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ALA REWIND: Calls for Equity and Diversity at ALA Virtual 2020
Posted On June 25, 2024
This article was originally posted on July 9, 2020.

The ALA Annual Conference is such a massive event that I was skeptical an online version could convey all of its aspects properly. Despite a few technical hiccups in the beginning, I think the organization succeeded admirably with ALA Virtual, held June 24–26. An exhibit hall can’t really be replicated, of course, but I could click on each company’s name on the exhibitor listing to be taken to its page for more information. Some offered a connection to a video chat with a company representative. The Swag-a-palooza option that stood in for physical handouts and advance book copies was displayed as a button on participating companies’ pages. I could click it to access downloads of digital materials.

ALA’s then-president Wanda Kay Brown kicked off the conference, which had the theme Community Through Connection. Brown gave an introduction and handed off the session to Tracie D. Hall, ALA’s executive director, who said that librarians are “obligated to cry out against racism.” Fighting it is overdue in the profession, and there is a power in coming together as people with different backgrounds and identities. “Let [ALA’s] legacy be justice,” she said. As evidenced by its long history, inherent in ALA is a resistance to stasis. Hall outlined three priorities for the organization: fighting for universal broadband, engaging in rapid diversification of the library and information science field, and ensuring that local and federal government and public and private funders deepen their involvement in libraries as a community resource.

Kirby McCurtis (library manager at Multnomah County Library) interviewed ballet dancer Misty Copeland to close out the opening session. Copeland is promoting her new Bunheads children’s book series, which grew out of her experiences mentoring and connecting with young people. She said using words to tell a story isn’t that different from using her body in a ballet; she grew up very shy, so dancing is a way to express herself. Although both of her parents are biracial, she knew the world would see her as Black, so she intends to use her platform to speak about things that are important to her. If she had seen more dancers who looked like her growing up, she would have found it comforting, she said. Instead, she had to find mentorship from other Black women who were firsts in their fields.

It was mentioned that Copeland’s interview was recorded in May, which immediately put a damper on the excitement of a celebrity guest—I had been under the impression that the sessions would be live. However, all of the ones I attended had been previously recorded. The perk of this, however, was the on-demand option. After Copeland’s interview, I realized that my login on the conference site had expired. When I tried to log back in, I kept getting an error message. A quick scan of Twitter showed that I wasn’t the only one experiencing problems. Within a couple of hours, ALA had emailed me an access key, and I was able to get back on the site. Much to my frustration, the next session I had planned to attend was over. Luckily, I saw that I didn’t actually have to view the livestream—I could watch the recording at any time after the livestream had started. Having that safety net was invaluable throughout the conference.


Intellectual Freedom, Hate Speech, the First Amendment, and You: A Conversation With Nadine Strossen featured Peter Coyl (director of Montclair Public Library) interviewing Strossen (a former president of the American Civil Liberties Union). Coyl noted that if a library allows a hate group to meet, it can be viewed as endorsing that group. Strossen said that’s not the case; it is merely an endorsement of access to ideas. The Supreme Court says there is no hate speech exception to viewpoint neutrality, and libraries must remain neutral. However, they can engage in counter-speech. Coyl asked Strossen to clarify what free speech encompasses, and she said that speech may be punished only if it satisfies the emergency principle—i.e., it is an incitement of imminent violence. Strossen stressed that censoring hate speech could lead to censoring other speech; it might end up harming the voices that need to be heard the most. For example, some people see the Black Lives Matter movement as hate speech against white people. Coyl asked what libraries’ legal obligations are when it comes to meeting rooms. Strossen affirmed ALA’s current statement on inclusivity, saying that a public library has no obligation to make any of its meeting rooms open to the public, but if it does, it can’t discriminate. Coyl asked how libraries could balance this neutrality without alienating staff members of color. Strossen noted that libraries can offer proactive support of people who are targets of hate speech.


