Best Practices for Cultural Programming

By Michael Mungin

One of the most lively and refreshing sessions I attended at ALA Annual this year was the Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table-sponsored (EMIERT) program entitled “Cultural Programming: How to Achieve Meaningful Dialogue at Your Library.” I admit I initially approached this program with some trepidation for two reasons. First, the session description left it unclear in my mind whether the subject matter could feasibly be applied to my work in an academic library. Second, it was possible that the presenters would be “preaching to the choir”, because librarians, in my experience, are generally keenly aware of cultural and diversity issues, and the session would undoubtedly draw those librarians who are most interested in such issues. I was pleasantly surprised to find that neither of my concerns came to fruition. The session provided a great deal of useful information and valuable perspectives on how to put on cultural programming, including the myriad issues one must consider in order to properly and respectfully conduct such programming. New librarians seeking to organize and put on programs aimed at diverse populations should take these lessons into account at an early planning stage so you can avoid learning them from awkward missteps.

The first speaker was a delightfully witty and passionate librarian from the Boulder Public Library system named Ghada El Turk. She made many excellent points, such as warning against being unnecessarily proactive with good but misguided intentions. She emphasized trying to get a complete picture of how a cultural event will be perceived in communities and what the communities’ needs and desires really are. As an example, she cited communities that organize semi-private, cultural events. Such events would certainly be interesting for people to learn about through a library program, but it could be perceived as disrespectful for the library to claim the event for the community at large or to use the event as an outreach opportunity without permission. She also emphasized the importance of getting help from the community when necessary. For instance, she had been asked many times to coordinate the library’s Cinco de Mayo celebration, about which she had mixed feelings. However, she agreed, because there was a regular volunteer with more knowledge of Cinco de Mayo who could provide guidance. Otherwise the event could easily have misrepresented aspects of the culture. Her third major point was that librarians should develop programs that reach out to as many communities as possible. I think most of us understand this intuitively, but it can be difficult to implement. This is an instance where the “dialogue” from the presentation’s title can play out. Ghada presented an excellent example of a cooking program her library sponsored where different cultures and generations cooked together and learned about differences in cooking techniques. The program was very entertaining for participants and contributed to the development of a community rapport.

The second speaker, Tess Tobin, continued with the theme of bringing communities together. She discussed the efforts of EMIERT to bring the work of all the different ethnic caucuses together in one place to provide easier access to resources for librarians looking to put on cultural programming and address diversity issues. Hopefully, this will provide new librarians with a simple place to find ideas and get started. It is an exciting, ambitious, and somewhat overdue, plan that will hopefully be completed in the near future.

Finally, we heard from Marjorie Lear, the Multicultural Outreach Librarian for Palm Beach County. She provided a different perspective than the previous speakers, simply because she was younger and newer to the profession. This worked out well for me, being in a similar position, because Marjorie provided a road map for those of us who find the idea of planning multicultural programs overwhelming. She strongly emphasized background research. Getting to know one’s community is of the utmost importance, and she prepared by researching local demographics, religious institutions, community centers, schools, etc. Again, collaboration with existing community groups was the foundation for her most successful programs. She also advocated that libraries establish a “library ambassador,” someone who makes a concerted effort to connect with different institutions in a community, promote the library, and gain feedback.

This program provided excellent perspectives and fascinating opinions about putting on multicultural programming at a library. One of the interesting things about the annual conference is the convergence of librarians from so many different backgrounds and fields. Sometimes it can be frustrating to attend a session that sounds interesting on paper but ultimately is not very relevant to your work. However, there are just as many programs that seem only indirectly related to your work,  but if you take a chance and attend them, you get presentation that stretches your thinking and leaves you bursting with ideas.