Iowa City Public Library Strategic Plan To Incorporate Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Policing Alternatives

The Iowa City Public Library (ICPL) has embedded concrete, quantified steps toward equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) into its three-year strategic plan, released on September 23.

protective tape attached to outside of library building reading
Protective tape attached to outside of Iowa City Public Library during Black Lives Matter protests

The Iowa City Public Library (ICPL) has embedded concrete, quantified steps toward equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) into its three-year strategic plan, released on September 23.

ICPL’s 2021–23 strategic plan focuses on three priorities: recovery and renewal post-COVID, focusing on community aspirations, and resource management. As part of that work, it pledges to commit 30 percent of programming, outreach, and collection funds toward services with and for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities by FY22, and will seek alternatives to police intervention for violations of the Library Use Policy. The strategic plan will be a building block for next year’s budget request.

Leadership is currently working on developing tactics for specific actions to carry out the plan’s objectives, and has solicited suggestions from library staff, with plans to engage community members to help create programs and build collections as well.

 

A CHANGING CLIMATE

When director Elsworth Carman (who also organizes LJ’s Trans+Script column) took the ICPL helm in January 2019, the library was winding up the last year of its 2015–20 plan. Once he’d settled into the role, he began work on the new plan, engaging former American Library Association president Maureen Sullivan as a consultant, conducting staff surveys, collecting data about patron aspirations, and convening community engagement meetings.

“We started building the bones of a traditional five-year plan,” said Carman. “And then COVID came and we started thinking differently.” The library shut its branches down quickly in March, providing virtual services to the community and continuing the strategic planning process via remote meetings.

With the death of George Floyd in late May, Carman realized that he and his team needed to take the opportunity to hear what had changed since work on the plan began. Storefronts in Iowa City were putting up Black Lives Matter and “say their names” signs, and he wanted to reflect that advocacy in the library’s steering documents—but, he explained, “I didn't want anything to look like pageantry activism.”

The community had expressed the desire that the library focus on social justice issues as early as fall 2019. “We had evidence of interest in social justice throughout all of our information gathering,” he told LJ. “Equity was a word we heard a lot, we heard fairness, we heard reducing barriers, things like that. So it felt good to be able to ramp that up without departing from what we had heard earlier. It wasn't just a kneejerk response—‘This is the thing now, we'd better switch gears.’”

City leadership supports a range of equity initiatives, including a Diversity Committee established by City Council in 2012, which helped the Police and Transportation Services departments develop recommendations on diversity-related matters, and a 2015 council resolution that approved an Equity Action Plan. But after Floyd’s death a local protest group, the Iowa Freedom Riders, presented a list of a dozen specific demands to City Council. These demands, which have yet to be met by the city departments they approached, include transparency about the Police Department budget and reforms within the department, the dedication of at least 30 percent of every city department’s staff to diversity and inclusion, and for an equity toolkit to be implemented in every institution and business in the city.

As the fiscal year drew to a close during the summer, with library leadership unable to meet in person to discuss the revamped agenda, Carman decided to replace the proposed five-year plan with a three-year version, which he termed a “bridge plan.” The team then drafted a new strategic plan, ran a few details by Sullivan, and brought it to ICPL staff, asking whether they felt it was representative of the work they wanted to do.

The feedback he got from the staff, board, and leadership team, said Carman, was “thoughtful, honest, and candid.” He incorporated staff ideas, running several iterations by everyone involved. “I was never in a position to have to convince anybody that it was important,” he said. “I was never told to dial it back or to change any of what we were hoping to do.”

 

LISTENING TO STAFF

Soliciting staff input not only provides useful ideas, said Carman, but will help employees connect the work they do to the plan in a concrete way. This is especially useful for workers with non­–public facing jobs. A formalized process has been put in place for each department to outline ideas for how to implement the plan’s priorities in a Google form, which is then discussed and voted on.

Submitted suggestions include conducting a diversity audit of the library’s nonfiction collection to supplement a recent audit of the juvenile fiction, chapter and picture book, and YA print collection; establishing YA collections at offsite locations such as rec centers, community centers, and the Urban Dreams social services organization, in a variety of neighborhoods; and decolonizing the library’s catalog by updating potentially problematic subject headings, such as replacing “illegal aliens” with “undocumented immigrants” and making sure that Indigenous and tribal names are accurate.

Staff have been consulted every step of the way, said Collections and Children’s Services Librarian Anne Wilmoth—and they feel that they’re being listened to.

“I think that most of us got into librarianship at least in part in order to help others, help improve the cohesion of our community, engage in community building…and I think most of us are able to see that disengaging from inviting a police presence into the library as much as possible would be a step further toward those goals,” Wilmoth told LJ. “All of us seem to be committed to wanting to work as much as possible toward treating everyone with respect, ensuring they feel seen and heard in our community and are able to access our resources in an equitable manner.”

