Race and Collection Management

So here’s the situation.

A library I work at is in the middle of a much-needed weeding and reorganization project.  We had thousands of books that hadn’t been checked out in five years or more, and the collection is very fragmented – many genres are pulled out, even when they only have one or two shelves worth of books.  I think we can increase our circulation and make a more relevant, attractive collection with some reorganization.

So this post is a theoretical exercise, written especially for you, dear reader.  I want your advice!  I’m not in charge of the decision about how to reorganize this collection, but I’d like to make a good recommendation.  So please read more about our library, its community,  and the neighborhood. Then let me know what you would do.  Be warned, I’m going to talk about race in this post.  Race will be a factor in your decision.  It is one of the reasons I need your help; one of the reasons why I find this decision especially difficult.

The neighborhood this branch serves is, historically and currently, predominantly African-American, although racial diversity is increasing.  It is a neighborhood with a strong tradition of black activism.  The neighborhood has an increasing number of young families, of all races, and including a significant minority where one or both parents are immigrants.  There is also a significant minority of transient young people (18-25 or so), who squat in the neighborhood’s abandoned houses.  They often have face tattoos, but that is neither here nor there.  Finally, hipsters are creeping in. There is some gentrification occurring, but it is in very early stages.  Right now I find the neighborhood very exciting.  There are all kinds of people, from a great diversity of backgrounds and situations, with all kinds of  abilities and interests.  There is a strong feeling of community, and the people that use the library are grateful for its presence if not ardent supporters.  Without a doubt, black people are the heart and core of our library’s user-base.

I should also mention that there are only two black library workers, neither of which is full-time.  It’s a pretty small staff though, only two full time workers (both white), and then seven part time workers (not all white).  I am white, and one of those seven part time workers.

Lucille Baldwin Brown, first black public county librarian in Tallahassee, Florida

Lucille Baldwin Brown, first black public county librarian in Tallahassee, Florida

The library has a large African-American collection, which includes sub-collections of reference, oversize, non-fiction, biography, fiction, sci-fi, western, mystery, and short stories (those collections are all mirrored in the organization of the rest of the library, although the organization of the rest of the library will certainly change during this project).  In my mind, there are two significant purposes for having these separate African American collections. The first is practical: people who are interested in these books can find them all in one place.  The second is more symbolic: It says that the library celebrates African-American-ness.

The second, symbolic purpose, is especially important right now. It says that even though you may only see white people behind the desk, the library has a strong focus on the African-American community.  More importantly, it is a symbol that reinforces the importance of African American culture in the neighborhood, which is facing gentrification and more pertinently, whitening.  The danger in the change that is coming is not just that the poorer residents will be driven out, but that black residents will be driven out.  In fact, gentrification is probably the wrong term to use here. Gentrification and whitening are not the same thing; to say they are implies that black middle and upper classes don’t exist. What I’m specifically thinking about here is the trend in the Bay Area – out-migration, or black exodus, whatever you want to call it (For more about this, you could read about the decline of the black population in San Francisco here, here, and here).

So that is the context. Here is where the problem lies.

It is my observation from working at our single-point service desk (I do both reference and circulation duties) that the only part of the African American collection that circulates in any great number is the urban fiction, which is not a separate collection.  Within African American fiction, Teri Woods is just down the shelf from Alice Walker.  I worry that the people who come in to read Alice Walker can’t find her, and the people that come in for Teri Woods are missing the titles they could find serendipitously, if all the urban fiction was grouped together.  Also, not all urban fiction is black fiction.

I am not sure that the rest of the collections, the African American Sci-Fi, the Afro-American non-fiction, etc., are being used enough to justify having them separated out. The first of our five laws of library science, written by S.R. Ranganathan in 1931, is “books are for use.”  The fourth law is “Save the time of the reader.”  Placing books where people can easily find and use them, is a very important part of collection management.  As a former grocer, I know that where you place your product is a driver of sales. That’s why they put the candy bars up front and the milk in the back.  That’s why in the summer you’ll find shortcake next to the strawberries and fresh mozzarella next to the tomatoes.  If you want people to check out books, you have to put them where people will find them, even when they don’t already know they want to read them.  Serendipity is a powerful force in a public library.

