It is Banned Books Week again (a.k.a. Freedom to Read Week). I’m going to quote from Rob’s BBW/FtRW post from the Robbins Library blog:
During Banned Books Week, we celebrate the freedom to read. As you can imagine, this is most librarians’ favorite theme week; after all, as our code of ethics states, “We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.” But you don’t have to be a librarian to enjoy Banned Books Week – all you have to do is read!
(The word “Banned” is in quotation marks in the title of this post because the name “Banned Books Week” is a bit of a misnomer. First, we celebrate Banned Books Week not because we like or support books being banned – we celebrate to support intellectual freedom and the freedom to read whatever you want. Second, it’s now much more common for books to be challenged than actually banned, thanks to the efforts of teachers, librarians, and other supporters of the freedom to read. You can read a bit more about Banned Books Week here (or in our blog archives here) and check out a few lists of books that have been banned or challenged here & here.)
They link to a few of my Banned Books Week posts for the blog from past years, as well as the ALA site. Here are ALA’s infographics for this year:
There is a difference between a challenge and a ban; there are many more challenges than bans. And just because a book is removed from one library, that doesn’t mean it’s removed from all of them, or unavailable at bookstores or online. But you’ll notice that almost all of these titles are children’s or teen books, and kids don’t always have options beyond their school library (if they’re lucky enough to have a school library and librarian) or their local public library. If a book is removed from those places, it’s effectively unavailable for that kid.
It’s easy enough – for many of us pro-intellectual freedom types, at least – to see a story like the recent one from Nashville, Tennessee, where a Catholic school banned the Harry Potter series, and rail against it. Most librarians – and plenty of teachers and parents – believe that while parents do have the right to decide what their own children can and can’t read, they do NOT have the right to decide that a book should be unavailable for everyone.
However, there’s a subtler kind of censorship that I see a lot of, and I’m sure I’ll have moments where I wrestle with myself about this as well: the “is my kid ready for this yet?” question. Parents with eager, advanced readers, especially, see their kids racing through all the chapter books and middle grade novels and into the teen section. They’re concerned that their readers will encounter bad language, violence, sex, drugs (maybe even rock ‘n’ roll), etc.
So far, I’ve developed four responses to this: one, of course, is to talk with the parent (and the kid!) about the books they’ve liked, and suggest any others I can think of or find along those same lines, without going into more mature territory. Two is to suggest to the parent that they read the book too (either before the kid does, or at the same time, or after), so they’re prepared to talk about anything that concerns either of them. Three, if a kid is reading way above their age level (content-wise), they will likely either put the book down, or some things will just sail over their heads; they’ll take something away from the book, but they won’t understand it on every level, and that’s okay. Four, books are the safest places to encounter scary things. Plenty of fantasy and sci-fi scenarios won’t happen in real life (probably, hopefully), but realistic fiction that deals with death, divorce, poverty, bullying, mental health issues, violence, sexual assault, and any of the multitude of things that can and do go wrong in our world…those things happen. If they don’t happen to you, then knowing about them can build empathy for others; if they do happen to you, you know you’re not alone.
A final note: one other way that adults censor kids’ reading is by designating “girl books” and “boy books.” Here, I’m going to turn it over to author Shannon Hale:
Stories make us human. We form bonds by swapping personal stories with others, and reading fiction is a deeply immersive exercise in empathy.
So, what happens to a culture that encourages girls to read books about boys but shoos boys away from reading books about girls?
11:45am “Advocacy for Access and Equity to Massachusetts School Libraries,” Greg Pronevitz, James Lonergan, Robin Cicchetti (Concord-Carlisle Regional High School)
Greg Pronevitz (formerly of MLS, currently a consultant) introduced this session off by acknowledging the great impact of Judi Paradis, a school librarian and advocate for school libraries. Judi was instrumental in the formation of the Legislative Special Commission on School Library Services in Massachusetts, which produced the report The Massachusetts School Library Study: Equity and Access for Students in the Commonwealth. “This study is a result of her efforts,” Pronevitz said.
The report concluded that there is a lack of equity in Massachusetts schools. In its long-range action plan to build equity, it suggests hiring someone at DESE (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) to manage school library services; at present, it isn’t even possible to get a complete count of the number of schools that have libraries (let alone librarians, book budgets, and appropriate technology). A possible partnership between DESE and MBLC could conduct a census of school libraries, librarians, and services. School libraries should also be included in ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) funding. The report also recommends that the state set regulatory minimum standards, to ensure at least some level of equity and access for students, whether they’re in rural, suburban, or urban districts.
James Lonergan from MBLC (Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners) mentioned a number of other possible partnerships and stakeholders, including COSLA, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, EveryLibrary, and MLA. MBLC already supports school libraries through LSTA grants, the Commonwealth Catalog, and access to statewide databases; in fact, schools account for two-thirds of the use of state databases – would DESE consider contributing?
