Nick Higgins emailed me the other day. He was a student in my class at what is now called the School of Information at the Pratt Institute in New York City, graduating in 2008. One of the joys of teaching is the continuing contact with students as they progress through their careers. In our profession that contact is especially gratifying.
From the opening session with political comedian W. Kamau Bell through the closing keynote by actor Neil Patrick Harris, the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting sets an ambitious agenda, tackling timely political issues such as how to work with the new presidential administration and Congress; ongoing social concerns like equity and inclusion; and how best to drive the continuing technological transformation of libraries on the one hand and accurately assess our successes—and learn from our failures—on the other.
Resilience: to bounce back after disruption. We’ve dealt with a lot of disruption as libraries and citizens in the past year. From a pretty insane presidential race to a major nationwide Internet outage caused by a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack that harnessed the Internet of Things to hurricanes, drought, and forest fires, we’ve got disruption in just about every sector of modern life.
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.
Police bias against people of color, particularly black people, has been one of the most heated issues of the past few years, with killings by officers of unarmed black people in cities across the country serving as the impetus behind the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Some might think there’s not much role for libraries in fixing this problem, beyond helping users find reliable data and texts that address it.