How To

Why Public Libraries Should Support Black Lives Matter

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Katie McLain

Contributing Editor

Katie's parents never told her "no" when she asked for a book, which was the start of most of her problems. She has a BA in Creative Writing from Lake Forest College and is working towards a master's degree in library science at U of I. She works full time at a public library reference desk in northern IL, specializing in readers’ advisory and general book enthusiasm, and she has a deep-rooted love of all things disturbing, twisted, and terrifying. (She takes enormous pleasure in creeping out her coworkers.) When she's not spending every waking hour at the library, she's at home watching Cubs baseball with her cats and her cardigan collection, and when she's not at home, she's spending too much money on concert tickets. Her hobbies include debating the finer points of Harry Potter canon, hitting people upside the head who haven’t read The Martian, and convincing her boyfriend that she can, in fact, fit more books onto her shelves. Twitter: @kt_librarylady

This week, my coworker shared an amazing article about a series of tweets from Storytime Underground, an organization dedicated to bringing public libraries into the world of activism and social change. And their message was extremely clear: Black Lives Matter, and it’s crucial that public libraries and public librarians take a stand in support of the BLM movement. You can see the article and the entire Twitter thread here but I wanted to highlight a few of their badass truth bombs:

We welcome him, and ask if the skittles in the snack machine need refilled.

— StorytimeUnderground (@StorytimeU) July 12, 2016

I agree with this entire thread 1000%. When I applied for library jobs 5 years ago, I applied because I was fresh out of college and I enjoyed reading books. But I fell in love with library work because we have the ability to literally change lives. We are community resources, technology centers, safe spaces, book communities, and learning centers. We put up Gay Pride displays and Banned Book Displays and serve our immigrant communities and help people register to vote and become citizens and learn how to read. We are a powerful, powerful force and yet we have chosen to stay silent on the Black Lives Matter because the truth is too uncomfortable for us to speak out loud. We are firm believers in the utmost importance of the first amendment, and yet we have done nothing to help the people who are being punished for exercising their rights to free speech and peaceful protest.

My library serves a very diverse community (approximately 50% Hispanic, 20% black), and when I first heard about the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland, I saw our patrons in their faces and I cried because our communities deserve better than this. Our patrons deserve better than this! Our patrons do not deserve to live their lives in fear, because at this point, our society and our justice system has made it clear that there is no safe course of action for anyone who is not white.

Public librarians, do not pull the non-partisan card on this. Stating that Black Lives Matter is not a partisan issue. It is a statement that your patrons’ needs and lives matter regardless of the color of their skin. It is a statement that you are willing and able to take their needs into account when offering library services. That’s not controversial. That’s part of being a public librarian and part of being a human being.

We are in a powerful position to support our communities and promote marginalized voices, and it is our professional responsibility to do so. If you’re wondering what you or your library can do to support Black Lives Matter and diversity in general, here are a few ideas:

  • Make a point to include diverse books in ALL of your displays. Don’t just wait for Black History Month to roll around every year. If you’re putting together a group of fantasy and science fiction novels, make sure to include books by Octavia Butler, L.A. Banks, or Walter Mosley. If you’re pulling recent nonfiction titles, make sure to include books like Between the World and Me or The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness or Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga. And don’t forget other forms of diversity as well. Black Lives Matter may be all over the news, but there are plenty of other marginalized voices for us to support as well.
  • Create book lists and informational guides for your patrons, and don’t wait until Black History Month to display them. Create a Black Lives Matter reading guide for people who want to understand more about civil rights history and modern problems facing our black communities.
  • If you have a display area for new materials, give your authors of color the prime real estate. Your patrons already know that Nora Roberts and James Patterson have new books out, but they may very well skip over your excellent diverse midlist titles if they’re not merchandised well.
  • Make an effort to read more diversely. The key word here is effort, because it WILL take more time and effort to find some of these hidden gems that aren’t being promoted by the big publishing houses. But since when have librarians ever been deterred by information that was hard to find? We owe it to our patrons, our profession, and ourselves to read beyond our own experiences, and if you tell me that it’s too hard for you to do, then you’re just not trying.
  • Talk to your administration about what your library can do to support the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a big one, and this is what a couple of my coworkers and I did as soon as we read that article. Our manager loved the idea and immediately passed it along to the administrative team so that we could talk about broadening the conversation and making it an organization-wide discussion. This may be the impetus your library needs to start having a real discussion about how best to serve your community, and it could open up more conversations along the way.
  • Consider opening up your library space for a moderated discussion with community members and local government officials, or a dialogue between community members and police officers. Let the library truly serve as a community center to help bring people together.
  • Keep creating safe spaces for your patrons. As long as patrons aren’t being disruptive or causing problems for staff or other visitors, let them stay in the library. Don’t kick them out if they’re sitting at a table all day without working on anything productive. Let your patrons keep using the public computers for as long as they need to. Be welcoming to your high school students, who are struggling with these issues just as much as the adults are. Tell your patrons that they are welcome in your library’s space.

And if your administrators refuse to align themselves with Black Lives Matter? I don’t have an easy answer for that, but it’s crucial that we do not let the conversation end. This is something that could gain serious momentum if enough public libraries are brave enough to join the fight. We must keep educating ourselves and we must keep providing quality information for our patrons who are dealing with the same questions and worries and fears as we are.

And we must continue to provide top-level customer service to everyone who walks in through the door. I’ve heard patrons tell managers about how a staff member made their day with a smile and some simple common courtesy, so just imagine what kind of a difference we could make if we could look our patrons in the eye and tell them that their lives truly mattered to us.

If you’re looking for other resources, make sure to check out Storytime Underground on Twitter, along with Libraries4BlackLives.  And check out a few of these recommended reading lists from fellow Rioters about social issues and diverse reading lists:

Say it with me, everyone. Black. Lives. Matter. Keep educating yourselves, keep educating your communities, and keep the conversation alive.