Robin Cicchetti, Head Librarian at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School and one of the authors of the Equity and Access study, spoke about the important takeaways from the school library impact studies:
A strong school library program (SLP) leads to higher overall test scores
Access to better libraries means higher reading scores
School librarians provide much more than access to books
High levels of poverty mean little access to books
Access to books appears to offset the impact of poverty
Economically disadvantaged children benefit at a higher rate
Unlike a classroom teacher, a school librarian can have a relationship with an elementary student for six years (in a K-5 school), getting to know their interests and preferences and helping them find the right books and other resources for them. Because many schools have lost their librarians due to budget cuts, nearly a whole generation of students (and teachers) does not know what a librarian can offer – “And you don’t know what you don’t have.”
“Neutrality replicates existing oppression. Being true to our professional core values around access, diversity, and social responsibility requires finding ways to make historically marginalized members of our communities feel that they belong in our libraries and are reflected in our collections, staffing, and services.” -Meredith Farkas
Some questions that arose during the session (from the speakers and the audience) included: Are libraries ever really neutral? How do we define “neutral”? What does that mean in practice? What/who are we including/excluding? Our libraries reflect our communities; how do we make sure our libraries reflect everyone in our community? Do all library users feel safe? What voices do we support and amplify?
Are libraries neutral, can we be neutral, should we be neutral? (Remember, a position of neutrality doesn’t necessarily mean an outcome of neutrality.) As information professionals, do we want to promote/defend intellectual freedom when it comes at the cost of social responsibility? What are the impacts of intellectual freedom? Which voices will be limited, which will be amplified? If access to information is a human right, should the education to be able to evaluate information be a human right also (information literacy)?
It was pointed out that freedom of speech is a “negative right” (i.e., “Congress shall pass no law…”). Government cannot get in the way of freedom of speech, but it doesn’t have to promote it either.
The session closed with Saunders’ reference to Dante’s Inferno, in which neutrality was found to be “not just unethical, but damning.”
Brennan brought plenty of energy and enthusiasm to this session, which wasn’t quite what I expected but had an important core point: Identify your “tribe” (or team, or pack), what they need to know, and what you can learn from them. There are a couple “tribes”: one is library staff, especially those who may be working only a few hours a week in the children’s department and may feel especially overwhelmed and underprepared to answer specific questions about levels from kids, parents, teachers, and caregivers. Make sure everyone who works in the children’s department feels comfortable answering those questions, or knows where to find the information. (This might be preparing a binder full of pathfinders, posting the various levels and their grade equivalents and some representative books, or whatever else works for you and your staff.)
Another “tribe” includes those who come into the children’s department and may have knowledge to share with you: parents, teachers, caregivers, coaches, kids, siblings, peers, librarians. Find out what the schools are using, talk to teachers (especially if they have very specific requirements). People are usually happy to share what they know, what they like, and what they don’t like.
Brennan shared two readers’ advisory tips that I liked: one was simply asking the kid to give a thumbs-up/thumbs-down when you show them or tell them about a book. This saves them from talking if they’re shy, but quickly allows you to gauge their interest and move on. Another strategy involves tiny colored post-it notes, which she sticks on/near books in the stacks so kids can browse without a librarian hovering; if it’s busy, you might use different colors for different kids.
“Everyone deserves to be trained in kid’s services, but not everyone is” – Brennan gave an overview of the areas of the library (fiction/nonfiction, picture books, early readers, chapter books) and the different levels (Lexile, Fountas & Pinnell, DRA). Kids need books at their “level” to learn certain skills and grow as a reader, but can “reach” for books they’re interested in and are motivated to read. She is a big fan of the NoveList K-8 database, which can be a useful tool for those who aren’t as familiar with children’s books.
Brennan is passionate about children’s services and early literacy in particular; to that end, she has developed backpack kits that kids can check out for pre-K, toddlers, and infants. It’s never too early to start reading together; “families that read together achieve together.”
Librarians can “model it”: be open, be cool, be confident, be fun. Encourage a growth mindset with a “Let’s find out together” approach. Remember that “There’s no more important library patron than our youth,” and “The windows and mirrors you have as a kid literally shape the rest of your life.”
The Massachusetts Library Association’s annual conference theme this year is “the greatest job on earth.” And I guess we can claim that, because a quick internet search shows there’s not a lot of consensus on the issue. Moving on!
The keynote speaker was Dr. Deborah L. Plummer, Vice Chancellor and Chief Diversity Officer at UMass Medical School and UMass Memorial and author; her presentation was called “Radical Respect in Troubling Times,” and it was followed by a “Communicating Across Differences Workshop.” Plummer spoke about how to turn “Us and Them into We” through conversation – and not just conversation with the people you already agree with. It’s easy to respect people who look / think / talk / behave / worship / vote like you; it takes work to get out of your echo chamber. But bumping up against difference is how we learn about others and about our own identities.
