Tuesday, January 26, 2016

We (Still) Have a Problem, White Librarians!


According to philosopher Charles Mills, a racial contract exists among whites in which they keep full citizenship rights and resources for themselves. Mills asserts that the resulting white-supremacist state oppresses blacks by ensuring differential access to civic and economic opportunities. Much of the power of the racial contract arises from its invisibility to the whites who benefit from it: “white misunderstanding, misrepresentation, evasion, and self-deception on matters related to race are among the most pervasive mental phenomena of the past few hundred years.”
The surprise that some white people register on learning of the historical existence of separate libraries for African Americans suggests that we need to counter the hegemonic narrative of white public library history. Conceptualizing an unacknowledged underlying racial contract among whites intent on expanding their own material, political, and cultural resources at the expense of non-whites makes differential access to public libraries unsurprising. (From Cheryl Knott’s Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow, University of Massachusetts Press, 2015. Italics original to Mills)

I am in Colorado right now, preparing for a day of travel back to Kansas. Yesterday, I was the lunch speaker at an all-day workshop for youth services staff in Colorado public libraries. The title of my talk was “Beyond Bilingual Storytime: Best Practices for Culturally Relevant Public Library Youth Collections and Services.” The talk went well, there were some good questions, and I even quoted a bit from Knott’s book, as I am in the midst of reading it.

Immediately after I finished speaking (and sporadically over the course of the afternoon), I was approached by many people with questions and comments that they hadn’t want to share in the open Q&A following my talk. Some talked about the difficulty of either purchasing or getting patrons to check out books that have won many of the awards I had mentioned during my talk (like the Coretta Scott King Award, for example). With many libraries moving toward patron-driven acquisitions or high-demand collections, librarians are being forced to actually withdraw these books because they aren’t circulating in their communities.

Others spoke to tensions between departments and management when requesting to do programs for youth of color in their communities, of either being told that such a program had been tried once before and no one came or that that “type” of programming could be handled by the outreach department, because those people don’t come to the library anyway!

WAIT… WHAT? First of all, I am so sick of the old “We tried that in [insert year here]!” chicken shit argument in our profession. Where would we be as a species if we gave up after something failed the first time we tried it? Basically every medical or scientific advancement came about through a process of trial and error. As children, we learn to keep trying things when we fail the first time, regarding everything from eating by ourselves to riding bicycles to learning to read and calculate math problems. But have a library program fail, and we just give up?!?! We see you when you make these excuses and hear them for what they are: excuses to cover your own prejudices and biases.

And, to any LIS managers, directors, and supervisors out there reading this: If you are using phrases like “those people” to refer to any segment of your community, do us all a favor and retire or find some other profession to harm. Don’t let the Library Bill of Rights trip you on the way out!

Finally, another librarian and I spent some time talking about something I didn’t even cover in my 45-minute talk: the “new” public library. She mentioned how her library had recently renovated to focus more on technology (recording studios, gaming rooms, maker spaces, etc.) with physical book collections receiving considerably less floor space and prominence in library programming. Since the library had reopened, she was noticing a disturbing trend in the types of patrons using the library. Even though the community was becoming increasingly more racially and ethnically diverse, the users were becoming Whiter and more affluent since the redesign. This trend is something I’ve noticed myself in public, academic, and school library settings. Others have written about this as well. Who are we welcoming (and not welcoming) with our modern library designs and focus on technology? Who is your library privileging? (Please don’t even suggest anything that buys into the Model Minority Myth here!)

So, White librarians, where does that leave us? I’d say not too damn much better off than where we were in the 1970s and 1980s, when the profession was having many of these same conversations. While things like actual physical access have improved since the period covered by Knott’s book, there are still so many other ways we privilege Whiteness in public (and other) libraries every single day, from what we collect to where we locate branches to who we hire.

How do we change things? More of us have to come to grips with the White supremacist society in which we all live and which undergirds the very institutions in which we work. More of us have to learn to listen and stop getting defensive every, single time anyone starts talking about race or White Privilege or intersectionality. And, at the heart of it all, we White librarians have to start holding each other accountable when we see our fellow White librarians making decisions (small and large) that actively or subversively oppress segments of our communities.


“If you want your library to thrive, the community must thrive. To be a librarian is not to be neutral, or passive, or waiting for a question. It is to be a radical positive change agent within your community.” R. David Lankes

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Not Mutually Exclusive

The 2016 Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature went to Matt de la Peña for “Last Stop on Market Street,” illustrated by Christian Robinson and published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

CJ’s journey with his Nana is not just a simple bus ride; it is a multi-sensory experience through which he discovers that beautiful music, nature and people surround him.  CJ’s questions are familiar, and Nana answers him with gentle wisdom.  Right up until their arrival at the last stop on Market Street, Nana guides CJ to become “a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

“Read it aloud to someone. The use of language to elicit questions, to spark imagination and to make us laugh is at its best when spoken,” said Newbery Medal Committee Chair Ernie J. Cox.

New York Times bestselling author Matt de la Peña earned an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University. He currently lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. with his family. (From ALA News)

Through sheer luck, I had my best-ever seat for the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards (ALAYMA) on Monday in Boston. I wasn’t on a committee for the 2016 awards and had expected to sit farther back in the room, but most of the crowd had filled the sections closest to the doors (stage right). This left much of the far side of the ballroom empty when the initial crowd surged in and I was able to grab a front-row seat right between the stage and one of the giant screens that broadcast the slides, videos, etc., throughout the awards. For the first time in my ALAYMA experience, I wasn’t sitting with a friend or a committee and had to make a concerted effort not to grab the hand of the stranger sitting next to me during particularly exciting moments (we still bonded verbally).

