The 3Ps of Creating a Welcoming Library
We live in a time where we are witnessing a dramatic increase in the number of racist, misogynist, religious and homophobic attacks on Americans, especially in public spaces. Yes, these things have always existed, but current research indicate that there is an increase in incidents and we should pay attention to this. As a public space, it is imperative that libraries examine best practices to make sure that we are creating a welcoming environment for all community members and that we are protecting the safety of our patrons. To do this, I suggest that we think about the 3 Ps in which we regularly engage to make sure that public libraries fulfill their mission.
The First P: Policies
Policies are those rules we put into place to help both patrons and staff understand what is expected on both sides to help create fair and equitable access to public library collections and services. Because of their role in service, it behooves us all to examine how our policies do or do not help us achieve the goal of being welcoming to all and creating a safe and inviting environment for the public, including the most marginalized members of our communities. Our policies are the foundation of creating a welcoming environment.
Acceptable Patron Behavior Policy
All libraries have an acceptable patron behavior policy which outlines what behaviors will not be tolerated in the library and what the consequences for unacceptable behavior will be. Many libraries adopt a one or two warning (strike) policy where you receive a warning and then you are asked to leave. This is a great policy when you consider things like talking loudly in the library or perhaps running or horseplay, but less so when you consider things like verbal or physical assault of staff or patrons. Verbal assaults, bullying, sexual harassment, cat calling, etc. are being talked about a lot right now in our culture and I think this is a great time for public libraries to re-examine how we respond to this behavior. I recommend a very direct statement that this behavior is not tolerated heren and immediate removal of offending patron. This behavior is very different then many other behaviors and can create an atmosphere of fear, shame and alienation for our patrons. I suggest re-writing acceptable patron behavior policies to make it clear that any intentional hate speech, verbal assaults, sexual harassment or bullying of patrons will not be acceptable and is grounds for immediate removal from the library.
What to Do about Slang?
Please note, this paragraph includes a discussion of some offensive terms and those terms are included.
There are a lot of commonly accepted terms that are frequently used that are, in fact, very offensive. For example, the term gypsy is actually a slur against the Romani people but it is used very frequently to mean someone who travels or wanders. Some version of the word retard, including the term itself, is also used frequently; such as when some calls a liberal opponent a libtard. Even the term lame, used to mean something that is not cool, is rooted in hateful speech against those with a disability that prevent walking. In truth, even telling someone to man up, or not to cry like a girl, is problematic. Many terms are used casually by people who have no understanding of what their origins are or the underlying hate and bias that they include. So what are library staff supposed to do when they encounter these moments?
I personally have been known to tell my teens why the speech is offensive and ask them not to use those terms anymore, with the understanding that if they do so moving forward, they will be asked to leave the library. This is where the grey areas of policy and procedures come in, where interpretation and implementation can be harder. If a patron complains, we have a responsibility to address the patron complaint, especially if it is a patron who feels threatened by the speech or behavior. But to be honest, I have heard groups of teens talking among themselves and have taken a moment to stop and tell them why this speech is harmful.
When we speak of patron complaints, I think it is important to separate intention from effect. A patron making hateful speech may deflect by saying they didn’t know, that’s not what they meant, or that they were joking. But I think it is important to look at what the actual effect of the behavior on other patrons is and the environment that it creates. If a patron is complaining about the speech or behavior of others, it is imperative that we address those complaints.
In 2018, librarianship is a profession that is still predominantly white and female. With that demographic comes a lot of unexamined internal bias. Couple this with the fact that a majority of books published are still by white authors and many book reviewers are still white, and you have the perfect storm for some incredibly unbalanced collections. Our collection development policies should be examined and written in a way that makes acquiring more balanced collections a priority. They should understand and use terms like own voices (books about marginalized groups written by a member of that group) and they should be so bold as to set measurable thresholds for acquisition. For example, we can ask that our staff examine each book order placed to make sure that it is not exclusively a reflection of the white, cishetero male landscape that is often most promoted in publishing. We’ll talk more about this in practices, the next P, but our collection development policies need to make it clear to staff and patrons that our radical inclusion and diverse representation are the goals of our collections. Having this goal written into our policies helps us make it clear to our staff and patrons that this is non-negotiable.
