Disagreement, while uncomfortable, is a normal and needed part of librarianship. I know going into this that people will disagree with me. And many of those people are librarians I deeply admire which in a way makes this post even harder to write. But I truly believe that disagreement is healthy and can be done respectfully. And it definitely shouldn’t stop us from sharing our opinions and engaging in conversations about our profession.
Two weeks ago, Kendra told us to Check our Holidays at the Door. Kendra advocates against the type of inauthentic holiday programs that some librarians try to squeeze in in an attempt to be “diverse.” And I am in total agreement that this type of holiday programming is tokenism and should be avoided. And as someone who grew up in the United States, and is still aware of movements like this one, I can see why for some American libraries it makes sense to focus on seasonal themes rather than holiday ones.
But the problem for me is that this argument was then extrapolated to include all holiday programming in any library ever. And I think whenever we use phrases like “all,” “any,” and “ever” we have to be aware of the implication of those words.
The reasons given for excluding all types of holiday programming are:
1. You are not an expert on all holidays.
2. Holiday programs exclude and alienate people from the library.
I’d like to address both of these arguments because after grappling with this topic for over a week, I’ve come to realize I simply disagree. And as a pretty outspoken atheist, I can assure you it has nothing to do with any religious hidden agenda.
#1: Your Community is the Expert
Where I live – Vancouver, British Columbia – we take a an approach to holiday programming that encompasses the official government policy of multiculturalism. As my colleague Tess Prendergast pointed out, we don’t do the whole “melting pot” thing here.
At the Vancouver Public Library where I work we follow a community-led libraries model. This model was developed to reach community members who have traditionally not used the library due to social exclusion and other barriers. In this model, the community member becomes the “expert” and helps guide the library in developing services and collections that meet their needs. Different groups have different wants and needs and our programming should reflect these differences.
Using the community-led model means we work with community groups and other agencies to plan holiday programming which fit with my library’s stated mission to create an “engaged, informed, and connected city.” Recently, my library hosted a week long series of holiday programs called “The Day of the Dead, Coast Salish Style.” Our VPL Aboriginal Storyteller in Residence, Rosemary Georgeson, has worked in years past with Latino artists from California on the intersections between the Day of the Dead and First Nations traditions around honouring ancestors and acknowledging the life cycle. Drawing on these conversations, she and other library staff decided to work with community groups to put on a week full of art workshops, storytelling, hands on crafts, and participation in a local parade. This series of programs was a huge success and drew in many community members who have traditionally faced social exclusion from the library.
Here’s another example. At Surrey Libraries, librarians work with community groups to showcase Diwali. They hosted a program that included a sari wrapping demonstration, a bollywood dance workshop, and menhdi by donation by partnering with a local South Asian women’s group. They also worked with a local arts club called Shan-E-Punjab to provide a Bhangra and Gidha performance. These festive activities were chosen by the community groups as ways they publicly celebrate Diwali, and it drew a crowd of over 200 people.
Neither of these examples focus on religion; they focus on the cultural significance the holiday has for members of our community. These programs are not viewed as an assimilation tactic or an expression of cultural power or privilege. In fact, I would argue they do the opposite. They help build partnerships with community groups and foster the belief that all of our cultural backgrounds are welcome and visible in the library.
Do these types of holiday programs happen all year round and for every major holiday from all cultures? Probably not. Like many other libraries, we experience a stress on limited staff and resources, in addition to an ever increasing list of job duties. But it’s certainly what we strive for, and working with the community in general (not just for holiday programming) is always a top priority. My point is - it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing mindset. We plan these programs based on community feedback and we try to the best of our abilities to reflect what is important to them.
#2: Every Program Has a Chance of Alienating or Excluding Someone
One of the commenters on Kendra’s post wrote this statement that summed up exactly what I was thinking. Kate, if you read this post, thank you for this perspective:
“…the exact same thing happens when our therapy dog visits, and little Johnny is allergic to dogs. The same thing happens when we don’t buy the hardcover book because we are using that book’s money on a downloadable audio instead; little Johnny with no device nor internet can’t read it. And the same thing happens when we have Lego club on Saturday, instead of during the week because then the Orthodox Jewish family cannot come. Exclusion happens whether we want it to or not (gosh we try so hard for not, don’t we!!), but it happens. Sometimes we don’t see it or know about it, and I think this is the entire thrust of ‘no holiday programs’ – just remove it all together and we won’t exclude (offend) anyone…well, except those that wish we had some kind of fun event because they can’t afford to take their kid to the paid event at the local mall, or don’t want to drag their kids through the department store to see Santa and have to worry about purchasing something. Yep, we’ve now excluded them too, because the library’s events are FREE and open to anyone who WANTS to come. It’s simple really – if you don’t want to come to THIS particular program, then don’t. There will be something equally fabulous some other day that you WANT to come to, not to worry.”
This is not to say that we shouldn’t be mindful of potential exclusion – we absolutely should and I think Kendra’s post gets that point across. But the reality is some people don’t celebrate anything – holidays, birthdays, nothing – while other people would have a problem with Harry Potter programs because of witchcraft and magic. So then it begs the question – why are we drawing the line at holiday programs when so many other things we do have a chance of offending/alienating/excluding? If you look at it from an academic standpoint then the argument starts to fall apart.
Lastly, on a more philosophical level, when I think about the best possible community I imagine a place where ideas are freely exchanged, where we support diversity in actions and words, and where people are open-minded about each other. How do we achieve this? We have to bring people together, and to me the library stands as one of the most appropriate places to do just that. If people only celebrate within their own cultural group, then we’ve lost a chance to bridge a cultural divide and create an inclusive community.
So that’s my opinion. This is what works in my city.
I’m thankful to all of my fellow library workers for starting and adding to this discussion.