Just two years after she immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic, Patricia Pacheco landed a library assistant position as the first bilingual staff member at the Sterling Branch of the Loudoun County Public Library system in Virginia. She had been a kindergarten teacher for nearly 20 years and had dealt with children of all ages in her home country. Early on in her time in the States, she volunteered part time in the Ashburn Library of Loudoun County. So when the Sterling branch announced that it sought a bilingual staff member, Pacheco applied and was hired. That was back in May 2015.
The results of the 2016 presidential election caught many by surprise. With the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, and his immediate remaking of American policy through executive orders, public and academic librarians began to mobilize. From book displays addressing resistance and inclusivity, to graphics proclaiming that all are welcome in the library, to topical LibGuides, to online groups organized by discipline or principles, library staff and supporters across the country joined forces with like thinkers to do what they do best: share information where it’s most needed.
Six months after librarian Valerie Pfister was told by administrators at Louisville Free Public Library that wearing a preferred pronoun button was a dress code violation, the library has honored its promise to list preferred pronouns on the library-issued name badges of any employee who requests it. The library also agreed to update the city’s Transgender 101 training with Pfister’s help, and offer it to any library employee who wished to take it.
In the weeks since the 2016 presidential election, librarians across the United States have taken actions to foster dialog, confront intolerance, and reaffirm public libraries as safe spaces for all patrons. Whether as a reaction to the need to initiate community conversations or as a response to incidents taking place within the library, library employees are looking at ways to get people talking—and listening.
From the run-up to the 2016 presidential election to its aftermath, incidents of hatred, anger, and intolerance have been on the rise across the country and beyond. Academic libraries have been the sites of several incidents, as have schools. Even public libraries, generally thought of as safe spaces for their communities, have not been immune.
What can we do? This has to be one of the most commonly asked questions in America—even before the recent presidential election brought a wave of hate crimes more pervasive than the one that followed the September 11 attacks. The ongoing impact of bigotry in America is, perhaps, the quintessential “wicked problem.” A legacy of housing discrimination continues to shape neighborhoods—and how they are served by schools, police, and, yes, libraries—to this day. Studies continue to show implicit bias along lines of race and gender that impacts hiring, promotion, compensation, and retention—and explicit bias is still with us. All of these factors feed one another, eluding simple solutions to any that leave the others out of the equation.
The County of Los Angeles Public Library believes diverse programming begins with assembling a team of people from various backgrounds and cultures who can offer different perspectives, ideas, and out-of-the-box solutions that appeal to a wider swath of the population. Diverse teams are helping to guide the organization toward its goal of reducing barriers and increasing access to the ten million residents (3.5 million in its designated service area) of the County of Los Angeles, itself a diverse group: 26.6 percent white, 9.1 percent African American, 48.4 percent Latinx, and 15 percent Asian.
Early in 2017, Adam Matthew, a database vendor known for its collections of digitized historical primary sources, will release a new collection called Race Relations. The database will offer access to a trove of previously undigitized civil rights material from the Race Relations Department of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, 1943–70, an organization that was based at Fisk University in Nashville and whose records are now housed at the Amistad Center at Tulane University in New Orleans. Chianta Dorsey, an archivist at the Amistad Center, explains, “The formal program of the department began in 1943 as a forum to engage in a national discussion regarding numerous topics including racial and ethnic relationships, economics, education, government policy, housing and employment.”
When youth specialist Mary Shortino at the Johnson County Public Library (JCPL), a suburban system near Kansas City, KS, read Tanner Colby’s Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America (Penguin Bks.), she got excited. About a quarter of the book is about Kansas City, where racial real estate covenants first began, and the specialist, who is in her 50s, remembered when the city’s schools were first integrated. Shortino pulled in Angel Tucker, youth services manager of JCPL, and the two went to see Colby speak nearby in Kansas City, MO. Colby’s response to meeting them, says Tucker, was, “ ‘I should’ve come to your library,’ ” and with that, a collaboration was born.
Librarianship, as a field, has a major diversity problem. According to the American Library Association’s Diversity Counts, in 2009–10 (the most recent year for which we have numbers), 85.2 percent of credentialed librarians and 72 percent of library assistants were white. Two years ago, St. Paul faced a similar problem. Citywide, the workforce was 82 percent white. Yet the city population is only 60 percent white, and the school age population, 22 percent white.