The paradox of diversity, said Plummer, is that (1) we are unique and like no one else (personality); (2) we’re each like some other people (similar backgrounds, views, genes, etc.); (3) we’re all like everyone else (i.e., human). And we don’t each have one identity; we have multiple and intersecting identities. We may emphasize or project one or another of these depending who we’re with. “Identity pulling” is okay if you’re the one choosing to do it, but it’s not okay for one person to do it for someone else.
Plummer gave the attendees strategies for successful “bumping”: (1) Focus on being respectful rather than being right; (2) Check your assumptions, and de-escalate if necessary by saying something like “I’m sorry, I made an assumption”; (3) Mirror the other person’s style by “grabbing their handle” – figure out if they are coming from the head, the heart, or the gut/soul; (4) “Take a helicopter ride” and observe from a distance if the other person doesn’t have the capacity to change their viewpoint or behavior.
Plummer also listed her three components of radical respect:
Admiration: “Wouldn’t it be great if we treated differences like a challenge instead of a threat?” (We have different physiological responses to these: we react to a challenge with adrenalin, and to a threat with cortisol.)
Civility: Listen for understanding, rather than for rebuttal
Dignity: Honor that needs and concerns exist. Where do they come from?
There was a break after the keynote, and then the next set of morning sessions. I chose to stay with Plummer for the “Communicating Across Differences Workshop,” which included some of the same material as her keynote with additional exercises and examples, starting with a few of the classic Psych 101 images to demonstrate our ability to make perceptual shifts. You can’t actually hold multiple realities or perspectives at once, but you can shift back and forth between them – and if you don’t see another reality on your own, sometimes you can once someone points it out to you. (Ah, see what she did there? Clever.)
In this session, Plummer spoke about the traditional approach to difference compared to the contemporary one, and used an analogy of an hourglass: If the sand in the top is the dominant culture (white, male, Christian, healthy and able-bodied, adult, heterosexual, upper-class, educated), those on top are afraid of simply flipping the hourglass; “we have a better chance for creating equity if we tip the hourglass on its side.”
Communicating successfully across differences is tricky; Plummer’s “Intention vs. Impact” slide shows how a sender’s intended message might impact a receiver. If the impact is positive, we have effective communication; if it’s negative, we need to acknowledge and clarify. Intent and impact are both important; one of Plummer’s examples was a Black Lives Matter display. Some people thought it was an anti-police message, which wasn’t exactly the sender’s intended meaning (it was more like, Black Lives Matter too).
Following this slide was one with a number of conversational “bounce backs,” ways to recover and things to say when a conversation goes wrong, such as “Help me to understand…” and “My experience has been…” Everyone will make mistakes, and these can help move the conversation forward if done with a degree of cultural humility and commitment to learning.
Next was a “diversity petal” exercise: we identified the dominant or “up” identities for race, gender, age, mental/physical ability, sexual orientation, class, education, and religion and then our own identities within each category, then placed a check mark next to any category where our own identity matched the dominant one. Plummer pointed out that marginalized people know more about the dominant culture; part of privilege is not having to learn about how life is for others. “Black people know a lot more about white people than white people know about Black people. Women know a lot more about men than men know about women. People who have a disability know a lot more about the world that’s designed for people who are healthy and able.”
We came back to the “multiple realities” images to hammer home the point that just because you don’t see (or experience) something doesn’t mean that it isn’t there (or doesn’t exist). Plummer is a champion of cross-racial friendships (Some Of My FriendsAre…), and pointed out how going through life with people who are different than you can highlight the ways in which you experience the world differently (or ways in which the world treats you differently).
All of this is ongoing; no one has “arrived,” but we can commit to continuing the conversation.
To Be Continued (more sessions from Monday, and sessions – and a presentation library website usability testing – on Wednesday)
Tuesday, 9am: ALA President Loida Garcia-Febo’s “Big Ideas” Talk: “Libraries = Strong Communities”
ALA President Loida Garcia-Febo’s speech put libraries at the center of their communities, and gave examples of the many different ways libraries serve their communities, from the usual (“When it comes to connecting people to information, librarians do it better than anyone…We promote reading, lifelong learning skills, equal access to information for ALL”) to the unusual (one library has partnered with a hospital so that every time a baby is born there, the mother can push a button and a gong rings in the library to announce the birth).
Garcia-Febo showed a slide of the text of Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” She said, “Access to information is at the core of what librarians do” – and access to information leads to education, citizen engagement, and empowerment….Libraries play a critical role in leveling the playing field.”
She concluded, “We are all creating the library of the future every day. We need to continue working with community members and local organizations….Libraries are the cornerstones of democracy….Information is a human right.”
