Early Lessons from the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Collections Committee at Providence Public Library: The Work So Far

By: Mireille Stürmann, Teen Librarian, Providence Public Library; Kate Aubin, Teen Educator, Providence Public Library; Jordan Goffin, Head Curator of Collections, Providence Public Library; Janaya Kizzie, Events Coordinator, Providence Public Library; Jade Lopez, Information Services Specialist, Providence Public Library; Clara Mendonca, Information Services Librarian, Providence Public Library; Beatrice Pulliam, Director of Technology & Information Services, Providence Public Library

This post is a continuation of an earlier post: Early Lessons from the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Collections Committee at Providence Public Library: Forming the Committee.

In 2020, as part of a new strategic plan, Providence Public Library (PPL) made a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and a portion of the overall collections budget was earmarked for improving the Library’s overall collections. In September of 2020, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Collections Committee was formed to identify the best ways to use and distribute those funds. This task will run through May 2021, but the hope is that the committee’s work will continue even after the funds are spent, as this endeavor is still a work in progress with many end results to come.

Mapping the landscape and evaluating the current collection

Providence Public Library is a 145-year-old nonprofit, free public library located in Providence, Rhode Island, the capital and largest city in the state, with nearly 180,000 residents. Providence is a diverse community, with around 43% of residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino (Census terms), 33% identifying as white (not Hispanic or Latino), 16.8% identifying as Black or African American, and 6% identifying as Asian.

At the start of the process, as the committee worked to create a plan of action, there were two guiding questions that kept coming up in discussions:

  • How will we decide which areas of our collection need immediate and long-term improvement? 
  • What existing DEI work is already happening elsewhere in the Library and in our community?

We knew we would need to evaluate the existing collection in order to see what areas were in need of the most immediate improvement and that in order to build a collection that is a better reflection of the makeup and information needs of the community, we would need to involve the community. The committee worked to create a survey to gather information on the collection from the perspective of Rhode Island residents. The committee also did a dive into Sierra’s create lists function, in order to pull data about specific areas of the collection and then analyze that data in Tableau. Currently, the survey is being shared with the community in English and Spanish and the collection analysis will take place in February and March.

Library common area

In addition to the survey, one committee member put out a call to collect all DEI-related projects and programs underway at PPL and in the community. Incorporating lessons learned from DEI work that had already taken place was a big help to committee efforts. For example, an earlier survey administered by PPL when forming a new strategic plan returned answers from largely wealthy, white, older women.

The committee was able to form a survey dissemination plan that hopes to avoid this same outcome. Similarly, the discussion of surveys that ask people to identify gender and race led to an interesting discussion about whether or not to use census identities or to leave those questions open-ended. By leaving those questions open-ended and allowing patrons to truly self-identify, we believe we have created a more inclusive survey and a more inviting experience for all members of the community.

Training and support are necessary for DEI work

In addition to the two questions above, a third question emerged that runs through all DEI work: How can we better prepare ourselves and other staff for carrying out this work?

In any work that seeks to dismantle the systems of racism and privilege, it’s important to take time to examine our individual experiences and the approaches around our intention. Though the diversity of our community is reflected in the patrons we serve, it is not equally reflected in the staff who deliver those services and programs. To undertake this work, we knew we would need to do some self-work as well and identify training opportunities to share with others.

Two of us have completed the Project Ready curriculum and several of us have attended trainings with the Racial Equity Institute. When these trainings were made available again, the rest of the group signed up and participated. One member completed School Library Journal’s Equity in Action: Building Diverse Collections webinar. Most of us participated in a Staff Learning Circle based on the New York Times 1619 Project. Notes and resources from all trainings and just day to day activities are shared among the group in Google Hangouts and with the broader Collections Committee during bimonthly meetings.

In preparation for Learning Circles on talking about race that will be held in the Rhode Island library community in the spring, Library staff will also lead cohorts through Learning Circle Facilitator training in partnership with the Rhode Island Library Association and P2PU.org. As additional trainings and learning experiences are made available, they are shared out with the larger collections committee. These trainings and learning opportunities have helped us improve at this work and do a better job for each other and our communities.

Looking forward

The committee held its first meeting of the new year in January, and we are focused on disseminating the community survey and identifying the areas of the collection for which the funds will be used. We will be paying particular attention to the diversity of the existing collection and also the opportunity to use an equity lens to elevate the voices of disadvantaged groups. Once these areas are identified, we will begin ordering materials in March.

Looking beyond the conclusion of this project, the committee will continue to identify gaps and areas of need and work to meet those needs in the best ways possible. We will document our processes and share them out with the greater library community.

Ultimately, we hope that our work will contribute to the broader DEI efforts of our library and our community and that one day the Library’s collections and collecting processes will have assimilated this work into the natural order of things.