Deep Work and Children’s Librarianship

Sometimes when I talk to my academic librarian friends about the institutional support for professional development and research-related work they are guaranteed as part of their jobs I get a little green with envy. The paid flights and hotels! The time off teaching! The expectation to continuously learn and grow! The access to research locked behind paywalls!

I love being a children’s librarian at a public library. While I don’t get all those perks, I do get an immense amount of joy and satisfaction from the work I perform. But lately I’ve been wondering about how to do more of what my academic librarians have (more) access to than their public library counterparts. It’s something called deep work.

I was introduced to the concept of deep work by a colleague who lent me the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. The first part of the book defines and describes the concept; the second part of the book gives ‘rules’ for how to achieve it. I’m not going to focus on the rules – they will work for some and not for others. I want to focus on how the concept of deep work made me think critically about my day-to-day activities as a children’s librarian.

So what is deep work? Newport defines it as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” Deep work stands in contrast to shallow work which is performed when distracted and is easy to replicate. He believes the ability to do deep work is becoming increasingly rarer while also becoming increasingly valuable. Those who can integrate deep work into their lives will thrive.

One of Newton’s points that stuck with me the most is the importance of a distraction-free time frame where you can immerse yourself in study or in practice. Having no distractions is incredibly valuable as it allows the mind to strengthen neurons in the brain circuit by adding layers of myelin, thereby “cementing the skill.” It made me think about how often at work I have no distractions. Any? Firstly, I work in an open office environment. Secondly, the amount of time I’m not working the reference desk, programming, or doing community outreach is relatively small. And even then I may be on back-up reference duty or be frantically trying to stay on top of emails. So the first challenge I identified for myself is carving out distraction-free times where I am not responsible for serving the public, am not needed by other staff, and can set aside shallow work like replying to emails, prepping program materials, or organizing things.

Newton acknowledges this challenge – deep work is rare. Many businesses and institutions don’t actively support it because there are more perceived pressing demands in addition to an emphasis on things like “serendipitous collaboration, rapid communication, and an active presence of social media.” In short, we like to be busy. We identify with being busy. In a library setting, busy is good! It means we are a well-used resource in our community worthy of funding. But I also find myself wondering if there are things we do because “doing lots of stuff in a visible manner” feels productive. And easier. It is much easier for me to spend an hour replying to emails than it is to read a relevant research article, take notes, and think critically about how to apply what I read to my work. That’s just one example of many.

Newton’s last point about deep work is that is is meaningful. It gives satisfaction. And it is not that the specifics of one’s job – storytime, weeding, helping families find the perfect book – are what makes the work meaningful, but the rarefied approach to one’s job that makes it meaningful. This point challenged my thinking as I do believe that those job duties have meaning, at least to me. When I look closer at them, I realize that the effort I put into planning an intentional and interactive storytime and the relationship focus I bring to my work with families are really what make it meaningful. I would even use the phrase Newton employs – “a sense of sacredness.” So even if I’m not able to carve out that distraction-free time every day to read, write, and reflect, I am able to bring an element of deep work to my job as a children’s librarian.

After finishing the book I admit I was left with a desire for more time at work (and not at home blogging) to do deep work. Which is not to say that that’s all I want to do. Even the book cautions that about 4 hours a day is the maximum the brain can spend in deep concentration. But right now I don’t feel like I have a good balance. Part of that is the reality of my work schedule, job responsibilities, and work space. And I have little control over those. But part of that is because I choose to focus on shallow work tasks during those times when I do have an opportunity to do deep work and that’s where the shift can happen. It’s more about me prioritizing the deep work and being okay with letting things like email wait until a later time.

Wouldn’t it be cool if all the children’s librarians had the time to do this level of work and then spend our meetings discussing our findings? I’m thinking about the ways we could impact service, program design and delivery, and the general direction of youth services. I don’t see deep work as solely singular.

Here are some questions I’m asking myself. I would love to get your feedback on in the comments!