Additional resources with links, and tweets below:
Tuesday, 11am: Free Speech & Libraries, Edward Fitzpatrick
Much of the content of Ed Fitzpatrick’s talk can be found in his October 2017 Providence Journal article, “Nation needs First Amendment refresher course.” The roomful of librarians (unsurprisingly) did much better than the national average at identifying the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment, and after the talk there was some articulate pushback on the pithy idea that “The best answer to hate speech is great speech.”
A particular dilemma faced in libraries centers around our public meeting rooms. If they are open to all, does that mean we must allow hate groups such as the KKK to use them? A July 2018 feature in School Library Journal, updated with comments by Jamie LaRue and a sidebar by Martin Gardnar, “Free Speech Debate Erupts with ALA’s Inclusion of Hate Groups in Revision of Bill of Rights Interpretation,” summarizes the issue neatly. In short, the ALA’s answer is yes. (So is Ed Fitzpatrick’s: ““When you’re a public library, you’re committed to that public experiment…It doesn’t mean the library is supporting or welcoming these groups or advocating for them.”) But there are other things libraries can do to show that we don’t agree with hate speech or hate groups. However, no matter how inclusive our collections, how welcoming our displays, or how diverse our events, patrons who are the target of such hate groups may well feel threatened and unsafe in the library.
Fitzpatrick cited two books repeatedly, both by Anthony Lewis: Gideon’s Trumpet (1964) and Freedom for the Thought We Hate (2007). Even as he defended free speech, including hate speech, he admitted, “Hate speech does exact a toll. We all pay a price, some more than others….Such freedom carries a real cost.” Fitzpatrick, a white man, may not bear as much of that cost as others in our society.
Tuesday lunch: Gregory Maguire
The author of Wicked (the book the Broadway show was based on) and many, many other books for children, teens, and adults spoke during Tuesday’s lunch, and he was an amusing and engaging speaker. I hadn’t known much about his childhood, or all the picture books he wrote, and I may dip into one of his more recent novels (After Alice) – it’s been a long time since I read Wicked or tried (but didn’t finish) Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Here are some tweets from the talk:
Tuesday, 2:30pm: Ignite!
The “Ignite!” sessions are quick, five-minute presentations on various topics:
“Time Travel Toolkit: Historical Maker Activities for Modern Kids,” Elise Petrarca, Youth Services Librarian, Cranston PL: Attendance at kids’ technology programs (like 3D printing and coding) was dropping off, so Petrarca used her background in history to come up with a new series of programs, branded “Time Travel Toolkit,” featuring stories and crafts related to a particular time period. Open to kids in grades 3-8, the goals of the program were to provide a unique, hands-on experience around an era of history, and to engage kids so they have fun and learn a little bit. It was a success, with the older kids helping the younger ones. The most popular activities were bread baking and butter churning (nor surprising, if they got to eat their creations…).
Sue Sullivan talked about ArtWeek (#ArtWeekMA); many ArtWeek events take place in collaboration with Massachusetts libraries.
“Collapse & Rebirth: Librarians as Architects of a New Humanity,” Madeleine Charney, UMass Amherst: Charney talked about hosting discussions on climate change, using the World Cafe dialogue model. She also recommended the book Emergent Strategy: shaping change, shaping worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown.
Four presenters from Johnson & Wales University presented “Who’s Got Your Back? Empowering Student Chat Ambassadors”: J&W librarians talked about training student employees to answer chat questions, and the results of their training.
“Touchscreen Digital Displays to Showcase Local History at the Watertown Free Public Library,” Brita Zitin: Zitin spoke about how they had made local history more accessible to library users in Watertown by placing touchscreens throughout the building. Using the software Intuiface, they made an interactive historical map, partnered with their local history society to make biographies of local historical figures, and – always popular – made features from high school yearbooks (such as guessing the decade from the hairstyle).
“From Reference Desk to Genius Bar, Public Libraries of Brookline” Callan Bignoli: Bignoli spoke about rethinking how library staff offers tech help at the (very busy) Brookline Public Library. In addition to one-on-one tech appointments, patrons can now come during drop-in tech help sessions, “Lunch and learn” sessions, and use LibChat reference. Bignoli’s advice if you’re rethinking how you offer tech help at your library:
Make sure staff are prepared – not for everything, but for many things.
Think about who’s coming in (and when). What are they asking you for help with?
Meet people where they are.
Try to get them what they came for. Does the format fit the person/topic? (Class, drop-in, 1-on-1)
Finally, Anna Mickelson from the Springfield City Library and Alene Moroni from the Forbes Library in Northampton presented “Weed This, Not That.” (Aside: I just noticed that the Springfield City Library’s tag line is “All Yours, Just Ask,” which is brilliant.) Their rapid-fire presentation included two case studies with before-and-after pictures (Before: crammed shelves. After: shelves with plenty of space for face-out titles, and no books too high to reach or so low they’re on the ground). When there’s “too much stuff” on the shelf, “people can’t find what they need. Find a reason to keep something not a reason to get rid of it.” Weed in accordance with library mission, space, etc. Different methods include item-by-item, “dusty” lists (low/no circulation in last __ years), and at the shelf (e.g. pulling books that have obvious problems like torn covers, water damage, or appallingly out-of-date information). Use professional discretion; you can do things like keeping series while getting rid of years-old “incandescent debuts,” and keep the inclusive, diverse books (put them on display!) and “get rid of the old white guys.”
