Meeting Community Needs
This section discusses the intersections of library values, resources, and community members’ interests, as well as how staff may actively make decisions that reflect community needs and values of the field. Although the ALA provides countless best practices on programming, collection, meeting rooms, and displays, libraries are local institutions and each one makes policies and procedures that fit the specific needs and resources of their communities. The unique context of each library and community will inform the ways in which the values of equity, diversity, inclusion, and intellectual freedom are reflected in the library’s materials and services.
Examples of questions asked of ALA
These scenarios can help libraries start conversations around collection development, programming, and patron services as these areas relate to creating inclusive and community-centered environments. Colleagues can offer varying points of view and express themselves freely in conversation, reflecting on the ways in which different actions may center marginalized voices or reinforce existing privileges in their specific communities and society at large.
- In an effort to consider a balanced approach to collection development, should libraries go out of their way to acquire potentially controversial titles?
- How should library staff address donations of materials we find offensive or inaccurate?
- Do we have to offer a program or a display to counterbalance every issue we advocate for?
- Should I provide contact information for hate groups if requested by a patron? Is it collaborating with a terrorist group?
Points for consideration
Meeting community needs is possible when the library identifies who constitutes the community. There are multiple ways to start to gain a holistic understanding of who comprises a library’s community, including demographic data, informal interactions with patrons, local and alternative news sources, and geographically-targeted social media groups. However, libraries should not feel restricted to what these sources may show, using them instead as an inspiration for creative and thoughtful starting points. Libraries should consider community outreach strategies and whose opinions are being heard, and whose knowledge is valued, as well as identify community leaders and local groups to initiate conversations about their experiences and library expectations.
A way to make the library more inviting is to understand that not everyone comes from the same level of privilege and/or oppression — instead, intersectionality allows us to all interact with the world differently and have different hardships and advantages related to our identities. Ways to acknowledge the intersectionality of staff and patrons include the following:
- Adding pronouns to staff name tags (she/her/hers, they/them/theirs, etc.)
- Displaying materials related to social movements (Black Lives Matter, Women’s March, etc.)
- Creating identity displays (National Hispanic Heritage Month, LGBTQ+ Pride Month, Black History Month, etc.)
- Providing resources for staff/patrons who have visible and non-visible disabilities
- Providing programming surrounding identities (mental illnesses, cultural, sexuality, etc.)
As stated in “Diversity in Collection Development: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” “Librarians have an obligation to select and support access to content on all subjects that meet, as closely as possible, the needs, interests, and abilities of all persons in the community the library serves.” Libraries should be guided by their collection policies and consider community needs when determining what materials will be acquired. But additionally they need to reflect the greater global environment to fully serve an informed citizenry.
Collection development is more about the intentional effort to add diverse materials, rather than reach an arbitrary quota within the collection. There is significant privilege that comes with the position of a selector in a library. Collection development cannot and does not live in a vacuum. It requires thoughtful exploration of sources beyond one’s own identity. Those who have the decision-making authority to choose which items will be added to a library collection have an important role in setting guidelines for whose stories are heard, and have agency in supporting voices that are not traditionally included. To meet community needs, ALA believes there is importance and urgency in ensuring that the stories, knowledge, and representation of historically marginalized groups — including communities of color, LGBTQ+ communities, people with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness, and refugees and immigrants, among others — are intentionally sought out and incorporated.
As stated in “Library-Initiated Programs as a Resource: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” “Library-initiated programs utilize library staff expertise about community interests, collections, services, and facilities to provide access to information and information resources.” Many libraries use programs to further promote education and tolerance. It is important that library staff think through and set a tone for programs — especially programs that may be potentially controversial — and establish a welcoming, respectful setting that promotes thoughtful and meaningful conversation. “Responding to and Preparing for Controversial Programs and Speakers Q&A,” written by the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, provides guidelines for hosting and preparing for potentially controversial events. Programs featuring topics or speakers from those in the community who historically have been underrepresented in these spaces is a proactive strategy for amplifying diverse voices.
Furthermore, the interpretation states, “Library-initiated programs support the mission of the library by providing users with additional opportunities for information, education, and recreation.” The key term here is “additional.” Libraries are encouraged to provide a variety of ideas and perspectives, but it would be unreasonable to expect a counterbalance to every issue.
Library programs, displays, and collections revolve around community interest. When someone complains about library events, services, or materials, initiate a discussion that recognizes their concerns and acknowledges the role of libraries. If the matter isn’t resolved, consult the institution’s policies on how to proceed. It is a highly recommended best practice to adopt and review policies routinely. Auditing policies can ensure that the institution is inclusive of the wide variety of library resources offered and the changing landscape of users. There is guidance provided on policies in the Resources for Further Development section.
Self-censorship can be difficult to identify, and can occur when weeding collections, purchasing materials, or reviewing donations. The “Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, & Academic Libraries” states that an optimal library collection would be “reviewed on a consistent basis for accuracy, currency, usage, diversity, and subject area gaps.” Libraries demonstrate the value of their community by honestly reflecting on their bias and striving to serve users better with a broader range of viewpoints that aren’t censored. Library staff can show their trust in library users by allowing them to think for themselves and determine what information and reading choices are best for them and their families. Honest and frank discussions about tough topics in collections, programs, and resources ultimately benefit communities.
Supporting library staff
In determining what collections or programs are represented in the library, administrators and managers should seek input from staff who may not typically be in these roles and provide opportunities for those who have an interest to get involved. Intentionally and genuinely bringing staff together is one way to highlight various communities and perspectives, but care must be taken so as not to tokenize staff of minority or marginalized communities. While a staff member may identify with a particular community, it does not mean that they should be assumed to be or have to act as an “expert” on the topic within their work environment. Taking these proactive steps frequently can create a sustained library culture where opinions are respected and viewpoints are represented.
When soliciting input or feedback from staff on a particular collection or program, library workers should do their due diligence by thoughtfully researching the community/identity being represented, before going to those within that community for feedback. Those within the dominant group or those who have privileged identities should attempt to shoulder the labor in those beginning stages, and not solely rely on colleagues of marginalized communities to do the work of educating all staff.
Supporting staff also means taking a critical lens to recruitment and retention efforts within the library. Tools like the Government Alliance on Race & Equity’s issue brief on public libraries and the Association of Research Libraries’ SPEC Kit on diversity and inclusion include case studies, representative documents, and strategies from the field that libraries may put into practice to take action on increasing diversity in their institutions.
As library staff members are also part of the community, library workers can be the target of hate speech or harassment. Library behavior policies may provide support and empower staff to take action when these situations occur, but creating a welcoming work environment and checking in with staff after incidents is also crucial, as discussed in the previous sections.