solicit business during their workshop(s). Therefore, it may require that stakeholders meet several times to refine their agreement and get an understanding. One employee of Chicago Public Library warned to start small and then expand as you learn, grow, and try new things. Have as many meetings as necessary to get on one accord.

To learn more about this citywide effort visit One Book, One Chicago at the CPL.

Collecting Stories from Underrepresented Communities: How to Co-Design a Community Archive at Your Public Library

Panelists came together and discussed a toolkit they developed by engaging their communities in Co-designing a Community Archive in a Post-Custodial-Hybrid Post Custodial context.

What is a Community Archive?

The Tacoma Public Library’s Community Archives Center recognizes and highlights the historical phenomenon that underrepresented and marginalized communities’ stories and experiences have been suppressed and/or misrepresented in American recorded history. After the 1990s, there was a call-to-action to reimagine archival scholarship and the core values of social justice. According to ‘critical archival studies,’ the values of community archives lie in making archives more inclusive, recreating ways to record history retroactively, and training others on the practices and methods to expand the scope within society.

Tacoma Public Library considered the role that social identity and power plays in a community having an accessible historical footprint that accurately depicts their essence and their experience in society and culture. They aimed to produce a collection that celebrates a rich and diverse heritage that encompass commonalities such as “geography, identity, occupation, interest, faith, belief, or experience; or purpose, event, or mission.”

The key to engaging these communities was to allow them to participate with the project on their own terms. That is what they defined as Active participation of the community. In giving them the control, the project was highly participatory. Not only were they granted control of how they shared their stories with library staff, but they also were stewards of the archives along with library staff. The library was cognizant of sensitive matters and were willing to develop alternate archival practices to accommodate their subjects. They acted as advocates for social justice organizations and even offered representation.

There are five types of Community Archives: Post Custodial with no collection of physical materials (DENSHO); Hybrid post-custodial and traditional collecting (Community Archives Center, Tacoma Public Library); Community-institutional partnership (Mazer Lesbian Archives); Independent Grassroots (Lesbian Herstory Archives); and Institutional-housed and built community archives (Witness: See it, film it, change it).

How To Plan a Community Archive?

The recurring thread of the entire project is building partnerships that support the creation and the preservation of your community archive. With that being said, “planning a community archive is a marathon, not a sprint.” Stay flexible, even after initial success of the project. Building viable relationships is the planning period of creating a community archive. In this planning stage you are fully engaging your subjects and learning about them to understand who they individually are to the community and what the community is for them. What have they already begun to archive and what resources are they willing to provide towards your efforts? These conversations may give you an idea of the grander theme of the community you are working within.

Be careful to ask for low-effort engagement when you do garner interest. Start small by asking for contact information so they can at least stay informed about future updates with the project. Be flexible and diverse in how people can participate in different ways. Clearly state what you want in the transaction from partners. The panelist recommends that most people want to know what the cost and the tangible benefit of their contribution is. Here you can provide your intended outcomes. They also recommend appointing an advisory board to continually engage with partners through the duration of the project. The board can act as a consistent benefactor for participants and you and answer questions that may arise.

The planning process entails using models of engagement; Will your organization carry out most of the activities, or will you allow other organizations to be an intermediary? Should you have a broad or focused community participation?

From there, you identify & initiate funding opportunities, build community trust, build team capacity, design the archive, and iron out all the permissions, ethics, and copyrights details.

The reports of this toolkit and its exhaustive process can be found on the Tacoma Public Library Community Archives website.

Building and Sustaining a Community Archive

Community Outreach
When the planning is all set and you have everything you need to proceed, you begin to collect materials!  Understanding what access really demands is understanding that all media types and platforms will not be accessible or user friendly to your audience and/or subjects. So, Tacoma Library found it pertinent to emphasize community outreach to provide firsthand discovery of materials and increase awareness. They did not merely make an event and assume people will come, they instead attended the community’s events and started the conversation on 1:1 engagement with the materials and interviews.

Tacoma made partnerships with a slew of different organizations with different plural perspectives. They built a partnership with an immigrant refugee house named the Tacoma Community House. The Community House offered short oral history interviews in adult English/Language Arts classes. Consent forms were translated in their original language for subjects. The Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective recorded a documentary of the history of their members. They offered extended interview footage from the documentary to the repository and other documentation from previous programs from the group such as Black History Content. Radio Tacoma offered to donate their full past programming catalog of three Radio Tacoma Shows, some related to the legalization of marijuana and climate change. The Women’s Intergenerational Living Legacy Organization (WILLO), agreed to transfer the extensive library of born digital videos from their public storytelling events to the Community Archives Center. Finally, the Hilltop Action Coalition agreed to provide access to the Hilltop Action Journal, a print and digital community newspaper published every other month.

Collection Building at Events
Tacoma did not sit back and wait for the information to be volunteered to their institution, they went out among the people and set up a worktable to engage the community, so they could learn more about archival practices and have agency in their community archives. This looked like setting up a digitization station for scanning family photos, an oral history interview booth, and filming a storytelling contest. Recurring events gave them the opportunity to expand these efforts by setting up two of each station. For more rallies and campaigns, they allowed participants to take pictures with their signs and upload them to Northwest ORCA, a CMS platform. They also were able to express the reason they chose to be a part of said cause. Here’s a list of community events Tacoma was a part of to collect Archival materials.

  • African American Family History Event 2022 & 2023
  • Rally for Reproductive Rights
  • Poetry Picnic
  • Black Lives Matter Mural Project
  • Neighborhood Branch Preservation Events
  • Food Bridges Us & Memoir Writing Kit
  • Metro Parks Dash Point Park and Pier Public Meeting
  • Earth and Diversity Week
  • Stadium High School Library
  • T-Town 2023

Community Archive Activities
After attending community events and building trust with the communities, Community Archives hosted their own events for collection development. At each event the attendees had the opportunity to experience archival practices, while simultaneously helping the archives fill in the holes of the history of underrepresented groups. For instance, during the Story Mapping event, an online map was presented to display areas in the community and people were encouraged to tell stories centered around the location and its significance to them. Other events are listed below:

  • Interactive Digital Story Mapping
  • Co-Design Workshops
  • Gallery Walk
  • Oral History Interviews
  • Digitization
  • Youth stations
  • Create your own Comic book
  • Information tables (Tabling)
  • Storytelling
  • Presentations
  • Community Sharing
  • Articles
  • Exhibit
  • And Lunch

Sharing and Sustaining the Archive

Feedback from the community revealed that they were interested in gaining equitable access to materials, despite not having academic researcher credentials. They recommended that the archives even build a traveling exhibit that brings materials into community sites.

Another sustainable practice is incorporating the community archive into the school systems. The classrooms can not only help perpetuate the skills of future generations knowing how to preserve community history, but also the students can offer an intergenerational perspective of the same occurrences. This toolkit hosts a wealth of information regarding a sustainable community archive project.