Much of the discussion of the action items involves language—ensuring that it’s sensitive and respectful, and also accurate. “It's going to guide the bulk of our work for quite a while,” Wilmoth noted, “so we want to make sure we get it right.”

 

REACHING 30 PERCENT

When it comes to allocating the 30 percent of programming, outreach, and collection funds for services to BIPOC communities that ICPL committed to in the strategic plan, Carman noted, “That's not the way that we typically think about programming. We don't keep track of our spending to try to isolate just on a race basis like that. But we felt like we want to do it, so let's try to name it—as clunky as it might feel, let's put it out there, and that'll help us be accountable.”

The documents, he added, are the easy part. “It's the act of putting it into practice that's going to make [us] either effective or not.”

What he wants to avoid, he told LJ, is having a committee of white librarians decide what kinds of programs will draw Black adults, or Latinx youth. Instead, he plans to look to community members to help define what the library can offer “that would be exciting, that would draw you in, that would make you feel like you belong here, and what kind of support could we give to members of that community to facilitate those programs?” He hopes to start an initiative where the library funds community-led programming—compensating participants for their work, he emphasized.

Staff diversity is an area that needs attention as well, Carman said. According to the U.S. Census estimates for July 2019, 78.5 percent of Iowa City’s population is white, 8.2 percent, Black or African American; 5.8 percent, Hispanic or Latino; 7.5 percent, Asian; 0.3 percent, American Indian or Alaska Native; and 2.7 percent as two or more races. While the library has employees of color, its 92 staff members don’t represent the community in terms of visible diversity.

“We put specific language in the strategic plan about identifying barriers to hiring a more diverse workforce,” said Carman. “We're planning on taking a close look every time we have an opportunity to post [a job] to really dig into not only what language we're using in the posting but where we're putting it, what are our educational expectations, what do we need to include about how we support diversity on site, and how our community welcomes diversity, to try to make sure that we're drawing candidates who represent everybody we serve.”

“Including [EDI] initiatives in our plan solidifies and codifies, for all of us, that this is something important that the library is committing to, that we are being held accountable,” said Wilmoth. “With that kind of backbone to our day-to-day work, it will influence our interaction with patrons—at least in terms of helping us keep in mind what our goals are, and what we should always be striving to achieve in every interaction.”

 

MINIMIZING POLICE PRESENCE

The library’s preexisting security procedures are not heavily dependent on police. Library security is managed completely in-house, with explicit behavioral guidelines that staff can draw on for backup. There are no on-site guards in its single location, which serves a population of 69,000. A local beat officer stops in from time to time in a way that feels appropriate, Carman says; the officer’s style and values are aligned with those of the library, and he is well liked in the community. But for the most part, staff are able to handle problems internally, escalating incidents to a manager or Carman if necessary.

In the event of an incident, back-of-the-house follow-up includes a thorough report if law enforcement was involved, a narrative submitted by staff, and photographs or video clips, if applicable. The writeups include actions taken by staff to resolve the issues, either how-to’s or details that need to be dealt with—for example, if someone has been banned from the library for a period of time. This helps staff feel like they know what’s going on, noted Carman, and gives them information they can access quickly from the service desk.

It would be difficult to separate from the police entirely, said Carman. Nonetheless, a full-day staff in-service day is planned for February 2021, either as an all-virtual or a hybrid event, with small groups on-site for a portion of the day and remote for the remainder. The plan is for a half day of exploring alternatives to calling the police and handling more issues in-house, with the second half having staff work in groups to discuss how that might affect policies and practice documents. Carman wants staff to own whatever action steps the library adopts, he said; this should not be a top-down decision. “As passionate as the leadership team is, we are not out on the reference desk very often.”

 

AN ACHIEVABLE GOAL

Carman feels that any library can advance its commitment to social justice at the policy level using similar methods as ICPL.

“Everybody needs to be willing to have hard conversations,” he told LJ. “To say, OK, I'm not an expert but…I want to try to fix it. I'm going to talk about it. I'm going to try to get there.”

Don’t be afraid to talk to city leadership, community members, and staff, Carman advised, and give everyone space to discuss issues. And speak up if you don’t understand something, because “the moment we start trying to impress each other with our knowledge or being out-woke is when we stop being effective. It's about support, not competition.”

Also, he said, pick your battles. If it is clear that the library is unlikely to get support from its community, staff, or board, consider what can be accomplished—a strong collection, or intentional hiring. “If you're having trouble making your public-facing documents reflect what you'd like in the moment, concentrate on the other building blocks and keep working.”

Making equity work the backbone of library service is not always a simple process, said Wilmoth, but “this strategic plan at least sets forth some steps and gives us a timeline so it doesn't feel overwhelming—so we feel like we have a place to start and a route to get there that's more concrete and achievable and breaks it down for us.”

Carman is pleased, he said, to extend the work that ICPL has been doing since before he arrived. “This strategic plan is in no way a departure from what the library has done in the past,” he noted. “It's just a continuation of a focus on trying to make things equitable and make the library really belong to everybody in the community.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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