Marketing and Displays
In our marketing materials and in our public displays, their own form of marketing, we need to make sure that we are also making radical inclusion and diversity our goal. Putting these goals into policy form helps to make it clear that it is a priority for our libraries. A policy states, this is a thing we value and are going to do and we will hold each other accountable to make sure that it happens. Again, write your policy in ways that make it clear that this is goal you want your staff to reach. Give measurable output goals, such as each display can contain no more than 50% of titles authored by traditional white, cishetero Christian male authors.
The Second P: Practices
If policies are the foundation, then our practices, or how we execute those policies, are the next important step. If a policy says this is what we value and what we are going to do, it is our practices that help us evaluate and determine whether or not we are effectively fulfilling those promises that we made in our policies. Examining our practices means we have to evaluate our day to day operations to make sure we are doing what we said we were going to do. Our daily practices should prove that we are honoring our policies.
Train Your Staff, And Then Train Them Again
Policies are meaningless if we don’t communicate them effectively to staff and tell them how we want them to implement those policies in our day to day operations. This means we need to have effective – and ongoing – training. If in our policy we identify harassment of other patrons as an unacceptable behavior, we have to train our staff how to handle these incidents when they occur. And, most importantly, we have to let them know and trust that management and administration will back them up when they implement the policies we have put into place. All staff have to be on the same page when it comes to policy interpretation and implementation or else it all breaks down.
I am constantly learning the various sayings, stereotypes and every day expressions that I have internalized that are, in fact, often harmful to others. As a child of the 80s, I frequently used the term lame for something that I thought was absurd or stupid. Now that I understand the root of the expression, I no longer do. I also no longer refer to ideas or people as crazy or unhinged or hysterical. Just the other day I read that the term sleepy eyed is rooted in anti-semitism. So we can not expect our staff to know and recognize all the various ways that we may unintentionally being harming our patrons. We can, however, be in the process of continually training our staff to recognize biased language and ask them to not use it once we have learned about it.
This ongoing training needs to happen because our front line staff our the face of our libraries. They are who our patrons see and interact with when they come into the library. We must have high expectations for our staff about what is and is not acceptable behavior. We also have to help them have the confidence to respond when patrons complain about the behavior of others. This is about training, empowering, and trusting our staff. And then holding them accountable. It’s an ongoing process because who we are, what we know, and how that informs library policy and procedures is always changing.
I once worked for a library system that gave its staff scripts to use when a new policy was being introduced or something big was happening culturally so that the staff knew what they could and could not say, at what level they could engage, and who to refer a situation to if it wasn’t addressed by the script. I can not recommend this practice highly enough. For example, this library system dramatically changed some of its circulation practices which they knew would upset some patrons, so they gave the staff very specific language to use when patrons complained about why the library was making the change. In comparison, at another library system in which I worked, the decision was made to interfile the paperbacks with the hardbacks because of space. This library system didn’t talk about it with staff and gave no real reasoning, so when the patrons complained, you could often hear staff saying, “yeah we hate it too and we don’t know why they did it.” There was no staff buy in and no staff training, which meant the staff were left to handle patron complaints on their own and it did not go well.
I have worked in libraries long enough that I am sad to say that I have occasionally heard library staff engage in hateful speech with patrons. One of the communities I worked in had a large influx of Hispanic residents and they started a Spanish language collection, the staff at this library really could have benefited from having clear talking points to help explain to the public what the reasoning and purpose of this collection was. My youngest once went through a stage where she sang this annoying song incessantly, out of desperation I finally forbid her to sing it. She looked me square in the face and said, “you can’t control what I think in my head.” She was absolutely correct. This is also true of our library staff, we can not make them less inwardly biased or racist if that is their personally philosophy, but we can 100% demand that when they are working for the library that they treat every patron, every piece of material, and every service without bias and to hold them accountable if they do. Let your staff know what your library values, how they are to help the library achieve it, give them the training and the tools they need to be successful, and then hold them accountable.
Collection Diversity Audits
If our collection development policies make it clear that diversity, or real world representation, is a goal, then we need to have practices that help us make sure we are achieving this goal. We can do things like periodic diversity audits to make sure our collections are inclusive. We can do the same for each book order we place. Take a moment when doing acquisitions to examine the make up of the books and the authors on your book orders and in your collection to make sure that it is not an exclusively or even predominantly white cishetero Christian male. As you develop a technique that works best for you, this will become second nature and less time consuming, but we owe it to our communities to make sure that we are building the best and most authentic collections possible to make sure that they can choose to read more fully about the world.