Are you excited to weed, but need some talking points to convince others in your library? Weeding makes room for new items, seating areas, welcoming spaces, display opportunities, and it increases circulation. After all, “Do you still have every pair of shoes you’ve ever bought?”
All in all, a fantastic conference experience. Thank you to all the presenters, NELA and RILA, and the staff of the Crown Plaza in Warwick – professional, courteous, and unflustered in the face of fire alarms.
The New England Library Association (NELA) annual conference was in Warwick, Rhode Island this year, and it was a fantastic conference; all of the sessions I attended were worthwhile, and I saw lots of activity on Twitter (#NELA2018) to indicate that many other sessions were generating a lot of excitement as well. To top it off, the food was good, and the room temperature resembled neither saunas nor igloos. Well done, Rhode Island! Now, on to the sessions:
Monday, 9am: Finding Appeal Factors: Or What I’ve Learned from Being Twitter’s Resident Reader’s Advisory Specialist by Margaret Willison (@MrsFridayNext)
Willison had spoken the evening before about debunking the myth that “smart people like smart things and dumb people like dumb things.” Her presentation Monday morning was two-pronged: (1) how to learn to like what you don’t like (e.g. how to recommend horror if you don’t read/watch horror), and (2) cross-format recommendations (e.g. “I just watched ___, what should I read next?”). She talked about the need to step outside your natural tastes and build enthusiasm/information for other things; a great way to do this is to ask an articulate friend, and have them explain why they like what they like (not why you should like what they like). By discovering the appeal factors, you can build a common ground and work back. After all, “Just because something isn’t your cup of tea doesn’t mean you can’t understand why someone else likes it.”
Willison did a live example with an audience member who reads the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child, finding out the appeal factors, making a “wrong” recommendation (a series of books that matched in character and content, but differed in tone). This can be done for music and movies as well as for books, and that’s where cross-format recommendations come in. See, for example, NPR’s Read, Watch, Binge series (and while you’re at it, check out their incredible Book Concierge tool, which they make annually; here’s 2017). Other resources are Goodreads, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and The Ripped Bodice (for romance), The Criminal Element and Stop, You’re Killing Me! (for mysteries and thrillers), and the publisher TOR (for sci-fi and fantasy).
Monday, 11:30am: Sensory Storytime at the Public Library by Babs Wells, Maria Cotto
Shifting gears from adult readers’ advisory to children’s services, I attended two librarians’ joint presentation about sensory storytimes they offer at their libraries. Sensory storytime is geared for kids on the autism spectrum or with other developmental issues, though neurotypical children are welcome. Wells and Cotto strongly encouraged anyone thinking of offering a sensory storytime to use the book Programming for Children and Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder by Barbara Klipper, and also pointed to an ALSC blog post that serves as a brief how-to guide. It’s important to be aware of community resources as well, to partner with and to spread the word. (If you’re in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, or nearby, check out The Autism Project.)
Wells and Cotto described their usual sensory storytime, starting with registration: not required, but helpful, especially if it gives the librarian a chance to talk with the parent/caregiver beforehand about any special needs their child might have. They might also want a “social story,” a one-page handout that can help prepare the child for a new environment or event; it can be read like a picture book. Once the storytime has begun, it’s helpful to have visuals for everything, to ease transitions from one activity to another (books, bubbles, songs, activities, etc.). Starting with a hello song is a good idea; the librarian learns everyone’s names (parents too!) and can roll a ball to each kid and have them roll it back. Cotto said she always has a felt board or a puppet, and stools or mats for kids to sit on, and things for them to hold in their hands and fidget with. “These kids need something that will capture their attention, they need something in their hands, they like to participate.” She only reads one book, something like Dog’s Colorful Day by Emma Dodd or The Deep Blue Sea by Audrey Wood. “Go with the flow,” she advised – much like toddler storytime. After the organized part of sensory storytime, it’s playtime: they bring out more activities – popsicle sticks with velcro on the ends so kids can make different shapes, sensory sand, water marbles (but not together!), dried beans with little treasures kids can find and scoop into a cup. This can be a time for parents and caregivers to socialize (they shouldn’t be socializing or on phones during storytime; they should be involved. “I get in everyone’s faces!” Cotto said). Be sure to give plenty of warning when the program is wrapping up: five minutes, three, one, goodbye!
Lastly, remember: “When you meet one child with autism, you meet one child with autism.”