  • What aspects of my job already involve deep work?
  • What strategies could I implement to carve out time for deep work?
  • What are the topics or issues I’d most like to to dive into if I had time to do deep work on a regular basis?

Thank you, dear blog readers and commenters, for pushing me to think deeper about my work as a children’s librarian. All of the comments – whether they are in agreement or in challenge – are a valuable part of my growth as a professional.

Early Literacy Research is Not Neutral: A Critique of Every Child Ready to Read

We’re going long form today, folks.

At our Winter 2019 Library Services for Children Journal Club meeting we read an article by my friend and former colleague Tess Prendergast where she cites a 2011 article by Stooke and McKenzie called “Under Our Own Umbrella: Mobilizing Research Evidence for Early Literacy Programs in Public Libraries.” I promised I’d be back to write more about my reaction because it *shook* me. And I love when articles do that.

If you’ve already read the article, please jump straight down to the reflection section.

What follows is a deep dive into the article and an examination of how the authors’ findings have impacted my thinking about early literacy. I’m asking children’s librarians, myself included, to take a step back and think critically about something we’ve adopted so wholeheartedly that it’s hard not to talk about it when we talk about library services to the early years community.

So let’s start with the article. Stooke and McKenzie come out of the gate strong. They begin with the argument that we rarely investigate research evidence and the “political, economic, social, and material consequences that may attend privileging one form of evidence over another” (15). They turn their attention to children’s librarians in particular – what research evidence do we use to plan our programs and to deliver messages to caregivers? And does the evidence we’re using help us further our mission in our unique role as a library? They come out even stronger with the argument that using the evidence-based practice model to choose “research evidence on which to base practice decisions is… not a neutral act.”

What they are arguing is thus: The research we use to justify the importance of early literacy is not neutral. The research we use to determine what to focus on in storytime is not neutral. The research we use to talk to caregivers about how to get their child ready to read is not neutral.

To investigate this claim the authors looked at data from a variety of sources. They interviewed 25 Canadian librarians, they observed both school-age programs and storytimes, and they consulted contemporary and historical professional literature for children’s services librarians. Their intent was to “explore how certain things came to be said or done and to identify potential consequences, including those consequences that fall most heavily on vulnerable groups” (18).

Research Trends

Let’s take a walk through history. Sooke and McKenzie provide an overview of children’s services in North America over the past century including the varying research trends. They note that the ALSC core competencies expect children’s librarians to keep abreast of trends and research in “librarianship, child development, education, and allied fields” (19). However, this expectation is relatively new, emerging most strongly in the last 15 years, whereas the origins of children’s librarianship looked different.

“When public libraries in North America began serving children more than a century ago, they did not view themselves as parent educators or reading teachers. Reading as a field of study was in its infancy (Gillen & Hall, 2003) and for much of the twentieth century, librarians viewed children not as students, but as readers with their own reading tastes (Walter, 2001, p. 13). They were unperturbed that schools and libraries approached children’s reading differently and took pride in the differences (Ziarnik, 2003)” (19).

In an effort to gain more credibility within the field of librarianship itself, children’s librarians turned to research as a way of elevating their status and as a way to advocate for funding and resources. From the late 1970s through the 1990s the emergent literacy movement gained traction and reading picture books to kids was viewed as one of the most important activities for developing literacy. Children’s librarians found themselves positioned as experts in this area and aided in the development of “new professional identities as early childhood educators with specialized knowledge of books” (20).

By the year 2000, a new trend in reading instruction gained favour: scientifically-based reading research (SBRR). The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) released a National Reading Panel report called Teaching Children to Read which was especially dominant in educational policy discussions in the U.S. The research used to write this report was “only experimental or quasi-experimental studies with sample sizes “considered large enough to be useful” (21). An emphasis on data-driven results has been felt keenly in schools and school libraries. A focus on research-driven results and measurable outcomes has meant more tests and quantitative measures of reading readiness.

