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ALA REWIND: Communication, Inclusivity, and Accessibility Lessons From ALA 2023
by
Posted On June 25, 2024
This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Information Today.

Librarians, information professionals, educators, and their associated assistants and advocates have been trusted helpers for people in all walks of life for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, as society “progresses,” that work seems to get more complicated, not less. Plenty of sessions at the 2023 ALA Annual Conference, held June 22–27 in Chicago, focused on communicating with anti-library groups and supporting various marginalized segments of the population. Here’s a look at some of those sessions.

CONSTRUCTIVE CONVERSATIONS

I began the conference on June 24 with a session called Changing the Narrative: ALA Policy Corps Takes on Book Banners. As one speaker declared at the very beginning, “Polling tells us that a majority of the public oppose censorship.” And yet minority groups have successfully altered the landscape. How can we communicate effectively to help them understand the ideal of access for all? Becky Calzada said one way is to prepare for, and actually practice, having conversations about why these books and ideas are important. I loved that she called these interactions “prob-la-tunities.”

The presenters shared suggestions for things we can all do right now to prepare for difficult conversations:

  • Review and adjust book reconsideration policies.
  • Find a good list of FAQs on the topic, and customize it for your local situation.
  • Keep written responses at all desks to enable staffers to speak with a unified voice.
  • Use relationships with local Rotary Clubs and others organizations to help spread understanding and positive messages.
  • Sign up to join Unite Against Book Bans.

Another session on a related topic, media literacy, offered useful ideas to help fight misinformation and disinformation. During the session titled Equip Communities to “Be MediaWise” With a Misinformation Resilience Toolkit, I learned tips for talking with someone who has fallen for untruths online: 1) Don’t try to win an argument, rather, try to have a constructive conversation. 2) Remember that misinformation is designed to appeal to people’s emotions. In addition, you can recommend that people try lateral reading. That’s when you have numerous tabs open to articles on the same topic, and you read across the tabs in order to easily compare what different news sources are saying about it. The point is to look at whether the sources support each other and use the same quotes or whether some are outliers citing different “facts.”

REFORMA WORKS ON DIGITAL INCLUSION

Digital inclusion has been a big phrase lately, and it was in the title of this year’s REFORMA President’s Program, Advancing Digital Inclusion in Latinx Communities. President Romelia Salinas opened the session by discussing a theoretical model to address the digital divide. She also pointed out that studies on pandemic closures shined a light on many digital inequities. “Having access to the tech itself is essential,” she said, but people also need reliable internet connections. Salinas listed four layers of the digital divide: Connectivity (physical), Literacy (skills), Content (to meet info needs), and Psycho/Social (social support for library or info anxiety).

Each panelist discussed initiatives they have been involved in to bridge the divide with Latinx communities. Edwin Rodarte talked about the Tech2go program at Los Angeles Public Library, which lends Wi-Fi hotspots and Chromebooks. During COVID closures, students’ tech needs were mostly supported by their schools, but parents were often left without devices or enough bandwidth to get online themselves, so the Tech2go loans served them. In addition, internet access vehicles with Wi-Fi hotspots were parked in various communities at different times to increase connectivity.

TOWARD GREATER ACCESSIBILITY

I believe in the popular inclusivity phrase, “nothing about us without us.” So, I was glad to see that the accessibility-focused sessions I’d chosen to cover on June 25 were actually being presented by people who have various seen and unseen disabilities.

I started the day with the session Hosting Accessible Community Conversations. The three panelists made eye-opening points for anyone who wants to enable access to library collections, services, and events. Bridget Hayman gave a compelling reason for all of us to push for accessibility rights: “Disability is the one group that anyone can become part of at any time.” Rebecca Weber reminded the audience that there are many disabilities that are not apparent or visible, so we shouldn’t make assumptions about individuals or what they do or don’t need.

Good community engagement demands patience and understanding. Hillary Pearson said we shouldn’t assume that disabled people need extra help, but a good way to ask with respect is, “What do you need in order to fully participate [in a service or event]?” Some of the panelists’ overarching advice can be summarized this way: Don’t be afraid to approach disabled people and start discussions. Curb your assumptions, and listen to them carefully. Train staffers to do the same.

An afternoon session titled Expanding the Diversity Umbrella: Libraries Are for Everyone featured two marginalized presenters who are award-winning authors: Jordan Scott, a poet and book author who stutters, and Michael W. Twitty, a culinary historian who studies racism’s effect on food; he is gay, Black, and Jewish.

Scott cautioned members of the huge audience to be prepared to slow down communication sometimes, especially with people who have speech disfluencies. Patience is key. Twitty talked about having more inclusive collections, pointing out that not everyone with dark skin is the same, so we need to share more than one version of a story. The audience laughed after he asked, incredulously, “Can we have more than one Black book [on a given topic]?”

The speakers encouraged listeners to push for more diverse books by asking publishers directly and by voting with their book budgets. Ask publishers whether they have books with disabled characters, and comment about their presence or absence when you’re assessing review copies of potential purchases.

ONGOING RESEARCH

On June 26, one of the last sessions I attended looked at conversations from the perspective of conveners and researchers. In Leading the Way: Community Engagement in Small & Rural Libraries, a trio that works on the Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC) initiative discussed their fascinating fieldwork and findings. The LTC project also offers tools for people who need to handle tough conversations. For libraries that want to convene their own community conversations, the next round of LTC grant funding will open this fall.


Kathy Dempsey’s work focuses on marketing and communication in libraries. She is the editor of Marketing Library Services and a MarCom consultant at Libraries Are Essential. Her email address is kdempsey@infotoday.com.

Email Kathy Dempsey

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