Monday, 12:45pm: NERTCL Lunch with author Tracey Baptiste
The New England Roundtable of Teen and Children’s Librarians (NERTCL) had their annual business meeting over lunch and then invited author Tracey Baptiste (The Jumbies, Rise of the Jumbies) to speak. She tried out a new talk on us, “Creativity Under Pressure.” Here are my tweets from the session, which was probably less polished than one she’d given many times, but definitely interesting (and mark your calendars for the third Jumbies book next year!).
Monday, 2:15pm: Fake News or Real News? Helping Our Patrons Tell Fact from Fake, by Victoria Palmatier and Lisa Lipshires, Springfield City Library
Palmatier and Lipshires’ initial workshop was a lecture format followed by discussion, and they said that next time, they would offer a more hands-on approach in their computer lab. Another great idea they had was to have a copy of the day’s local paper for each workshop attendee, and then look at the local news online as well. They said that an in-person workshop makes the library and librarians seem approachable and legitimate, and as resources that can provide human connection in a meaningful way and make the world less confusing. (We all know we’re not going to change anyone’s mind on Facebook…)
Monday, 4:30pm (slightly delayed due to fire alarm): Great Expectations: Leaping from High School to College, by Sarah Hunicke (Portsmouth High School), Mary C. MacDonald (University of Rhode Island), and Marianne Mirando (Westerly High School)
There is a gap between what college and university professors expect in terms of research skills and information literacy and the students’ abilities in these areas. Because this year’s high school senior is next year’s college freshman, these three presenters worked together to examine what high school librarians (and high school teachers) can do to bridge the gap. College faculty expect students to be able to: 1. determine information needed to answer questions, 2. recognize information bias, 2. distinguish scholarly vs. popular, 3. understand the publishing cycle.
“Where do our students struggle?” Practice, Process, Assessment. “Where do our instructors struggle?” Assignment design (format vs content), Process (time commitment), Additional burden (grading). The two high school librarians who were presenting wanted to help teachers integrate information literacy into their students’ assignments without greatly increasing their grading burden. They each brought an example assignment from their schools, and we split into groups to come up with ways to do just that. In one case, it was as simple as adding a section on research quality to the grading rubric, and having the students hand in an annotated bibliography early in the process. Of course, librarians can also model searching library databases and online, showing students how to broaden or narrow searches as needed, and how to use keywords instead of natural language; if students see librarians working through problems (like getting no results, or too many results), they feel more confident to work through the same problems themselves.
Some teachers may not seek librarians’ help or even accept it when it is offered; however, the idea of “coaching” is big in K-12 education right now, so one approach librarians can take is to ask teachers, “If you’re not happy with your students’ sources/bibliographies, what can we do about that?” and work together.
And that was Monday! Stay tuned for Tuesday’s sessions: the ALA President’s “Big Ideas” speech, the First Amendment in libraries, Gregory Maguire, and the Ignite sessions (quick, 5-minute presentations on different topics).
Roopika Risam, of Salem State, worked with researchers at Columbia University and the University of Houston to produce Torn Apart/Separados, a data visualization project using public data (including a previously FOIAd list of detention centers and children’s shelters in the U.S.) to show the locations of ICE detention centers and their funding. Risam said that she and other researchers asked themselves, “Can we [librarians, students, faculty] mobilize the skills we have to respond in times of crisis? Who are the people on the ground (lawyers, families), how can we be helpful to them?” The result was “Torn Apart/Separados,” released June 2018. Volume 2 – “to follow the money,” i.e. government contracts – was released later, and Risam showed us the “murderboard,” which shows connections between products, contractors, and subsidiaries.
Next, we heard from Chuck Collins, author of Born on Third Base and Is Inequality in America Irreversible? Starting with personal stories, he also gave an overview of how the U.S. was on track to becoming a more equal society after WWII, when progressive taxation was invested in public goods like infrastructure, education, and mortgage loans. The American Dream of social mobility was much more possible then than it is now; now, the American Dream is more achievable in Canada.
Since the 1970s, assets at the top have multiplied with little to no effort, while wages have stagnated. Wealth at the top has now reached “absurdist levels,” with the combined wealth of the 400 richest individuals in the U.S. equaling the combined wealth of the bottom 60% of households in the country; the three richest individuals (Bezos, Buffet, and Gates) have as much as the bottom 50% of households. Almost one in five households have zero or negative net worth; the “precariat” is largest-growing group in this country. If we look at the story through the lens of race, a median white family has 35x wealth of a median Black family and 27x wealth of a median Latinx family.
Is this inequality good for anyone? No. (See: Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty.) How do we make things more equal? There are plenty of answers, but the main one seems to be creating and maintaining a “social floor” or a “decency floor,” through which people cannot fall. Is this a “welfare state”? No, it’s a “pro-work state” that supports its people at a foundational level, adding security to everyone’s lives.
