I am an elementary school librarian in an urban setting in Massachusetts. Through the work of creating a more representative and inclusive library collection for my students, I learned a lot about the politics of the publishing industry, the accepted institutional racism and purposeful exclusion of communities in books and that we should be outraged at the continued disenfranchisement of our children.
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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Creating Community Connections

 This summer, I had the great opportunity of being the keynote at New Hampshire School Library Media Association 's Library Camp. The theme of the conference was, "Creating Community Connections." Below is a partial transcript of my speech.

Phipps Soeiro, Liz. "Creating Community Connections." Library Camp 2015. Plymouth State University, Plymouth, NH. 15 Aug. 2015. Speech.

When we think of how we make connections, I think we as school librarians first and foremost think of how we connect our readers to books which is both intrinsic to our profession and hugely important. And beyond this, i think our role has an even broader reach outside the library and school walls.

Our public librarian counterparts have been doing it for years. Engaging and connecting their patrons to the community. Why aren’t more school librarians doing the same? We have a built in audience with our students and their families. Why couldn’t we be doing the same thing at the same level?

Now, I realize there are obstacles. that many of our school libraries are underfunded, with little to no budget. And I realize many of us are not full time in one building, perhaps traveling between two buildings. But, even small connections and  small community based projects are powerful and meaningful. Also, by shining a light onto our programs through these projects and outreach, more people will see and understand the need for funding and support us and school library programs.

So, today, I am going to talk about how we can be effective at building connections with students and their families and others with books and with projects in  our libraries, in our districts and in our greater communities.

Perhaps our number one job and the image most evoked by the term, “school librarian”, is our job making connections between readers and books.

Through books, children are introduced to things they have never seen or heard, they are reminded of their own experience and feel a sense of validation  and they build background knowledge for life.

In some cases, we can either make or break our readers with books. School librarians have to tow the line between librarian and teacher. Perhaps we encourage children to get a “just right book” or only let kids choose a book from there level...but I am asking us, as a profession,  to push back here a little bit.

Overly didactic use of books can stifle our readers. There often is little choice for kids in what they can read at school- and if there is choice it is controlled choice, either by level, genre, author, etc. I ask you to think about how we as librarians support our readers and connect them to books. Do you limit books children can check out by their reading level? Do you feel pressure to limit books children can check out by topic from teachers or others?

The school library is really one of the last places our readers are allowed to be autonomous. Instead of smothering this, celebrate this! We hear so much about “reluctant readers”, I urge us to shift your lense. What if these readers aren’t reluctant, they are  just specific readers? Maybe they do not want to be told to read a book that has no meaning to them maybe that leveled book is not actually just right for them at all? Reading Minecraft Manuals is still reading for information. It is our job to match readers with books and nurture that love of reading and help it grow and then we will watch confident readers taking more risks with their reading and book choice.

Connecting kids to books they want is just the start and critical first step of creating lifelong readers. We help to do this in our school libraries by creating a collection of books that are relevant to teachers and students.

When I first came to my library I currently work at, I noticed the collection did not reflect *all of * my patrons or their  interests, abilities, experiences. And it did not challenge their  ideas and idealogies in a way sometimes only a book can, by exposing them to other times, places, cultures and realities.

I wanted to change this. So first, I weeded the heck out of my library. Then I listened to students and watched them, let them make input both by talking to me and writing anonymous recommendations. As I began to rebuild the collection, I also kept in mind one of my most favorite articles from 1990 by Rudine Simms Bishop out of Ohio State, “Windows Mirrors and Sliding Glass Doors”.  What an awesome visual. Readers should be able to see others, see themselves and experience what they may not normally experience through reading a book.

These windows, mirrors and doors are not just for our populations that are chronically marginalized by the publishing industries, which I will touch upon later, but also and just as importantly for the dominant culture. Bishop states,

“Children from dominant social groups have always found their mirrors in books, but they, too, have suffered from the lack of availability of books about others. They need the books as windows onto reality, not just on imaginary worlds. They need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in, and their place as a member of just one group, as well as their connections to all other humans. In this country, where racism is still one of the major unresolved social problems, books may be one of the few places where children who are socially isolated and insulated from the larger world may meet people unlike themselves. If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world-a dangerous ethnocentrism.”

This article was written 25 years ago, but it still rings true. It is very timely when we think about current events and really important to consider this in our own libraries, what are the messages we are sending?

Over the years, parents and professionals will sometimes disregard books or falsely believe they won’t be read  because they assume white, able bodied, hetero, cisgendered children won't pick up a book with a person not like themselves on the cover. This assumption has led to publishing practices that are nonrepresentational and honestly pretty gross.

As you guys know there is a wonderful movement  and resource in our professional community with the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign. WNDB is a response to years of marginalizing many communities, cultures and races in book publishing practices, but it solidified as a movement and real wake up after the 2014 Book Con, where all panels were made of white male authors.   Something had to change, it was a real call to action.

I want to share with you last years publishing statistics based on 3500 children’s books published in 2014 from Cooperative Children’s Book Center:

What you see here are four affinity groups, African/African American, American Indian, Asian/Pacific Asian/Pacific American and Latino. Blue represents books about the affinity groups, meaning the main character or premise of the book represents that affinity group- which if you can see that’s about 180 about  African or African Americans, 35 about American Indians and so forth. The orange represents the books that are BY and ABOUT each group, so of the 180 books about African or African Americans only about 65 were written by authors of that affinity group. The gray represents books BY the affinity group but not ABOUT it. So, looking at these statistics, you can see out of 3500 books, minimal were published that were representing our country’s diversity. So, if combine the number of books BY and ABOUT these 4 affinity groups, that is 165 books, or around 5% of the children’s books published last year. That really has an impact on ALL of our readers, whether they are aware of it or not.

This information is critical when building connections between readers and book, we are building a community through our collection development and circulation practices. Its important that we are always reflecting on our practices and asking ourselves, am I reflecting my patrons interests and experiences? Am I offering a window on to new realities? Am I challenging thinking and offering other perspectives? Am I censoring what books I allow to be circulated based on reading abilities instead of interest and motivation?

There is a passage in Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming Where she touches upon her experience *finally* seeing herself represented in a book while at a bookstore when she was a girl and her anxieties around whether or not she was too old for such a book.
She said,
"..I might have missed the picture book filled with brown people, more brown people than I'd ever seen in a book before. If someone had taken that book out of my hand, if they said you're too old for this, maybe I'd never have believed that someone who looks like me could be in the pages of this book, that someone who looked like me had a story. Maybe I never would have believed that someone who looked like me could be in a picture book."

This passage speaks to representation in books, AND it also talks about her fear that 

because this book would probably be deemed “too young” or not “just right”, she may not 

ever had a chance to look through it. How many students put down a book they are 

motivated to read because it’s not at their level or just right?

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