However, the symbolic purpose of our African-American collection is not to be dismissed.

Libraries serve communities, as much as they serve individuals.  Our community is in a time of change. The library should support current residents (while keeping the future in mind).

So what would you do?

What aspects of circulation reports would you look at, in thinking about how you might reorganize your collections?

What percentage of use would justify having a genre pulled out?

Is the symbolic value of our African American collection important enough to override what the circulation reports might reveal?

Does the library have any business in trying to help preserve a community’s characteristics?

If you did decide to make changes, what changes would you make, and would you discuss them with patrons?

What have I not included, in my consideration and assessment of the situation?

Thanks in advance for your insight.

Projects, a list

I have a few interviews coming up, and so I am going to make a list of some of my past, present and future library projects.

  1. Made a seed library, made a website for it, and am doing on-going programming:
    • Plant Exchange as kick-off
    • Intro to Seed Saving, with BASIL
    • Starting from Seeds
    • Walking visit to the Fire Station’s vegetable garden
    • The Modern Kitchen Garden: Enjoying a year-round harvest
    • Also marketing the seed library, in the library, through a passive program: leaves with the question: “If I Could Grow Anything, I’d Grow…” and the instructions to drop off at the seed library
    • Also solicited donations from patrons and Seed Saver’s exchange
  2. Food-related programming, mostly for “Eating is So Delicious” summer reading (author programs all had tasting element):
    • Cookies and Tea with Donia Bijan
    • Cheese, Please with Laura Werlin
    • Taste What You’re Missing with Barb Stuckey
    • Working on “How to Read a Recipe,” and, if logistical morass can be sorted out, a knife skills program with Peter Hertzmann
    • A Taste of the Wedge with Rainbow Grocery cheesemonger Gordon Edgar
  3. Managed the 200s for the past six months+, including weeding the entire section and using the extra room to have face-out books.  Circulation increased.
  4. Created displays, with associated dynamic bibliographies using the tagging feature in Encore: “Foodie Books by Local Authors”  “Pride” (with co-workers), “Her Story” (biography and autobiography of women), “Jazz”, “Oscars”, “Abraham Lincoln/Vampire Hunter” (not my original concept), “Hispanic Heritage Month”, “Autumn Feast”, “Gore Vidal”, “Making Change, in Ourselves and in Our Communities”
  5. Comprehensive weeding of Adult books, primarily non-fiction, at a branch library.  Some shifting in collections, and reorganization.  Weeding J Fic (chapter books) at another branch.  In another system, participated in weeding of stored collections in anticipation of opening new branch libraries.
  6. Bibliographies, mostly using Encore tagging:
    • Urban fiction for teens and adults (also static list)
    • Read and Watch Elmore Leonard
    • Choosing Cheese
    • Would You Like to Know More?  Weekly lists based on current events.  On-going as of June 24, 2013.
    • Earthquakes (for two different libraries)
    • Hot Romance
    • Kristin Wiig
    • Paranormal Series Starters
    • Voter’s Relief
    • Women of SNL
    • Election Fiction
    • Astronomy for elementary school teachers
    • Waste Worries for elementary school teachers
    • Organic, Local and Delicious for elementary school teachers
    • Award winners tagging projects in Encore: Hugo awards, Newbery/Caldecott, National Book Award
  7. Passive programming:
    • Ball of String
    • Mystery Mystery
    • Asanti’s Lucky Pick
    • Craft Station
    • Viewfinder Station
    • Type-spiration Station (for Poetry Month)
    • Your Library Fortune
    • Pope Shelf
    • Book Crush (and Blind Date with a Book display)
    • Question board (first question, “What would you buy?” to get suggestions on how to use possible grant money)
    • What am I? tags for displayed natural history specimens
  8. ESL Conversation Club – trying to find intern/volunteer from local TESOL program to develop and run the club
  9. Social Media and Blogging:
    • Facebook posts and events
    • Blog series: Spotlight On, New at the Naturalist Center, Who Pooped, Ask a Naturalist
  10. Developing two Squishy circuits programs
  11. Information Literacy/Library orientation program for museum docents
  12. Storytimes: Toddler, Preschool, 0-3, Science Story Adventures (targeted at ages 4-6, in reality delivered to 3-9)
  13. Teen ‘Scape: supervised video game program (around 30 12-16 year olds)
  14. Specimen talks to drop-in audiences of 5-30 people of all ages
  15. Peer mentor for class on online social networking, for new library school students
  16. Research on: Text message reference (especially teen use of ), chat reference consortia, on-call librarians