You can watch a video of the announcements here (but make sure you force the video player back to the beginning as they have it set to start after the announcement of the Alex Awards). With almost every award announcement, I became more hopeful that it really was going to be another watershed moment (find an overview of the diversity of authors and illustrators recognized here and here). I had been having conversations all weekend about this with people, as many of us were concerned that the inclusivity we had seen in the 2015 winner and honor books would be just a fluke, an aberration, a bright and shining beacon of possibility before things returned to the ALAYMA status quo of “occasional” diversity.

The main lights in the ballroom came back on and the stage cleared. I wiped the tears of joy from my face and took a moment to hug some of my friends (who had been right behind me the entire time), shout words of amazement to other friends farther away, and let the mass of humanity filter out of the room. Through all of this, I braced myself for the onslaught that seemed inevitable after the last year’s chatter in the world of youth literature.

It began immediately, before I had even left the room. I kept hearing words like “agenda” and walked by two older White women shaking their heads and lamenting in hushed tones the unfairness of Jerry Pinkney winning two awards for lifetime achievement. I dreaded the conversations that I expected were already happening across social media, but had little time that day to worry about it. I tweeted and retweeted a bunch of congratulatory things and went to meet a friend before a busy day of meetings.

Here we are almost a week later and the comments across Twitter and certain blogs seem to fall into two camps: criteria and agendas. Much of the initial outrage seemed to focus on how Last Stop on Market Street wasn’t even eligible for the Newbery Award. Thankfully, most of that has died down thanks to some excellent posts (which I’m not linking to because of the dreadful comments sections). The criteria for the award itself, along with the entire process, is laid out in the Newbery Award Handbook. If you want to see some of the conversations that took place this week, check out blogs from The Horn Book and SLJ.

Then, there’s the “agenda” camp, many of whom were initially part of the “criteria” camp (maybe in an effort to seem less racist?). Somehow, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks “army” (as a #DiversityJedi, I was unaware of the power others seem to think we have) has infiltrated all of the ALA Award and Selection committees in some vast machination to take over the ALA awards for the foreseeable future. This level of ignorance would be amusing if it wasn’t so pervasive. I feel for those people suggesting that “diversity” triumphed over “quality” (as if the two were mutually exclusive), but more importantly, I feel for the children that those people are serving.  

I’m in my fifth consecutive year on a book award committee (2013 Pura Belpré Award Committee, 2014 Américas Award committee, 2015 William C. Morris Committee, and in my second year of a three-year appointment to the William Allen White Children’s Book Award). These awards, particularly those administered by ALA and its divisions/RTs, have very specific criteria, policies, procedures, etc. The process is simply not such that any one person’s “agenda” could rule the day. Anyone who has served on one of these committees knows that it is all about the process and, ultimately, the criteria!

For anyone unaware of it, these committees all operate in isolation from each other. There was no grand conspiracy to give two lifetime achievement awards to Jerry Pinkney this year. Individually, two different committees chose to honor Pinkney with two different awards for his work: The Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. If anything, I’d say these two separate awards are long overdue, as I was surprised that he hadn’t already won both of them! Similarly, when the same titles show up on different awards or lists, it is due to separate discussions from those committees, not some grand scheme to reshape the field. When Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was selected by the Printz Award and Stonewall Award committees in 2013, those of us on the 2013 Belpré Award Committee (who had chosen the book for the author award that year) found out about it at the ALA Youth Media Awards in Seattle, just like the rest of the world!

I do think award committees as a whole are making an effort to be more inclusive, but not in the way that these detractors would argue. As chair of the 2015 Morris Committee, I took my charge very seriously (as did my entire committee). When I read “The award will honor the best book published by a first-time author for young adults (ages 12-18),” I took that to mean that we, as a committee, had an obligation to leave no stone unturned when seeking every single true YA debut in 2014. This meant going above and beyond what publishers submitted and finding the titles from the new publishers, the small and independent presses, etc. (you can read about the entire process here). We wanted to make sure that, when we announced our shortlist in December of 2014, we had actually touched every single YA debut eligible for the award. This means I bought books when I couldn’t get them from other sources. We were sharing Kindle copies, mailing ARCs around the country, and coming up with all sorts of creative ways to make sure every book was on our radar. I think that committees are being much more inclusive in making sure that they are giving consideration to all of the books eligible for their awards and we see the evidence of this in the last couple of years’ announcements.


Right now, I just want us to be able to celebrate the work of these authors and illustrators, thank the committees, and read some the titles we may have missed last year.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Corporatization of "American Libraries"

I’m in a bit of a tizzy, working on my presentation for the ALISE 2016 Conference (http://sched.co/5apH) and preparing for a slew of meetings at ALA Midwinter, so this post will be somewhat brief.
In case you have missed it, please check out this blog post from Stewart Varner and Patricia Hswe.
Like me, I hope you will take time to send some feedback to American Libraries about this egregious misstep.
Some possibilities:
1)      Contact editor and publisher Laurie D. Borman at lborman@ala.org
2)      Email the magazine directly at americanlibraries@ala.org
3)      Tweet to @amlibraries
4)      If you will be in Boston, talk to someone from American Libraries in person.
5)      Be supportive of Varner and Hswe by sharing their blog post and by sharing their original article once it becomes available in the Carolina Digital repository at UNC in February.

[On a more positive note, if you will be in Boston for ALISE or ALAMW, safe travels!]