Retention Efforts of Minority Librarians in Librarianship From the Perspectives of Early, Middle, and Advanced Career Librarians saw panelists Joslyn Bowling Dixon (deputy director of Prince William Public Library System), Raymond Pun (an instructor and research librarian at the Alder Graduate School of Education), and Kimberley Bugg (associate library director at Atlanta University Center’s Robert W. Woodruff Library) answering two questions: How have you been retained in this profession, and what resources have been beneficial to you? Dixon has been in librarianship for 23 years, and she talked about how her library does performance-based hiring to make sure its staff isn’t homogenous. She said that the people doing the hiring must force themselves to ask deeper questions and confront the reasons why they might be uncomfortable with certain candidates. Pun, who’s been in the profession for 15 years, said that retention is relationship-centered—mentorship by librarians of color is important. Librarians of color need to lift each other up and support each other, making mentorship a dialogue. However, don’t force librarians of color to be part of a diversity committee. Bugg, with 14 years in librarianship, said that new and exciting projects keep her interested in the field. She changes jobs when she sees a new path to follow. Also, she is comfortable having conversations with other librarians of color about how she’s treated at work, and that’s why there’s power in numbers when it comes to minority librarians.

As for resources, Dixon says that sometimes you have to create your own, such as the Virginia Library Association Librarians of Color group she started. Pun cited Developing Leaders in California Libraries, part of the California Library Association, which offers webinars and programs about leaders in the field. Bugg said she has gotten tremendous value out of leadership institutes, which allow librarians to expand their networks and get into the leadership pipeline.


Herstory Through Activism: Women, Libraries, and Activism featured Emily Drabinski (interim chief librarian of The Graduate Center at the City University of New York), Dalena Hunter (librarian and archivist for Los Angeles Communities and Cultures at the University of California–Los Angeles), and Teresa Y. Neely (professor and assessment librarian at the College of University Libraries & Learning Sciences at the University of New Mexico). Drabinski spoke about libraries as stereotypically women’s spaces, saying that as a lesbian, she wanted to work in spaces that had people like her in them. Libraries are also mostly white spaces, which needs to change. They reproduce social inequality and are sites of struggle; getting equity in libraries would help achieve it in the wider world.

Hunter discussed Black women’s activism, citing two pioneers of the 20th century, Miriam Matthews and Mayme Clayton. They worked to improve access to materials of Black history and culture. For example, Matthews instituted Negro History Week at the Los Angeles Public Library in the 1930s. Clayton established the Western States Black Research and Education Center in the 1970s. Both women used race and gender to bring inequities to light, Hunter said.

Neely talked about movements against sexism and racism, such as the Combahee River Collective and the National Black Feminist Organization, which were new entry points for Black women into activism. The idea of “color-blind thinking” removes the experiences of women of color and silences their struggles. Neely noted that “my Blackness separates me from the agency of my job position” because the leadership at her organization is all white. She said she follows in the footsteps of women librarian activists who came before and shared a long list, encouraging participants to learn about them.


In Suggesting Own Voices to All Readers: EDI and RA Service, Robin Bradford (collection development librarian at Pierce County Library System) and Becky Spratford (readers’ advisory specialist at RA for All) shared how to diversify a library collection and why it’s important. Bradford went first, saying that your collection can’t just depend on who you see coming into the library. Modern entertainment options make access to all kinds of content available, and different perspectives breathe life into old tropes and stories. Bradford stressed that books by diverse authors, with diverse characters, are for everyone. You will make mistakes, she said. You either win or you learn, so don’t be afraid to take risks on new titles. Her advice is to jump in and start somewhere. Be adaptable and curious. Sign up for resources such as Shelf Awareness, Book Pulse from Library Journal, and email lists from publishers to find diverse books—but don’t rely only on reviews or books from the big publishers. Librarians are the bridge from diverse books to readers, so you must set an example by buying, reading, and recommending them.

Spratford said there should be “no more excuses”—you can talk about books that don’t reflect your own life, so start actively promoting diversity. Write a mission statement for equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). Her advice is also to read widely, making sure you know about all of the various genres. You can’t read everything in full, so read about the best-sellers by white men and actually read the books by diverse authors. You can recommend books you haven’t read if the literature about them is positive. If you need motivation, create a reading group at your library to help patrons read more diversely, and you will too. Think more like a reader and less like a library worker when you’re trying to get books into people’s hands. Talk about the subject of a book, not how diverse it is; for example, if someone is into police procedurals, suggest one with a diverse lead character. “Diverse books” is not a genre; they exist in all genres. Put them into displays as part of various subjects, not “LGBT books” or “Black authors.” This is a marathon, Spratford cautioned. It will take a long time to make these changes last, so librarians need to work harder to achieve them.


