Equity in Library Programming and Services

A guest post by Emily Weak, Linda Steward and Monica Chapa Domercq, Equity Advisors

What we’ve learned so far: Common Issues Bringing Equity into the Practice of Library Programming and Services:

Under the statewide Networking California Resources, the California State Library, along with the Pacific Library Partnership (PLP), formed a small team of three equity advisors in late summer of 2023. This team was formed in response to the goals of the California State Library’s 2023-2027 Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) Investment Plan, in order to provide assistance to library staff working on LSTA funded grants. The team is Linda Stewart, Monica Chapa Domercq, and Emily Weak. So far, the Equity Advisor team has worked with 23 libraries, co-designing a framework to help grantees keep equity considerations at the forefront of their work. Advisors facilitate reflection, act as a second pair of eyes to find barriers to community participation, and provide additional resources such connections with other library staff, articles, books, and training.

While many libraries have already had at least an introduction to equity principles, moving this theory into practice is a fundamental step that benefits from reflection and support. There are a few themes which we, the Equity Advisor team, have already recognized as recurring. In this post, we will share a few resources to address common issues bringing equity into the practice of library programming and services.

Linda: It has been an exciting eight months working with grantees as they seek to address the information needs of underserved populations within their communities.  What I personally have found most interesting is the variety of these projects—teen leadership, enhanced services for seniors and especially those with cognitive issues, a memory lab that is being developed to provide the tools for Filipino as well as LGBTQ community members to document their respective histories, and the list goes on… What these programs share is a growing understanding that strategies like co-design and addressing social justice require patience and time, likely more than expected.  It is because of this that as advisors we would encourage you to embrace the small steps; forward movement toward diversity, equity and inclusion is the goal.   

For those libraries that are adding materials to your collections, an issue that many libraries are encountering today is how to ensure that we create records that are culturally sensitive.  While there has been much written about this issue, I’d like to suggest checking out the new series of web-based training courses being offered through the Digital Public Library of America.  Titled “Practical Approaches to Reparative Description” the series was designed for those engaged in remediating potentially outdated or harmful language used in the past.  However, many recommendations are applicable to the creation of new records as well. 

While the series began on April 18 with “Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Metadata,” these are being recorded.

Monica: I have been personally fulfilled by working as an Equity Advisor with several libraries whose grant projects have equity and inclusion as their focus. These libraries are working to initiate or deepen relationships and programming with underserved and marginalized populations such as the Mixtecos (indigenous people from Mexico with a non-written dialect), children and teens with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Farsi, Punjabi, and Spanish speaking community members, communities that are geographically isolated, and people who are housing insecure. These projects affirm that for California libraries, serving the whole community is non-negotiable. To learn more about how it is the responsibility of government to make sure that “all who live in a library’s jurisdiction” benefit from its services, reference the training “Advancing Racial Equity in Your Library” by Race Forward and the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE). You can find this and other great resources on the California State Library’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion resource page. 

One of the common issues with bringing equity into the practice of library programming is in establishing relationships with communities that may be distrustful of government organizations or may not have any expectations or reference about the services a California public library provides (or both). While many librarians intuitively know what good community engagement entails, I’ve found that the Building Authentic Relationships with Underserved Communities training (available as an archived webinar), delivered by Dr. Audrey Barbakoff, Amita Lonial and Mia Henry, lays the foundation for taking intentional steps to building or rebuilding trust with the community.

The training describes how Asset Based Community Development can be a pathway to co-creation. Its engagement strategies entail sharing power, asking for input, and favoring collaboration and empowerment over informing. Barbakoff has also authored a helpful article about the principles and application of Asset Based Community Development (free on Webjunction), if you are interested in learning more.

These projects are commitments to the populations with which they are engaging. As Linda said, these projects will require time! We encourage library staff to realize it’s okay to be flexible, to change courses in response to what works and what doesn’t, to give yourselves grace, and to practice self-care! 

Emily: As Linda and Monica have mentioned, the most common issue I have seen in my eight months as an Equity Advisor is lack of time. Equity work is built on relationships and reflection, and both of those take time. They are also often not easily measurable, and they don’t necessarily provide clear and abundant outputs that you can hold up to people like your boss, your city council, and your grant funders.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue. It is systemic in public libraries. We are service professionals, and we are used to being asked to do more with less (by the way, if you have never read Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves  by Fobazi Ettarh, you should do so ASAP).  Sometimes taking the time for equity work, including the time for your own professional development, means clearly articulating and grounding a commitment to equity work as valuable in principle, rather than in output. And sometimes it means letting other projects go. Both can be difficult, especially working in a publicly funded institution with many stakeholders.

I have been reading about the principles of Slow Librarianship and thinking about how this might hold some keys to shifting our practices. You might find this post by Meredith Farkas interesting: What is Slow Librarianship? 

I’ve also just finished reading Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown. In it she says, “I love the idea of shifting from ‘mile wide inch deep’ movements to ‘inch wide mile deep’ movements that schism the existing paradigm.” We are working towards change, and this change deserves your time and your attention. The path towards “enough time” or even “an abundance of time” will be different for each person. But it’s time to get on the path.