Sooke and McKenzie argue that this push has been so strong that libraries have adopted school-style learning and school readiness as part of their mandate. Children’s librarians now talk about school readiness often with caregivers. Children’s librarians integrate school readiness skills into storytime. Rather than a place of “self-directed literacy learning” the public library has become “a place where parents take their children to reinforce school success” (Ward & Wason-Elam, 2003, p. 20). And even more unfortunately, by adopting the school’s mandate around reading instruction libraries have placed themselves in direct competition with other social agencies for scarce resources to support it. Yep, it’s a money game.

Which Research is the Best?

Sooke and McKenzie next take a closer look at the NICHD’s National Reading Panel’s report Teaching Children to Read . One finding from the report that impacted libraries is that it’s “unnecessary to delay intentional literacy instruction until first grade” which Sooke and McKenzie claim led to more didactic library programs where staff explicitly teach phonemic awareness and ask comprehension questions using dialogic reading. In 2001 the Public Library Association (PLA) and the Association for Library Services for Children (ALSC) forged a partnership with the NICHD which culminated in Every Child Ready to Read @ Your Library. As we know, ECRR was created to develop library programs based on this research and to disseminate the research to parents and caregivers.

Sooke and McKenzie draw our attention to ECRR because it has been so successful. They call its adoption “unprecedented” in terms of uptake by libraries. But they also call our attention to it because they believe it has been an “uncritical adoption of recommendations derived from studies that frame research and literacy so narrowly” (23). What do they mean by narrow? The research used to create ECRR excluded the following:

  • Objective case studies
  • Correlational research
  • Observational studies
  • Sociocultural studies

It is the last on that list that Sooke and McKenzie find the most disturbing as the field of education has since debated this exclusion and now widely draws on sociocultural research to inform classroom practice. They define sociocultural research by stating it “foregrounds the roles played by language and culture in literacy learning. Learning and development in sociocultural research are viewed in terms of participation in a community and the appropriation of the valued practices of that community” (23). Unlike the field of education, the field of librarianship appears to have an unwavering committment to ECRR and the SBRR it was founded on.

Consequences of a Narrow Research Lens

The authors are not shy about their concerns. Relying on the narrow framing of research in ECRR has two major consequences:

  1. Undermining the public library’s ability to achieve important goals with respect to social inclusion
  2. Positioning children’s services librarians as educational technicians rather than professionals

With regards to #1, they posit that “literacy practices derived exclusively from cognitive research cannot be responsive to the cultural and linguistic diversity that characterizes Canada and the United States” (24). The authors use their observations of a Reading Buddies program to illustrate how sociocultural research would have helped the program reach its targeted audience or would have helped the librarians develop a program better suited to the language learners who attended. Here is what they say with regards to #2:

Framing research narrowly obviates the need for practitioners to critically reflect on the consequences of their actions. They need only to follow guidelines for best practice and adopt the research-based handouts and scripts developed by agencies such as the
ALA. A narrow framing of research limits acceptable research findings to those derived from experimental and quasi-experimental studies, thereby making it difficult for librarians themselves to conduct research that would count. Consequently, children’s librarians come to rely on the expert opinions of others rather than on their own professional judgment (25).


Sooke and McKenzie end their article with the conclusion that “adopting a widened lens on research, one that is a more inclusive understanding of what might count as research and evidence, opens up new questions and new understandings about early childhood literacy.” They urge us to ask questions and to investigate ways a widened lens could help us shine a light on our uniqueness as a public library. Lastly, they call on children’s librarians to become researchers themselves – to help create a “literature under our own umbrella” (27).

This article had a profound effect on me because it made me question something I myself had never taken the time to question. As someone who loves reading research and who thinks it’s important to implement research-based practices, I was alarmed at first to consider that the Every Child Ready to Read framework may be leaving out important parts of the conversation around literacy development. What is being left out of the conversation? Who is being left out of the conversation? Would broadening our research lens help us better serve vulnerable populations? These are the questions I’m left pondering.