Stacey Abrams—a bestselling author, entrepreneur, nonprofit CEO, and political leader (having served in the Georgia House of Representatives and run for governor in 2018, winning more votes than any other Democrat in Georgia’s history)—was interviewed by executive director Hall for the ALA President’s Program. She noted that we live in a moment of illness, death, economic collapse, and horrific racial injustice and that it’s important to call out the injustices we see. We have to restructure our investments: different public safety initiatives, healthcare, education, etc. Abrams is passionate about voting rights, saying voting is a complicated power that doesn’t provide immediate solutions, but it’s the most important power we have in the U.S. Voting has made slow progress, but it has been a solution. She said she believes in protests in the streets and at the ballot boxes, because a democracy needs both. Initiating change through voting takes time, and there will be setbacks, but it’s not about reaching perfection—it’s about persistence.

The discussion turned to libraries, with Abrams asserting that better investments in them would allow them to close the digital divide. Libraries use their platform to amplify ways to improve the nation, but they face the same systemic issues as the rest of society—they are, in fact, a microcosm of America. They exist in spaces where people need them the most. Abrams said that diversity needs intention behind it; libraries can identify barriers and make strategies to overcome them. Her mother was a librarian because she had been recruited into the field. We need to cultivate leadership, providing scholarships and other methods to get people involved. Librarians need to be able to explain the sophistication of their role in modern society.


Expanding Worldviews: How Libraries Create Awareness of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Inspire Change showcased projects from Kazakhstan, Central America, and Singapore relating to the United Nations’ (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Joseph Yap and Yelizaveta Kamilova (both from Nazarbayev University Library) presented “Social Inclusivity and Gender Equality: The Library’s Role in Promoting SDG 5.” They noted that their government (Kazakhstan) is developing plans to meet the UN goals (especially SDG 5, Gender Equality). Their library has two programs they wanted to share: the annual Week of Women (panel discussions, book talks, book displays, film screenings, etc.) and the Human Library (discussions centered on a certain stigma in society and speakers with disabilities).

“Empowering Women and Promoting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in Central America” featured William Cartwright (president of the Riecken Foundation). He shared his experiences in Honduras and Guatemala, where the Riecken Foundation is helping to teach young people about technology and run early childhood reading programs. The libraries it builds depend on volunteers and local leaders, which means it aims to get women in the community involved and make them feel empowered. Libraries there are considered a safe space for them to work. The foundation’s efforts become a partnership with each community, and Cartwright encourages the women to take leadership roles in library governance.

Aida Abdul Rahim (deputy head of children and teens’ library services at the National Library Board of Singapore) presented “Engaging Children and Teens: Inclusive Initiatives That Inspire the Love for Reading and Learning.” She said the board’s mission is to put inclusivity at the forefront and foster a love of reading. She wants to empower young people to be knowledge-seekers. The National Library Board partners with the Ministry of Social and Family Development to connect with volunteer groups and seeks out other partnerships, including with McDonald’s for reading events Science Centre Singapore for free programs. Funding from a local temple allows for a bookmobile. Rahim said that these partnerships generate possibilities for creativity, critical thinking skills, and social skills in young people.


Natalie Portman was the conference’s closing speaker. Betsy Bird (collection development manager at Evanston Public Library) interviewed her about her book of rewritten fairy tales called Natalie Portman’s Fables. Portman explained that she noticed her daughter’s books tended to focus on girls overcoming odds, but her son’s books were mostly about boys. She feels her son would benefit from reading girls’ stories too. Even in books with animal characters, they are mostly male, so sometimes she changes the pronouns. She feels strongly that we need to socialize boys to be able to get inside girls’ heads, just as girls are taught to do with boy characters. It would help them practice empathy. In her book, she wanted to preserve classic stories, but update them to better reflect the modern world. For example, girl animals are often feminized in stereotypical ways, so the illustrations in her book steer clear of those depictions.

Brandi Scardilli is the editor of NewsBreaks and Information Today.

Email Brandi Scardilli

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