My first job out of college was working as a preschool teaching assistant in a state funded preschool program. Children in this program were “at-risk”, meaning they were growing up in poverty, or with only one parent, or with parents who didn’t speak English. An essential part of our work were home visits, where my lead teacher and I visited every student’s home in order to get to know our students better.
During these visits we asked caregivers two pages worth of questions, including questions about discipline methods, family background, a typical day in the life of the family. We learned the names of beloved grandparents. We sometimes ate the same food that the child every day (who was I to turn down a homemade tamale?). We observed how many books were in the home. We made connections, and developed relationships. If parents had had bad experiences with education in their past, this work was a little more difficult. We’d need to gently untangle years of bad experiences and demonstrate to wary parents that we could be trusted. (And for many families, we were also working through years and years of historical trauma, although we didn’t know that’s what it was at that time.) Just as we soothed the feelings of a distraught child in the classroom, we extended this same care and concern to the child’s family.
If we determined the family needed, we’d refer them to social workers on staff who would work to make sure utility bills got paid, ensure the family had enough food, or help caregivers finish their own education. By knowing and seeing the whole child–and the whole family, and school, and community–we could tailor their classroom experience to help them succeed socially, emotionally, and academically.
The six years I spent working in the field of early childhood education had a profound impact on my professional values. It was there I developed my passion for helping people, and learned that listening to people’s stories is the first and most powerful step in helping them change their lives. I’ve taken those lessons forward with me into my work in libraries. Those home visits taught me patience, understanding, and compassion, and those qualities have made me a better reference librarian and improved my ability at readers advisory. By having a deeper understanding of the needs and wants of the community I serve, every program, collection, or service I propose or implement will be stronger, better, and more useful.
I’ve learned how to create safe environments for sharing and learning by being open, vulnerable, and nonjudgmental. While booktalking to middle school students I’ll share personal stories, inspiring the students to share their own. By being easily recognizable and approachable in my community, I’ve become the face of the library to many people, and this has allowed me to have fruitful conversations with library users in grocery stores and in the clearance section at Target as well as at the reference desk. These interactions inform every aspect of my library work, and contribute to my vision for truly responsive and integrated library spaces, services, and programs.
I’ve always believed that this type of community engagement is crucial to library services, but I believe that now it’s more important than ever. When the humanity of people in our communities is called into question, one of the strongest responses we can make is by helping elevate and amplify their voices and their stories. This is why, even if your community is entirely white (which it’s probably not), books with children of color on the covers, and books written by authors of color, are still crucial to have in your collection, and need to be included in book talks, on book lists, and included during your readers’ advisory sessions.
But to go even further, there are stories in your own community that deserve to be told and voices that need to be listened to. Marginalized voices deserve a seat on your library board. They deserve a voice at the table when you’re planning programs, remodeling your spaces, and creating your collections. And you’re not going to hear these voices sitting behind a desk or holed up in your office, or even on the floor of your library, or commenting on your facebook page. You’re going to hear these voices out in your community, at the park or at church socials or at a school information night. You will have to do the work of being present, being engaged, being available. You’ll need to start by being vulnerable yourself, by admitting you don’t have all the answers and you don’t do everything right, but you’re there to listen, and to support.
Here’s the thing: it’s going to take months, if not years, for you to become trusted. It will take hours of being available in spaces, making sometimes awkward approaches, trying to prove your value. And you do. You need to prove your value, and be authentic. You can’t just throw up a sign or have one “multicultural” event and call it a day. That’s not how it works.
And this isn’t news. From Managing Library Outreach Programs: a how-to-do-it Manual for Librarians*, by Marcia Trotta, published 1993:
The first step toward success is the most important: commitment to the goal of making library services available to all. We need to face reality and realize that not everyone is comfortable within our traditional library boundaries. The buildings are imposing, the amounts of information are overwhelming, unfamiliar cultural manifestations are threatening. In many instances, people don’t know that the library has something for them. Outreach services, also known as ‘the off-site approach’, offer librarians the opportunity to open up communication about the library and its services on the user’s own turf. It gives librarians the chance to observe and listen to the population intended to be served, so that the barriers can be overcome. Bringing the library outside its walls requires a change of perception about the library and its roles, both on the part of the librarians and of the users (Trotta, 4; bold emphasis added).
Also from this book: Chicago Public Library added a social worker to its staff in 1969. I don’t think they employ one any longer, but they’re currently working to integrate library branches with affordable housing options. And while they lost their social worker, other public libraries have added this position in recent years, which is a step in the right direction. How much more embedded can you be, then to have your library where people live?
But even if you can’t integrate your library spaces in your community to such a degree, you can get out in your community. Go to events, be recognizable and available (which can be scary for some, so do what feels comfortable for you), and above all–listen. Listen without judgment, assumptions, or an agenda. Listen, and observe, and be present. This is the only way to learn about your community, and in turn, help them achieve what they want to achieve.
And above all, remember what Mr Vonnegut said:
*If you have never read this book, please do. It has been updated, but I appreciated reading the older edition as well, to see how perceptions and approaches have changed, or in some instances, stayed the same.