To be fair, the second edition of Every Child Ready to Read – ECRR2 – broadens the phrasing we use with caregivers to 5 key practices – talking, reading, singing, writing, and playing. I’ve found these 5 practices much easier to cater to different audiences and also easier to use to weave in diversity and different cultural contexts. So despite the fact that sociocultural research was not used to inform ECRR, I think we as children’s librarians can the knowledge of our communities to take those factors into account. It doesn’t change the the underpinnings of the model, but it does allow for some flexibility.

Another point the authors made that hit home with me is the argument that libraries have given up their commitment as an open literacy environment in favour of catering quite significantly to the goals and mandates of schools. I would argue that this loss comes at a time when libraries are struggling with their identities in general – who are we if we aren’t solely book warehouses anymore? As libraries try to figure out how to best serve their communities, prove their relevance, and perhaps most urgently, fight for funding, latching onto something like education gives us cred. My worry, which I felt reflected in the article, is that we latch on so tight that we lose sight of our own goals outside of our common allies.

I have seen this “latch” reflected in our professional conversations about storytime and early literacy in particular. In the Winter 2018 Children & Libraries journal there is an article by Kathleen Campana called Moving from ECRR to ECRS: Getting Every Child Ready for School. Whoa. Now we have moved from preparing kids to read to preparing them for school. And this is framed as the core goal of storytime. The article actually includes many social emotional skills that are not covered in ECRR which I think is great! What gives me pause is the framing – we are no longer using our unique services (free storytimes) to promote our own goals but rather to support the education system. Things like Kindergarten Boot Camps are not uncommon in libraries nowadays. Even Summer Reading Programs are being redesigned to align with curriculum standards.

The questions that keeps popping into my mind are:

  • Do we know who we are without schools?
  • Is preparing children to learn to read a main goal of a library?
  • What other mandates unique to libraries, and perhaps more relevant to vulnerable populations, do we leave out when we focus so heavily on school readiness?
  • What research can we use to help us meet our unique library mandates and reclaim our space as a socially inclusive literacy-based institution?

I certainly don’t want to position schools or the education system as our enemy. We are natural allies. But I think that allyship would better serve libraries if it was based on collaboration rather than one-way support.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to discuss in the comments.

Community Outreach and the Devaluation of Children’s Librarians

I’m one of those people who excitedly awaits their copy of the American Libraries magazine every two months so I can read up on all the cool stuff people are doing in our field. In the May 2018 issue there is an excellent article by Meredith Farkas called Get Out of the Library: Embedding Librarians in Our Communities. Coming from an academic library stand point, Farkas talks about the concept of embedded librarianship which situates librarians within their communities so that patrons don’t necessarily need to come to the physical library to get help.  She gives a few examples of how this model works in different types of libraries; for example, public library staff attend local community events to share books and answer questions.  She states that “embedded librarianship is about building strong relationships within the communities libraries serve and requires a deep understanding of the needs and habits of our patrons.” I wholeheartedly agree.

What Farkas calls embedded librarianship I’ve known under the phrase community-led librarianship. The model and philosophy is similar. I highly recommend reading The Community-Led Libraries Toolkit for concrete strategies on how this model works.  Being a community-led library means investigating barriers to library service, especially for socially excluded communities, and finding ways to empower those communities to be involved in the planning of future library services. It requires library staff to be embedded in the community as relationship building is crucial. It is slow, sometimes difficult work, but absolutely necessary in helping the library be a force for social justice. At my library we have community librarians whose major job responsibility is to be out in the community, but children’s librarians are also expected to do community-led work. At its best, this model involves all level of staff in community outreach efforts.

A few weeks after reading the articles by Farkas, I came upon another article on the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) blog about community outreach. This one is titled  Getting Creative: Utilizing Volunteers in Early Literacy Outreach.  The title alone gave me pause, but reading it through filled me with many questions and concerns. It sat in stark contrast to the first article I read where outreach is seen as a key and critical role of our job as library staff. I wanted to take some time to dive into the post and the broader problem I see with regards to children’s librarianship specifically and outreach.

