From the President

by Barbara Stripling, NYLA President

For most libraries, fall is a busy time of regrouping and setting priorities for the coming year.  Academic and school libraries have a whole new group of (hopefully) eager learners and the continuing puzzle of how to design instruction, programs, and services to meet their needs and inspire them to discover new vistas through the library.  Public libraries are trying to catch their breath after busy summer programs and, at the same time, plan the new year’s opportunities for their patrons.  As a library educator, I find myself making endless lists and doubling down on the have-to-do’s, knowing that it’s impossible to get everything done.

As I was thinking about this flurry of activity, I realized that what was missing was the core question, “Why?”.  I know I entered this profession because of deep-seated values.  I like to think those values are the core of my decision making, but I find myself in a perpetual cycle of making decisions with little or no reflection about the values that should underlie every decision.

I have taken a break from my to-do list to think about my fundamental values, why libraries are essential for our communities, and how we can create cultures of learning in our libraries.  I hope you find inspiration to do the same.

For me, the core of librarianship is social justice.  I understand how to stand up for intellectual freedom, freedom of expression, and access in libraries.  What I am trying to learn is how to create a library environment (both physical and virtual) that is culturally responsive, equitably accessible to all members of the community, and focused on empowering patrons to be both critical consumers and creative producers of information.

Cultural Responsiveness

Cultural responsiveness denotes a deep commitment to diverse cultures by including cultural references in all aspects of the library. A culturally responsive library provides high-quality resources that offer more than a superficial treatment of diverse cultures. High-quality resources are only the beginning. The library also offers opportunities for patrons to share their own cultural experiences; it provokes critical reflection and confrontation of cultural assumptions and biases. In other words, hosting a display of “African-American books” during Black History Month represents only a superficial concept of cultural responsiveness.

Research conducted by Bunner (2017) identified six components of cultural responsiveness. Each must be considered as we rethink our library’s commitment to the diverse cultures we serve:

  1. Visibility – Patrons want to be able to see themselves and feel that others see and respect them.
  2. Authentic Engagement with Diverse Cultures – Do our materials capture the full richness of the cultural experiences and roots of diverse cultures, rather than focusing solely on the challenges and problems that members of that culture may face?
  3. Connection to Life Experiences -  We need to know our communities in order to make these connections.
  4. Environment that Is Safe and Inclusive – The environment must foster intellectual, social and emotional growth for all patrons.
  5. Interpersonal and Global Connections – The culture of the library must foster conversations and shared learning, as well as opportunities to learn about both local and global issues.
  6. Confrontation of Social Issues – How can our libraries enable communities to have honest conversations about the issues that divide us, like prejudice, bias, and racial divisions?

Certainly, collection development (both collection of print and curation of online resources) is an important way that libraries can address these priorities. Culturally responsive collection development is complex, however.  Extra diligence must be exerted to avoid implicit cultural biases. When librarians are developing their collections, they must actively seek authentic portrayals of different cultures, ensuring that they include positive views of life and experiences in diverse cultures.

Librarians also create culturally responsive libraries when they check their own assumptions and adopt mindsets that involve positive perspectives and a commitment to enable all patrons to pursue their goals. We may have to go beyond the library and out into the community to be sure we are reaching traditionally underserved members of our community.

Equitable Access

Attention to equitable access in every library includes differentiating and accommodating for the differently abled, paying attention to diverse learning style preferences, and meeting varied language demands. Unfortunately, many of our libraries are not accessible to all learners. Inaccessible libraries actually make the situation worse by contributing to the socially constructed idea of “disability” rather than “differently abled” (Copeland, 2011). In other words, the way we treat those with different abilities is creating the negative construct of lack of ability, rather than the positive construct that everyone is able, but in different ways.

We know from professional literature that technology is part of the solution to accessibility, but certainly not the whole solution.  As librarians, we assume responsibility for providing equitable access to information through technology, especially when patrons have limited access to the Internet at home and limited or no use of a personal computer. No librarian believes that cell phones equal equitable access to the Internet. The challenge is to figure out how to provide access to tools and technology with limited funds and limited technology.  Many libraries are figuring out creative solutions, but the technological gap still exists.

In a values-based library program, I believe the most important aspects of accessibility are intellectual freedom and social justice. Librarians are stalwart defenders of the intellectual freedom rights of patrons through our policies and practices.  The role of librarians in promoting social justice is a little edgier than simply standing up for intellectual freedom, but no less important. Librarians advocate for patrons’ rights to access diverse information and to express their viewpoints. Further, and perhaps most essential, librarians teach the skills that enable equitable intellectual access and the responsibilities for participating in an interactive, online world. This teaching role is increasingly relevant in this age of fake news and bombardment of information through social media. It is the responsibility of librarians to counter misconceptions about information seeking and advocate to the broader community about the value of libraries for serving the informationally underserved and enabling patrons to reach their goals.

The underlying value of equitable access and social justice must be a pillar for building a culture of learning for all.    

Empowering Patrons to Have Agency

Many libraries are adding active learning experiences to their programming, often in the form of makerspaces.  The potential of these experiences is that patrons will build a sense of efficacy as they solve problems and create new products.  Ideally, those who participate in such experiences will develop a sense of agency, confidence in their own capacity to create and express their own voice.  

This movement toward active learning spaces in libraries is actually one reason that I am reflecting on the Why of libraries.  Makerspaces have become a trend; however, some do little more than offer a play zone.  Patrons are not guided to ask questions, explore on their own, solve problems.  Without that level of thoughtfulness and creativity, patrons may have fun, but probably do not develop a sense of agency.

Technology opens the doors to exciting ways for patrons to express themselves.  Providing a video production space, writing centers, digital editing equipment, performance spaces, recording booths – all have the potential to unleash the personal expressions of our patrons.  When such opportunities are made available through libraries, we have fulfilled our fundamental role by creating a culture of learning open to all in the community.    

Values-Driven Libraries

The values that drive our profession provide a framework upon which to build a culture of learning. Just as learning itself is a messy, recursive process, so is the process of creating a culture of learning in our libraries. What is clear is that librarians must step up to leadership in this area. No one else is positioned to assume such a powerful role in making cultural responsiveness, equitable access, and agency a part of the lifeblood of our communities. The impact on our patrons’ learning, confidence, and empowerment is worth the effort.

Choose Your Own Adventure

A values-driven focus for our libraries opens the possibilities for making choices about our programs, resources, and services that will have significant impact on our communities.  NYLA invites you to Choose Your Own Adventure at our annual conference on November 9-11 in Saratoga Springs.  The rich array of programs, exhibits, and special events that we have planned will pique your creativity and solidify your passion for this profession.  See you there!

Bunner, T. (2017, January/February). When we listen: Using student voices to design culturally responsive and just schools. Knowledge Quest, 45(3), 38-45.
Copeland, C. A. (2011). Library and information center accessibility: The differently-able patron’s perspective. Technical Services Quarterly, 28(2), 223-241.