Linguistic Diversity in Libraries | BackTalk

Racial literacy requires critical thinking to assess situations or texts for inequalities, which is part of comprehensive information literacy skills. As society is making more of an effort to value underrepresented groups’ experiences, we need to make that same type of progress in libraries.

Racial literacy requires critical thinking to assess situations or texts for inequalities, which is part of comprehensive information literacy skills. As society is making more of an effort to value underrepresented groups’ experiences, we need to make that same type of progress in libraries.

Many diversity discussions highlight gross disparities in wages and leadership positions. I will focus on the diverse array of vernaculars spoken by library patrons and staff, or “linguistic diversity.” I suggest that we make libraries more welcoming for marginalized patrons by breaking down barriers between diverse librarians and the privileged gatekeepers who may not understand the inherent value of adding linguistic diversity as part of a larger racial literacy endeavor. This is not a proposal to take anything away from traditional approaches to library services but instead to add language and experiences from others to it.

Outreach to #Ownvoices

We must be sensitive not to make a mockery of this inclusion through the use of stereotypes or cultural appropriation. The safest method is to have people from underrepresented groups assist with coming up with proposed ideas. If you cannot find such staffers, this would make a nice outreach project to underrepresented student groups.

Linguistic diversity can benefit all conversations. Let’s face it, urban vernacular is more colorful and has got mad swagger! Yeah, I said it. While we can encourage people to speak the same language, we don’t need to limit that language to so-called “proper English.” Why should minorities be the only ones required to code-switch?

(As I type this, I realize we desperately need linguistic diversity in Microsoft’s spell-check as well because my dictionary is being hella micro-aggressive. Just sayin’.)

Speaking the language

I do my part to increase linguistic diversity in my areas of instruction and outreach. There are lots of ways to incorporate racially different language into daily library functions. Below are three examples that are fast and free.

  1. I begin workshops by demonstrating our chat service to show students how quick and easy it is to ask a librarian for help. I explain that the only reason I identify myself is so librarians can ignore me if they are busy. I confirm that students can remain anonymous. I end my chat by sending darker skin–toned emojis, then typing “Bye.” The librarians type a farewell to the class, “Bye students. Chat if you need help!” The librarians bid one last farewell, in all capitals, “BYE FELICIA!” This results in boisterous laughter and inquisitive looks to ascertain if I understand what that means. Mos Def! I intentionally use this icebreaker to signal that this is a different type of workshop than expected (i.e., dreaded). If some students/professors do not understand the joke, there are students more than happy to “Blacksplain” it. This knowledge sharing expands both student and professor exposure to this increasingly international phrase.
  2. During February’s so-called “Black History Month” (every month should include black history), the library could allow the Black Student Union to contribute to social media websites. Students would surely be able to add linguistic panache to posts/tweets announcing that the library has extended hours for studying.
  3. I created an Ask-a-Librarian poster that posed an age-old question: “Is your research a Hot Mess?” Naturally this became affectionately known as the Hot Mess poster. We received positive responses after posting it on Twitter, including praise specifically for our usage of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). Other reactions were:
  • Students at the reference desk explicitly stated their research was indeed a Hot Mess.
  • Students took selfies with the poster.
  • People (including library administrators) approached me stating "Hot Mess" as they all laughed. This was problematic because I kept forgetting about the poster and thought they were calling me a hot mess. Dem’s fighting words. So, yes, there are potential hazards involved, but I contend they are worth it.

That poster served its purpose as an attention grabber, and people were clearly amused by it. It proves that our intended audience is receptive to a little linguistic flair.

Racial literacy and linguistic diversity are essential for an inclusive academic environment and meaningful information literacy. Language diversity is a multifaceted resource that should be cultivated rather than viewed as a threat to academic cohesion and scholarly identity. There is nothing to lose, but much to gain, by making space for underrepresented people’s experiences and language. Adding diverse words to mainstream traditional discourse does not remove the existing language. It does not replace standard terminology but rather adds to it. Although, personally, there are some terms I would love to replace, starting with AACR. “Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules. For why?”

Felicia A. Smith is Head of Learning & Outreach, Stanford University Libraries, Palo Alto, CA

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