In the blog post, the author begins by noting that her library is  “working with too few staff and is receiving more requests for outreach visits.”  It’s an unfortunate reality that many public libraries are understaffed. This library’s solution was to enlist volunteers to fulfill these requests for outreach visits. The author notes that they worked with their Human Resources department to “determine that providing outreach storytimes was an acceptable task for a specifically trained volunteer because it is not an essential service and it is an expansion of services initiated and managed by the library staff.” [bold text added by me]. And that folks is where all my questions begin.

In the very next paragraph the author says the volunteers are managed by the Youth Services & Outreach Librarian. How is outreach not an essential service if it is literally in the name of one of the jobs at this library? Is this not what the Youth Services & Outreach Librarian spends a huge chunk of time doing in her paid position?  Even the fact that an “expansion of services” can be done by volunteers is worrying to me. Why would the library ever need to hire more youth services librarians when all that extra work is now done by volunteers?  It doesn’t even matter if the volunteers are already knowledgeable about early literacy. Sure, that will make the visits more successful for the kids. But it does nothing to advocate for our unique positions as paid library staff members who bring value to our community. We are outsourcing our jobs for free and we’re somehow excited about it.

A part of me wonders if library outreach volunteers are more common for things like storytime because working with children continues to be a devalued service.  Which is the case for any job dominated by women. You’re just reading to kids, right?  You just sing a few songs, right? Storytime does not hold the same prestige or value as the embedded work in academic libraries Farkas describes in her article.  As much as we tirelessly advocate for how important the first three years of life are for setting up brain development for the rest of life, it is still not seen as something that should be fully funded and protected. We advocate for how the work we do as youth services professionals contributes to a self-regulating, literate population that is able to keep using the library in all it’s different forms.  But sometimes it feels like someone hears us singing “Roly Poly” and our credibility goes out the door. All we have to do is look to the U.K. to see the hollowing out of children’s public library services which this research article shows is “coupled with a rise in closures, community run and outsourced libraries, and volunteering.”

Another thing that worries me about the use of volunteers for library outreach is the move away from relationship building, the key component of community-led libraries, towards a system of “wine and dine them” for preschools and daycares. When I visit preschools and daycares I am doing much more than just a storytime. I am investigating the level of need among their kids and their space. Do these kids have regular access to books? What library resources can I further connect them to to continue to support their literacy after my visit? What is their neighbourhood like and what resources are nearby? Is there potential for another sort of partnership between the library and this group?  What training is needed or wanted by the preschool teachers themselves? These are the in-depth questions we ask when we do outreach as part of our job. I’m sure a volunteer could be trained to ask some of these questions, but they will miss the bigger picture of how this visit fits into an overall strategy of serving a distinct library user group.  Sending volunteers also assumes a one-sided relationship between the library and the centre (i.e. the library has something to offer and the centre is there to consume). These relationships are shallow, often short-lived, and do not help build community relationships to the same degree.

So we’re in high demand. So we’re understaffed. What can we do instead of implementing volunteers who do outreach for us? How can we maintain our value to the library itself and to the community? Here’s what I’ve got:

Bringing in volunteers to do the paid work of a youth services staff member isn’t creative. It’s scary.  I believe embedding ourselves in the community is part of our jobs. How can we creatively make this happen without devaluing our profession?

Talking to Kids about Race

About a year ago I read a book called NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.  It’s a thought-provoking book.  Many of the chapters hit home but none quite as much as the one called “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.”  It had a concrete impact on the way I talk and read to my 5-year-old niece Sophie about race.  It made me think about the ways my white parents did or didn’t talk to me about race as a kid.  This blog post is informed by my experiences as a white person and a children’s librarian.

Let me start by recapping what the chapter is all about.  It starts by describing a study done in 2006 by a doctoral student at the University of Texas named Birgitte Vittrup .  She investigated whether children’s videos featuring multicultural characters improve white, kindergartener-aged children’s racial attitudes.  What she found surprised her – families starting dropping out when asked to also talk about skin colour with their children.  Though the families may have said things like, “everybody’s equal,” very few of them felt comfortable talking to kids about race openly and directly. The 6 families that did saw greatly improved racial attitudes.

