April 2024: Beyond Boxes

Column Description: Libraryland is full of diversity - types of libraries, types of patrons, services, staffing, funding, community makeup, and more. UDL, accessibility, DEI, LGBTQ+, equity, or equality, can become overwhelming and confusing. How do I meet all the needs of the patrons at my specific library? I will be sharing the joys and pitfalls of working with persons, situations, and items that do not fit neatly into boxes.  Drawing on concepts from UDL, DEI, and personal experience working with communities that are outside of the box, I will share tips, ideas, and questions to ponder about what makes effective service and communication with the communities we serve. Communicating, adapting, benefits to others (the curb-cut effect), and more will be explored - both as ways that have assisted me in assisting others, but also in assisting me to assist myself. There is no one size fits all approach that I can share, you will need to determine what works best for your community.

In this writing, I’d like to share with you a question that often comes to my mind when communicating with others – What’s in a name, does a name make a difference? I question what Shakespeare’s Juliet said in Act II, Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” (lines 42-44). Is Juliet telling the truth?  This is a question I often ponder and have researched over the years. 

Coming from Queens, New York, and having taught online since 2000, I have often interacted with patrons and others who have backgrounds not similar to my own. With the growth in multicultural societies and collaboration across various cultures, comes a larger need for awareness of cultures different from my own to ensure clear, concise, and effective communication. At first, I thought this was simple – be sure the words I use are accurate and cannot be misconstrued, be sure I have diversity in my choices of persons represented in images, and be sure I have a variety of materials on different cultures and regions. But are these all the types of cultures I encounter regularly? And what is a culture anyway? A culture, became, in my mind, a way of differentiating a community with a shared trait or traits, based on any number of factors – geographic, socioeconomic, demographic, interests, languages, and more; and thus, in this writing, I use the terms interchangeably.

My minimal efforts, while at the time I thought was doing great, were only the tip of the iceberg. These efforts were sometimes appreciated, but they also opened a can of worms, “why is that diversity being addressed and not mine?” is a question I (or my colleagues/supervisors) heard quite often. It was not just which groups were being represented, but also what aspects of communication were being addressed, both written and spoken verbal language (jargon, colloquialisms, pronouns, assumed knowledge) and nonverbal language (movements, representation, gestures, voice tone, timeliness, formality, etc.). So many differences had to be considered – cultural, regional, socioeconomic, sexual, religion, gender, racial, age, primary language, education, and more. How could all of these be addressed, especially when not all were readily visible for us to consider, let alone know how to address them?  

The first step in addressing this, besides figuring out the differences that had to be considered, the term ‘language’ needed to be defined so that it meant the same thing to everyone who encountered it. I define language as any form of communication, whether words, motions, vocal tone, actions, or any other way of conveying an idea from one person to another, whether synchronously or asynchronously, whether in-person or via distance.

Growing up, I was used to seeing the United States of America as the feature, or center, and other countries changing size in relation accordingly as the ‘orange’ of the world was flattened out. Speaking of the United States of America – why do I specifically choose that term? I didn’t always do so. But then it came to my attention – America is all of North, Central, and South America, not just the United States. The first time I visited Canada I learned this front and center! Yet, in the US I can still be caught using America, although I try to be more conscious of this faux pas.

In another instance, while I was teaching at the post-secondary level (or should I call that the college or university level?), I had to figure out who I was. Students, participants, and learners wanted to know what to call me. I had to figure that one out. If I was too informal, they might not respect me. If I was too formal, they might not find me approachable if they had questions. I had to consider the culture of the institution (I asked around at each one I taught at), the make-up of the students (older vs. younger for example), and how I felt most comfortable being addressed. Decisions, decisions. My head still spins when I think about this. Am I Dr., am I Professor, do I use my first name, my last name, or my initial? Am I a mentor, a facilitator, or a lecturer? Do I teach, instruct, facilitate, or educate? Are we in a lecture, a class, a workshop, a course, an internship, a work-study, a service learning, a lab, or something else? While I knew what I was most comfortable with, as a learner and as an educator, I also had to consider what would be the impact on my relationship with the students of my word choice. To my mind came the example of calling a child home, and I had to seriously consider which might work best – not only for my comfort but also for the comfort of the entire community in the learning process – and that would convey what I intended it to be.

“Johnny, it’s time to come home.”

“Jonathan, it’s time to come home.”

“Jonathan Jordan Smith, it’s time to come home.”

“Dr. Smith, it’s time to come home.”

“Dr. Johnny, it’s time to come home.”

And so on. Do each of these sound different in your head? They sure do in mine. And each tells a different scenario.

As previously mentioned, language is not just words. It is the expression of an idea or concept. Most generally, language is perceived as being done through words, but not always. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, or so they say. And even just a gesture, a change of voice, how one sits, or even when one sits can all say so much.

With all of this being said, what in the world can I do? I can’t make everyone happy and comfortable. I have a few tips that I try to use and follow that I’d like to share:

  1. Be aware of preferred languages and ways of communicating – and that these can vary between cultures, communities, and circumstances
  2. Attend DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) trainings and workshops
  3. Attend cultural events outside my own (whenever possible)
  4. Recognize cues from those I am communicating with – this is where my improv training comes in!
  5. Most importantly – if I am unsure, ask!

Sine Rofofsky is a part-time Reference Librarian at SUNY Schenectady Community College. In his role he serves as a reference librarian among wearing other hats. When Sine is not working to improve the information seeking road for others, you might see him volunteering as a peer specialist, or with various community organizations in the Saratoga area. His current research focuses on communication, diversity, distance learning, underrepresented communities, UDL and accessibility, queer theory, and whatever else catches his fancy at the time. Sine has an MLS from Queens College and a PhD in elearning from Touro University International among other degrees.

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