“What a good society does is it recycles opportunity,” says Collins. If you have millions or billions of dollars, you didn’t do it alone. But if you admit that you had help, you’re obligated to ensure a more level playing field for others. If you believe you did it alone (on hard work and merit), then you believe anyone else can do the same. “Powerful stories hold inequality in place,” such as “the myth of deservedness.” For some families – mostly white – public subsidies and assistance programs have led to stability, and wealth that can be passed down, but the recipients of this inheritance don’t always understand its origins. We can begin dismantling the myth of deservedness by identifying instances of advantage of privilege. “Tell true stories of how advantage works. Tell true stories about advantage.”
Next up, we heard from Virginia Eubanks, author of Automating Inequality. Eubanks talked like most of my favorite teachers and professors: fast, energetic, full of memorable examples and cases, with plenty of evidence (some of it rendered in easily digestible, yet horrifying, cartoon form), wisdom and a sense of humor.
Eubanks described a number of terrible systems, from the Allegheny Family Screening Tool in Pennsylvania to the process for applying for public benefits in Indiana to the systems used in Los Angeles to match unhoused people with affordable housing.
Like Collins, Eubanks brought up the idea of a social floor or a decency floor; she called it the universal floor. One of her slides said, “For 200 years the US has chosen moral thermometers over universal floors in public services.” She said, “Tools have not gotten better or fairer over time, they’ve gotten faster and scaled up. The narrative of austerity says there’s not enough for everyone and we have to make difficult decisions about who deserves basic human rights.” Tech tools promise to address bias, but really they just hide it, often leading to “a feedback loop of injustice.”
Do people really mean to create these systems? It doesn’t take bad intentions to create bad impacts. Speaking of the 58,000 unhoused people in L.A. and the shortage of affordable housing there (and she went into the history of that a little bit), Eubanks said, “Triage only makes sense if there are more resources coming. If there aren’t more resources coming, it’s not triage, it’s rationing….The fundamental danger of these systems is that they make us think small.”
So, what do we do? (1) Change the story about poverty; (2) Shift from diagnosis to universal floors; (3) Design less harmful technology. Eubanks said, “If you make these systems poorly, they’re only cheap at first. If you do them well, they’re time- and labor-intensive and expensive. It’s very expensive to punish poor people for being poor….I believe it would be much less expensive to create a universal basic floor.”
The conference ended with a moderated discussion and Q&A with Collins and Eubanks. Andrea Fiorillo of the Reading Public Library started off with a question about the importance of storytelling. Eubanks answered, “The key to dismantling the digital poorhouse is changing the way how we think, talk, and feel about poverty.” She added, “We have to understand our own experience differently….It’s a system we’re supposed to use to share national wealth so we’re investing in each other.” Collins, in addition to the “myth of deservedness,” mentioned the “myth of disconnectedness” and the “myth of superiority.” His audience is often wealthy, and he challenges them to demystify their advantage and tell their true story. He said, “Do an inventory – what forms of help did you get? Understand that advantage is multigenerational. We are shaming people who need help and that rebounds on the whole culture.”
One question/comment from the audience raised the issue that the often-praised Nordic countries with strong social floors are more homogenous than the U.S.; is it more challenging to create a social floor in a more diverse country? “Racism has been used to divide people,” Collins said, and Eubanks stated, “We don’t have to be the same to take care of each other.”
They also discussed the ways in which people opt into their communities or opt out of them. For many, there are plenty of everyday choices that add up to supporting and being part of a community, or not: drive or take the bus? Send kids to public school or private? Order from Amazon or go to the local library or bookstore? In many cases, the affluent (not just the superrich) are opting out. “Be accountable to the other people who live in your community.”
Speaking of communities and libraries, “Public libraries and their partners can be places for face-to-face conversations. The more stakeholders the better,” said Collins. And Eubanks noted the ways in which librarians have filled in as de facto caseworkers for social services, as many applications are online and many people still don’t have internet access at home.
Overall, there are reasons to be optimistic; namely, the solutions to many of these problems are clear. The real issue is, is the political will there? And can we act fast enough?
The Massachusetts Library Association conference was in Framingham this year; I followed along on Twitter (#masslib18) for the first two days, and attended (and presented) on the third and final day.
It seems that the opening keynote by Debby Irving, author of Waking Up White, was extremely well received. For those who missed it, she has a TEDx Talk here.
The first session I attended on Wednesday morning was Co-Creating Library/Social Services Partnerships: A Statewide Collaboration, presented by Michelle Eberle of MLS, Joe Vallely from the MA Department of Mental Health, and Shelley Quezada from MBLC. Michelle showed data that a majority of libraries are interested in partnering with social workers, but only 30% already do, to manage issues like homelessness, mental health, substance abuse, and help for immigrants. Library workers are interested in partnering with social workers – perhaps even students of social work – and in receiving staff training such as mental health first aid. MLS has a LibGuide for “Responding to the Social Services Needs of Our Library Communities.“
Next, Joe told the room about the outreach and engagement teams serving over 1600 individuals within Massachusetts. They have had a few trainings at different libraries to introduce themselves (“what we do”) and look for ways to collaborate. “We have a common mission,” which gives us the opportunity to collaborate to assist people in need. “You provide a safe, warm place where many individuals, who are very fragile, go.” Many are clients or potential clients – how can we begin to assist? The organization Eliot was also mentioned, a part of PATH (the federal Project for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness).
