3 Ways Libraries Can Channel Understanding in Confusing Times

Jennifer Peterson /

As individuals and communities react to conflict in the world, we're reminded of the ways in which libraries often serve as a sanctuary for those looking for physical or emotional safety in times of crisis. But unfortunately, even the committed and welcoming staff who keep libraries open can be subjected to intolerance and narrow-mindedness. We recently learned through a post on Facebook of such an exchange between a patron and a librarian at a branch of the Upper Darby Libraries in Pennsylvania. The library director shared this post to inform the community of the incident, and not surprisingly, the post now has numerous comments of support and hundreds of shares.

As we reflected on ways to ensure staff and patron safety, whether through policies or strengthened relationships with community members and leaders, we collected resources and strategies for libraries that can help channel intelligent and compassionate understanding in our communities. The following examples address three avenues to explore related to collections, programming and communication.

Strengthening Collections

Saint Paul Public Library - Resources on Race  

To support the City of Saint Paul's racial equity initiative, the library has been building a list of books, poems, articles, films, blog posts and other resources exploring race in the United States. Library staff have compiled resources and designed it to grow over time with suggestions from others. Refer your patrons to the Resources on Race and use the "Help Build This List" tab to make suggestions for additional resources. 

Charleston Syllabus

In the wake of the racially motivated violence in Charleston, South Carolina, scholars and librarians collaborated on a bibliography to inform ongoing conversations about race relations. The vision is that by sharing knowledge in this way, new understanding, approaches and change can occur. Read this OCLC Member Story about the bibliography, watch a video with the creators, and follow the #CharlestonSyllabus hashtag on Twitter.

Documenting Ferguson

Documenting Ferguson is a project of Washington University Libraries in St. Louis. "It is a collaborative, community-driven digital repository to preserve both local and national history surrounding the police killing of teenager Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s death inspired a multitude of responses and as a Missouri cultural organization in an institution of higher learning it was important that our library have a role in documenting related events as they unfolded." Learn more about the project in this Process blog post.

Diversity in Storytimes

We know that every community is unique in many ways, including in the various cultures, ethnicities, and experiences their members represent. We also know that children LOVE to see themselves reflected in the stories they hear and narratives that shape their development.

In Demco's Ideas and Inspiration blog, Jill Eisenberg shares, "Book selection for storytime should include books that not only reflect the lives of our patrons and storytime participants, but also the wider world they move, learn and will someday work in."

The short article, 6 Myths About Diversity in Early Childhood Storytimes (and How We Can Read Diverse Books in Our Library’s Storytime Now), provides excellent suggestions and resources for diversifying storytimes with early learners.

Racial Equity in the Library: Diverse Collections, Programming, Resources

This article on building diverse collections, programming and resources is the second in a two-part series of articles focused on racial equity in the library. This is just one of many articles in our Access and Equity topic area on WebJunction.

Host a Human Library

Human Library at University of
Essex, courtesy of University of
Essex on Flickr | cc by 2.0

The idea of a Human Library, or Living Library, first emerged in 2000, in Copenhagen, Denmark, as a way "to help build social cohesion and a greater understanding for diversity in the community, locally and on a global level."

The Human Library concept is about circulating people as human "books" who are lent out to curious "readers" for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, as part of a community program. Readers are invited to ask their book questions to help broaden perceptions and "challenge our stereotypes and prejudices in a positive framework, where difficult questions are accepted, expected and appreciated."

"Books typically have titles that aim to represent a stigmatized or stereotyped group of people in the community. This could be a religious minority or sexual minority or other members of the community who are exposed to general misconceptions, stigma, stereotyping and or prejudice."

Many libraries around the world are using the Human Library model to create community dialogue. Here are a collection of webinars and other resources to explore: 

Growing Through Conflict in the Workplace

Image courtesy Frank M. Rafik on Flickr Flickr | cc by-nc-sa 2.0

Conflict isn't new to our work in service to the public, and based on the popularity of many of our courses and webinar archives related to personal and interpersonal communication and customer service, it's something that nearly everyone experiences. In the WebJunction webinar, Growing Through Conflict: Healthy Workplace Communication (webinar and recap), presented by WebJunction's own Anna Shelton, we learned tactics and skills for conflict by: 1) understanding ourselves, 2) understanding others, and 3) facilitating change in our environment.

As with any WebJunction learning, we encourage you to watch the webinar archive and then perhaps explore the topic as a team, using the learner guide to apply your learning together. Our support for each other in these confusing times is so important, and learning together can help generate even more positive channels for community understanding.

Thanks to all of you who work or volunteer in libraries of all types and sizes, on every continent, for supporting and sustaining communities of compassion.

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