Marketing and Display Audits
This practice should also be applied to our marketing and displays. Have staff members who do displays occasionally make a list of what materials they put on display and ask them to examine the breakdown of that display. Were there diverse titles from diverse authors included? Make it a standard practice to take a picture of each display (and then keep a past displays notebook) so you can see what types of displays you are doing and make adjustments moving forward. Examine a year’s worth of displays and ask yourself, what topics did we cover? Did we only include diverse titles during months like Black History Month? Then, set a display schedule for the next year that is more intentionally inclusive. With a little bit of evaluation and planning, we can create more inclusive and representative displays, create a more welcoming environment, AND increase circulation.
For the love of all that we hold dear, please examine each and every public display, including outside art and poetry displays, to make sure they are not creating a hostile space for any patron. What we choose to put on display sends a message, and it gives the appearance that the library condones the messaging. Putting a book on a shelf is quite different from putting it on display in spaces that a patron can’t escape being subjected to.
These same evaluation questions should be considered when you create your marketing materials. Library brochures, annual reports, and social media posts should be representative. Even if the statistics say you live in a primarily white community – my local community is 97% white – we need to make sure that our marketing materials are diverse and warm and welcoming. While 97% of my community may be white, that means that 3% of it is not and that 3% deserves to be represented as well.
The Third P: Patrons
Many people think that libraries are about books, but the truth is libraries are about people, about the communities we serve, and books are just one of the tools we use to do so. Our primary mission is to make our communities better by providing access to the tools they need for education, recreation and personal and community development; books are just one of the many tools that we offer to help achieve this goal. So if our libraries are really about community and the people in the community, then we have an obligation to examine what we are doing to enhance the lives of every single member of our communities.
Our Goal: Create a welcoming environment
The primary goal of a public library is to create a welcoming environment so that every community member feels safe and valued and can, in fact, access the various resources that we provide. Our goal is to provide access, to take away access barriers, and one of those access barriers must involve us examining our environments to make sure that every community member feels welcomed. Any misstep on our part can alienate various community members, and then we have created a barrier to access.
Some of our community members have what they perceive to be as competing interests. For example, more conservative Christian communities object to the normalization and acceptance of the GLBTQIA+ community. In contrast, GLBTQIA+ members of the community want to be able to read about people just like them in the books that they read. Christian conservatives would argue that including GLBTQIA+ books in our collections are hostile to them, but I would argue that this is not the case because they have the choice to read or not read those books and if we are doing our jobs correctly, there are plenty of other materials for them to select. But if we fail to purchase and include GLBQTQIA+ books in our collections because of personal bias or community pressure from one group, then we are failing to serve a portion of our public by failing to provide them access to materials that are right for them. This is true of Muslim materials, atheist materials, etc. Creating a welcoming environment means that every member of our community should be able to find something that represents them on our shelves and in our collections, the corollary is that every member of our community will also be able to find something that they find objectionable. Providing access and breaking down those barriers to access means that we are all inclusive in our collection development policies and allow our patrons to select the materials are right for them.
When our patrons have competing interests, I think it is important that we our determining factors are 1) choice, 2) inclusion and 3) safety. All patrons should have choices, which means we must support inclusion. And at the end of the day, we must also guarantee our patrons safety. We build inclusive collections and present inclusive services, we allow our patrons to use those in the ways that are best for them, and work to guarantee the physical safety of each patron coming into our library space. It’s true that we can not ultimately guarantee a patrons safety because we can’t predict or control the actions of other patrons, but we can guarantee our patrons that if something happens we will do our best to respond swiftly and fairly.
Creating a welcoming environment means that we put faces and families of all kinds front and center in our marketing materials. It means that we make sure that our displays contain books by a wide variety of authors on a wide variety of subjects. It means putting up signage that expressly communicates to our public that every person is welcome regardless of race, gender, orientation or belief. It means that we are communicating in both implicit and explicit ways that all are welcome in our spaces.
Consistently enforce the rules, so that staff and patrons all clearly understand what is expected of them. Address inappropriate behavior, ask patrons who are clearly and maliciously attacking other patrons to leave immediately. Make acceptable behaviors clear and post them where all can clearly see. Create welcoming signage. Make it clear to patrons that all patrons are welcomed in the library. Make this clear in explicit ways – signage, policies – and implicit ways – by creating diverse marketing materials, displays and collections.
A public library is a community organization. We have to do the work to make sure that we are welcoming to every member of our community.
Filed under: Professional Development
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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