Equity at All Levels | PLA 2022

At the 2022 Public Library Association (PLA) Conference, held from March 23–25 at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, many of the programs looked at equity work being done throughout the library, including top-down integration into the library’s strategic plan, the creation of dedicated departments and teams, and thoughtful, community-inclusive programming. Here are a few standout sessions attended by LJ editors.

word cloud of equity diversity and inclusion termsAt the 2022 Public Library Association (PLA) Conference, held from March 23–25 at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, many of the programs looked at equity work being done throughout the library, including top-down integration into the library’s strategic plan, the creation of dedicated departments and teams, and thoughtful, community-inclusive programming. Here are a few standout sessions attended by LJ editors:



In the “Doing the Work: Race, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion” session, Melanie Huggins, PLA President and executive director of Richland Library, SC, joined Edgewood Branch Manager Randy Dantrell Heath and Chief Equity and Engagement Officer Tamara King, to share how the library has shifted from not talking about race to centering issues of race and social justice in response to a 2015 community crisis. The library launched a Let’s Talk Race team of 15 staffers to facilitate community conversations, drawing from the complete range of library staff. Each team member commits two years to the work—not more, because the emotional toll is significant even with support—and then becomes a Let’s Talk Race champion. Let’s Talk Race staffers are offered support from on-staff social workers and provided with referrals to outside counselors, and all are volunteers who applied for the role; nonetheless, said the Richland team, “the work is exhausting. You need to bring in new energy, cycle off for rest, and plan for succession.”

So far, some 4,000 participants have joined 100 discussions. Meanwhile, the My Life Experience lab used virtual reality technology to allow patrons to experience things different from their own lives, including immigration, homelessness, sexual assault, and disability. Some 88 percent of users report better understanding and taking that insight back into their own lives. The top question from participants was, "When are you doing this again?"

To extend the work beyond the library, the staff developed Dinner Table Talks to guide families in talking about race with their children, and are working on an open source curriculum that is being beta tested in LIS classes by Dr. Nicole Cooke, Augusta Baker Endowed Chair and Associate Professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science. It will be ready by the end of the year.

In tandem with this patron-facing work, the library is examining its internal policies and practices. The administration removed the MLIS requirement for branch managers and has hired several staffers without the degree, starting with Heath—three of whom are now in library school. The team is also disaggregating its data to examine the disconnect between how many Black patrons are suspended from the library—71 percent—compared with the Black population of the service area—47 percent—and proposing a “level 0” intervention to reduce that disparity. The library is also heavily emphasizing representation in recruitment; the library has gone from 71 percent white staff to somewhere in the 50s, said Huggins, having recently hired 101 new employees of whom 42 percent are Black. “As a leader, you have to be intentional and say it,” she noted, aiming to get more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) staff into decision making roles as well as into the organization overall. Other inclusive practices include offering eight weeks of paid family leave, tuition reimbursement, Juneteenth as a paid holiday, and examining the dress code through an equity lens.



Erin Baker, director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) at Ohio’s Toledo Lucas County Library, shared The Big Idea, the library’s EDI roadmap. This included concrete resources for how library staff, especially managers, can best lead what the library terms Courageous Conversations—for all staff—using rules already proven by the library’s Black Lives Matter book group, and Crucial Conversations, for managers.

The plan hinges on the creation of IDEA work groups, often led by non-managers, and champions who drive the work forward, enabled by staff cohort trainings and local subject expert trainings. A toolkit and flow chart offer learning scenarios, next steps, guidance on what can be handled by managers and what should be escalated to HR, and more. Among the learnings Baker shared was that staff who were quick to cite organizational values were slower to see implementing them as their own job, wanting to defer to those with more expertise, lived experience, or a personal interest. Instead, Baker emphasized that everyone on the team must be prepared to do this work. Other tips Baker shared involved recognizing that although you may have missed a moment it is never too late to speak up; that managers should not allow themselves to be derailed from EDI conversations by the emotional reaction of their reports, but rather give them time to compose themselves and then resume; and that it’s important to “close the loop” or let other workers who have witnessed a problem know that it is being addressed, even if you can’t share the details. In addition to staff and patrons, the library is working on diversity among its suppliers. But ultimately, said Baker, to fully fulfill its potential, the library will need a separate Big Idea strategic plan.



At King County Library System (KCLS), WA, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work is inseparable from the rest of the library’s mission. In the session “Undivided Attention: Getting Real About Uniting DEI within Organizational Framework,” KCLS Executive Director Lisa Rosenblum and Director of DEI Dominica Myers detailed how KCLS integrated equity work into its mission through a top-down model, after Rosenblum created a dedicated DEI department and brought Myers in to lead it.

Rosenblum described the catalyzing moment when, in summer 2020, staff informed her that she wasn’t doing the good job on equity she thought she was. Although the library was providing good programming and equity initiatives, she realized that without a responsible staff member who has decision-making power to provide accountability, the work is often siloed and lacks organization-wide reach. “If it’s just simmering at that level, it won’t reach through the organization,” Rosenblum noted. Despite having formed a diversity committee in 2001, hiring a diversity coordinator in 2009, and adding DEI to the library’s values and framework, Rosenblum realized she had to create a department with the authority to do the necessary work.

Despite some pushback from staff and taxpayers, Rosenblum got buy-in from her board and in fall 2020 hired Myers, formerly the Seattle Opera’s associate director of administration with responsibility for company-wide racial equity and social impact initiatives. Myers was given a budget and she hit the ground running, developing DEI priority areas for KCLS that included social impact, library access, world language equity, assessment, and internal and external communication of DEI values, hiring staff for each area of focus.

Most recently, the department has been partnering with a consulting group to do community demographics and language analysis to get a better picture of the areas served by the 50-branch, geographically dispersed system. Additional work plans are being developed from staff and community surveys, and the library’s DEI work is being integrated with its strategic framework so that what gets budgeted for and measured gets done. It’s got to come from the top so that it’s done systematically,” said Rosenblum. “Your DEI plan is your strategic plan, and vice versa.”



“A Black History Month Taxonomy: Programming in Public Libraries” featured research conducted as part of an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)–funded project to examine ways programming can reach beyond the standard components of Black History Month—and how a deeper well of knowledge holds benefits for patrons and staff alike. Panelists Deborah Robison, Grace Jackson-Brown, and Amita Lomial, with moderator Shauntee Burns Simpson, offered a look at Black History Month and the programming commonly done around it, and discussed why focusing on Black history and achievements one month out of the year isn’t enough—it should be more than a timeline of slavery and civil rights.

The panelists provided a wealth of resources, from those listed on the Black Caucus of ALA (BCALA) website, to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History—which the majority of libraries surveyed did not know existed—to a Black History Month Program Audit spreadsheet library staff can use to evaluate current offerings and make a case for expanding them. In addition to Black history and culture-centered programming ideas, suggestions included staff reading and discussion groups, overlaying local library history with a provided Black history timeline, and asking the library’s community to help fill knowledge gaps—as well as some good advice for engaging reluctant administrators and community members, such as working with local African American churches as partners, or spotlighting Black history that white communities may already know about, like Negro Baseball Leagues.

All cautioned against providing passive or easy engagement only—“Book lists and displays are not programs,” noted Lomial—and encouraged staff to step beyond their fear of how some administrators or library users might react. “At end of day,” she said, “it’s not about how we feel but what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”

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