From there, Bronson and Merryman look at child development. They talk about how young children are “developmentally prone to in-group favoritism.” Kids are visual learners and rely on what they see – hair colour, height, weight, and yes, skin colour. Babies as young as 6 months will stare longer at photographs of faces that are a different race than their parents because they are trying to make sense of them.  Even if no one talks to kids about race, they notice. And when we don’t talk to kids about race they are left to make their own assumptions and judgments.

The authors also coin the phrase Diverse Environment Theory which means, “if you raise a child with a fair amount of exposure to people of other races and cultures, the environment becomes the message.”  So basically, we white people don’t have to talk about race with our kids because they will learn about equality just from seeing all these diverse people!  It’s one of the leading arguments behind school desegregation (which they talk about at length).  But the authors also come to the conclusion that just being in a racially diverse environment is not enough for kids to have better racial attitudes. We still have to talk to them.

Here are some of their key messages for caregivers when talking to kids about race:

  • Treat it the same way you do boy-girl stereotypes. Just like we point out women who are doctors, astronauts, construction workers, we can tell children that people of any skin colour can be those things too.  Enforce this message often.
  • Don’t shush kids when they say embarrassing or racist things. Their brains are prone to categorization.  When we shush them or shut down the conversation, we are telling them that race is a scary topic.  Instead, engage them in a conversation and directly explain their fallacy.
  • Help children of colour develop a sense of ethnic pride.  Studies have found improved self-confidence when this occurs. White children will “naturally decipher that they belong to the race that has more power, wealth, and control in society…so a pride message would not just be abhorrent – it’d be redundant.”

Since reading this book, I make a point to talk about race with Sophie on a regular basis.  Of course, it is a privilege for me as a white person that I haven’t had to have these conversations with her since she was born, and an even bigger privilege that our conversations can focus on the positive.  We are lucky to live in a racially diverse city like Vancouver so that we can have those conversations about people we know and people in our neighbourhood.  When we read books together, I point out the skin colour of the characters and relate it to something positive. For example, we read Double Trouble for Anna Habiscus! the other day and we talked about how the mommy’s skin is white and the daddy’s skin is brown and how they have a beautiful loving family.  I believe these conversations are crucial to being an anti-racist advocate and to raising an anti-racist child.

So now here I am, wondering if I can take what I’ve learned and practiced into my job as a children’s librarian.  The folks at Reading While White have started this conversation in a variety of ways already.  My questions are storytime specific.  Is storytime a space where we can start to have conversations about race with kids and caregivers?  Are you already using anti-racist practices in storytime?

Let’s talk.

Community-Led Children’s Librarians

We’ve had some pretty powerful posts in the past which have touched on the idea of community-led library service and I wanted to kick off a series of posts which allow me to explore this philosophy in a little more depth. So here goes: an introduction to community-led work, Children’s Librarians style! A quick definition if you please:

Excerpt from Connecting the Dots: A Guidebook for Working with Community
Excerpt from Connecting the Dots: A Guidebook for Working with Community

The excerpt from above comes from a brilliant handbook written by some great folks at the Vancouver Public Library including one of our heroes Els Kushner. You can access this guidebook, plus a lengthier exploration of the Community-Led Service Planning Model developed out of the Working Together Project here. As you might have noticed here in Vancouver we are swimming in innovative folks and have also been lucky to learn from the cross-Canada work of John Pateman who we saw at a conference last year (here’s a similar version of his presentation) and Ken Williment who blogs at Social Justice Librarian.

I am also blessed to work in a large enough library system that I have a Community Librarian right at my branch. Not to mention she is a dear friend to both Lindsey and I and taught us both Boom Chicka Boom AND There Was a Crocodile. Let’s just say she’s our favourite! But I digress, working with (and watching!) Christie has taught me some simple principles which I now do my best to remember and practice as often as I can. Continue reading “Community-Led Children’s Librarians”

Jumping Off the Holiday Ban-Wagon

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.