Libraries Nationwide Seek to Foster Dialog

In the weeks since the 2016 presidential election, librarians across the United States have taken actions to foster dialog, confront intolerance, and reaffirm public libraries as safe spaces for all patrons. Whether as a reaction to the need to initiate community conversations or as a response to incidents taking place within the library, library employees are looking at ways to get people talking—and listening.

Message at Bay Ridge branch of Brooklyn Public Library

In the weeks since the 2016 presidential election, librarians across the United States have taken actions to foster dialog, confront intolerance, and reaffirm public libraries as safe spaces for all patrons. Whether as a reaction to the need to initiate community conversations or as a response to incidents taking place within the library, library employees are looking at ways to get people talking—and listening.


After the election Robyn Case, adult services librarian at the Wright Memorial Public Library (WMPL) in Oakwood, OH, felt that she, along with the library’s patrons, were trapped in a filter bubble that prevented them from perceiving one another’s differences in opinion. On November 9, Case launched an oral history project to capture patrons’ responses to the election, putting out a call for community members to come to the library and contribute their stories. Case pulled together the oral history project quickly. “I launched it pretty spontaneously the day after the election results,” she told LJ. “I just needed something to do because I was pretty surprised and taken off guard. I think it was for me a way to understand.” Soon after launching the project, Case spoke with WYSO, the local public radio station, and invited local listeners to contribute their stories. Using oral history kits from the library’s Maker space she collected eight interviews, representing a variety of viewpoints from the community. The finished product will be released as a short podcast series on the library website, and WYSO may air a longer version on the radio. Through the ongoing oral history project—similar to NPR’s StoryCorps—Case hopes to give voice to a wide array of political views in the community, and create a platform for genuine listening and dialog. Case describes the WMPL population, with 13,424 registered patrons in 2015, as an affluent Dayton community with a high regard for education. The library is situated in Montgomery County, where the population, according to the 2010 census, is relatively homogeneous—73.7 percent white and 94 percent English-speaking. But Case and her fellow librarians are still aware of divides. Shortly before Election Day, her colleague, WMPL reference librarian Elizabeth Schmidt, put together a YouTube video with the message, “Democrats. Republicans. Different Politics. One Library.” Case added that the project also addresses another critical aspect of librarianship. In a November 30 interview on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show, political commentator Scottie Nell Hughes referred to a growing sentiment in American discourse that “People who say facts are facts, they’re not really facts… There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” But, Case said, “We [librarians] are bothered by that sort of thinking, because we are in the business of trying to help people find and use quality information and evaluate sources. This has a lot to do with research skills.” Case sees this oral history project as a way to collect and share quality information that speaks to patrons’ personal truths. “Throughout the election we learned to stereotype people. There are these different demographics and we think of them as, ‘Oh this [group] votes this way and that [group] votes that way.’ And we think of them as homogenous. When you sit down with someone you realize it's so much more nuanced than that.” Her project was partly influenced by a trip to Northern Ireland to witness efforts to rebuild communities torn apart by the Troubles, the political conflict that lasted from the late 60s until a peace accord was signed in 1998. At Corrymeela, a peace and reconciliation center near Ballycastle in County Antrim, she saw people from both sides of the conflict come together to talk. “Once you have a face to someone who disagrees with you,” she observed, “It's harder to dehumanize their argument.” In her first interview, she interviewed a patron who expressed an opposing political view. “Sitting with her and listening to her I could not help but be so empathetic. It was a growing experience for me to listen to her like that. And so I'm really hoping that is what comes through with the final product. To capture these voices and let people hear the human voices of people who are really different than them.”


Other librarians sought ways to make patrons feel welcome and included in the days after the election. At the Bay Ridge branch of Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), Senior Children's Librarian Katya Schapiro wrote on her library’s chalkboard, “You are welcome here. You are loved.” The Bay Ridge branch serves an ethnically diverse community, including many recent immigrants. Recent American Community Survey data estimates that the neighborhood population is 17 percent Latinx, 14 percent Asian American, and 13 percent Arab American. More than half speak a language other than English at home. Of the total population, an estimated 35 percent were born in another country, with 11 percent arriving in the United States since 2000. The library offers programming to welcome its diverse constituents, including Arabic and English story times and classes for English language learners and patrons applying for citizenship. Library Information Supervisor Rita Meade tweeted a photo of the sign ‎and BPL, a 60-branch system, took this message and amplified it, sending out an email from Meade on November 29 to patrons systemwide as part of its year-end campaign: “Regardless of age, race, gender, or income,” it read, “BPL provides a sense of dignity and belonging to all who visit  their neighborhood branches.” For Meade, tweeting the sign wasn’t a radical action. “It’s not a political message, but we can’t ignore what’s going on in our country and city, in terms of Islamophobia, etc.”  She added, “We just want the library to be welcoming to all! That's our job.”


Evanston Public Library (EPL), IL, also took a public stance against Islamophobia. On November 21, librarians preparing for a public talk in conjunction with Northwestern University’s Middle East and North African Studies program discovered that seven books on Islam and the Qu’ran had been defaced with racist language and imagery. In the following days, the library put out a statement against the crime, saying it would prosecute the perpetrator(s) to the full extent of the law, and immediately set out to replace the defaced books. Library director Karen Danczak Lyons told LJ, “I can tell you we had a tremendous outpouring from the community, both in terms of messages and people stopping by and saying this is terrible and this is not what we expect in Evanston. In fact [people] held a rally in front of the library in support of the library.” Lyons emphasized that EPL has always been committed to being a place for civil discourse and welcoming patrons of all backgrounds. “That's our role: to be a place where the community can come together for exploration of topics of interest and civil discourse and learning together. Public libraries, today, more than ever, are part of the bedrock of democracy. Where all points of view are welcome and people come together to learn and to think about topics based upon facts. With the Internet and with Google, with a few clicks of the keyboard, you can get thousands of results. But as we know, public libraries and librarians carefully make sure that materials and facts are in fact correct. And that we provide accurate current information that's been vetted.” In partnership with other community organizations, the library helps produce and cohost thousands of programs each year aimed towards building community and providing opportunities for people to encounter new ideas. And as part of her commitment to inclusion, Lyons’s goal is to have 25 percent of all EPL programs and services take place outside library walls. “We turn outward very intentionally.” WMPL’s Case echoed this sentiment when discussing the importance of public libraries taking part in civic discourse: “That’s our purpose, to be there for the community.” Since the election, libraries of all kinds have been finding ways to help their communities feel safe and welcome to share opinions, access information, and—perhaps most important in the months and years to come—learn from each other.
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