Shelley spoke next, telling the audience about available LSTA grants and how MBLC can help with the grant process. Before applying for a grant, she said, there are a number of questions to ask, including: Who are your best community partners? How do you identify them? What is the overarching goal for your library to achieve? What resources do you need (staff, materials, training, equipment, publicity, space, etc.)?
Shelley reeled off a list of additional resources, including: Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership, Mass Legal Help, the Opioid Overdose Prevention project of Mass.gov, and Mass 211. Audience participants added Pine Street and Rosie’s Place. Audience members also spoke up to say that “Even with a social worker on staff, there are overwhelming needs”; staff training is still necessary for trauma-informed care, mindfulness, etc., and a series of trainings is better than a one-time session (grant funding can help with this!). One person also spoke about enforcing library policies apologetically, but “It’s okay to have rules. Rules keep people safe.”
The need for social services for a variety of often related issues (mental health, homelessness, substance abuse, domestic violence) is receiving more attention recently due to the movie The Public (trailer), which writer/director/actor Emilio Estevez said was inspired partly by an article by Chip Ward (I’m guessing this one: “How the Public Library Became Heartbreak Hotel,” 2007).
For the next morning session, I chose Charlie Grosholz’s interactive session on “The Role of Fantasy in the Library.” This was a small, hands-on session in which Charlie led participants through three exercises: world building, character creation, and role play. But first, a definition: What is fantasy? It is the “improbable, impossible…held down by rules.” (As any reader of fantasy knows, even magic has rules; otherwise it would be surrealism.) Any of these three exercises would be a great prompt for a creative writing workshop, but they could be used in a variety of other programs too, or to re-envision the library itself. For example…
Around Halloween time, a library in a walkable area might host a program starting with a zombie attack scenario: Where in town are the safest places, the most valuable resources?
Character creation can be used to develop personas; staff can collaborate to build personas based on library “characters,” an exercise that can build empathy.
Role play allows people to build social skills, public speaking skills, empathy, and conflict resolution skills. Charlie ran a successful murder mystery party for teens, complete with costumes, music, artifacts, and Shirley Temples (there was a speakeasy theme). Role play can also be used for emergency preparedness drills, or even in ELL conversation groups.
If your library has (or is thinking of starting) a Library of Things collection, acquire some board games; you can build programming around each new game as you introduce it, and bring fans of the games together.
The last program of the morning was a general session, “Librarians on the Front Line: Protecting Free Speech,” presented by Steve Woolfolk of the Kansas City Public Library. Woolfolk’s name may be familiar to those in the library world; he was arrested during a program at his library for defending a patron’s right to speak. Though the case seemed incredibly clear-cut (for an overview, see the American Libraries article from October 2016), it dragged on until he was ultimately cleared. The incident certainly didn’t shake his dedication to free speech and the free exchange of ideas; when an audience member asked if it had had a chilling effect on programming at KCPL, Steve replied, “Nope! If anything, we’re getting more controversial.”
The First Amendment, he said, is about more than just being able to say what you want; “you have a right to express your ideas, and I have the right to be exposed to your ideas.” He pointed out that the government does not lead on issues, the public does – and librarians are already “committed to opening people’s minds.” He asked, why can’t we do with ideas what we do with books? Recommend something outside their comfort zone. “Nobody’s obligated to agree with the ideas they hear…but we have to make an effort to understand why people believe the things that they do.”
Steve’s talk was very well received, and I wasn’t the only one taking photos of his slides to post to Twitter.
After a break for lunch, it was time for “Readers’ Advisory in the Age of Uncertainty,” which I presented along with Kevin O’Kelly from Somerville Public Library and Louise Goldstein from Waltham Public Library. We each took a different angle on the topic: Louise talked about the “Initiating Inspiration” book group at the Waltham library, in partnership with the Agape Spiritual Community. The group met five times in its first year, discussing five different titles. Kevin talked about bibliotherapy, from the little-known Sadie Petersen Delaney (“Our Lady of Bibliotherapy”) to author Alain de Boton’s “School of Life” to the Changing Lives Through Literature program. And I talked about readers’ advisory at the reference desk, whether people are looking for escapism or a deeper understanding of current topics (or – through speculative literature – both!). My handout with book lists is here.
The closing keynote session featured Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale and author of (most recently) On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) and The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (2018). The talk was entitled “The New Authoritarianism: Where It Comes From and What Readers and Citizens Can Do About It,” and was essentially a summary of On Tyranny. If you missed the talk, read the book – it’s only 126 pages.