Things I’m interested in: 36 hour programming festival, bike programs (fix-it night, tune-up station, sponsored rides), cottage food/cottage industries, more “field trips”, drop-in crafts, DJ talks/music making classes, community skillshare night, library booths at community events, community booths at the library (the doctor is in, sewing/mending, poets and artists), current events book display, seed library programs for teens or kids, e-origami (holiday cards and crafts), marketing fiction – faceouts, signage, shelftalkers, job hunters club.

Problems I want to solve: How people come in for their book club book at the last minute and its checked out with 30 holds, college students hoping we’ll have their textbook, jobhunting for all skill levels, in-depth, regular, reliable help using computers, particularly for those with low digital literacy.

What I Really Should Have Learned in Library School

What I want is facts

For Hiring Librarians, I’m working with Brianna Marshall of Hack Library School on a survey about what employers think potential hires should learn in library school.  This is making me consider my own education, and I’ve decided to write the curriculum I should have pursued, in order to be a better public librarian. I still may pursue this stuff.

  1. Intro to Social Work: For trying to help homeless people find food and shelter, for patrons who need help getting benefits like social security and food stamps, for helping GBLTQ teens or battered women in hostile homes, for knowing how to tell if little kids have abusive parents, and for understanding what kind of help people in need really need.
  2. Basic Coding and Intro to Information Technologies: Libraries need better websites, better tech, and to be able to help others with learning tech skills.  Much of the tech I know I’ve picked up along the way, and a more formal grounding in the basics would serve my patrons well.
  3. Minor in Spanish, Arabic, Hindustani, and any number of Asian languages: Even though it’s possible to help people who don’t speak English when that’s all you do speak, being able to speak to people in their own languages goes a long way toward making them feel welcome.  For example, once I was trying to (nicely) explain to a woman that she needed to bring some books back.  When my Spanish-speaking co-worker came over to help out, I could see the tension drain from the woman’s face.  In another example, a librarian told me how a Mandarin-speaking library assistant drew Mandarin-speakers to her branch.  No one in the system knew that there was a local pocket of this community until word started spreading that they could get help from a native speaker at the library.
  4. Certificate in World Cultures or maybe International Business: Relatedly, I think about how better understanding of cultural nuances would do wonders in making sure patrons get the help they need.  For example, people from India do this head wobble, which I now know means “yes”, or “I understand”, but also sometimes means “no”.  A while ago I had some patrons do it while I was trying to explain checking out eBooks, and I couldn’t remember what it meant – was my explanation succeeding, or causing confusion?
  5. Music 101: For being a better singer and shaker player during storytime.
  6. Intro to Child Development/Cognitive Development:  Kids and teens often behave in certain ways because that’s how they’re wired.  They may not understand the world the same way that grown-ups do.  A patron once came in to try to find some books that would encourage her two year old to sit still while Mommy read to her.  My boss was able to explain that two year olds are just beginning to realize that they are separate entities, and being able to say no to Mommy reading was just part of the development of individuality.  The patron went away with better strategies for reading time (reading for shorter periods, and being willing to put the book down if the toddler’s attention wandered), and felt better about her child’s behavior, realizing that it wasn’t personal.
  7. Intro and Advanced Marketing: We gotta be better at telling people what we do.  We need to improve the public’s understanding of the importance of libraries.  It’s a matter of survival.
  8. Masters in Community Organizing, Advocacy, Public Policy and Social Justice:  Libraries provide the means for people to seek a more just society, the means for people to teach themselves about history and laws, to congregate with people that are like and not like them, and to negotiate differences while attempting to share resources. But even more than that, libraries are community based organizations, and we need to understand how to draw in and advocate for our communities. Library workers are government agents that work directly with community members, and they tell us how they feel and what they want.  We can help our government be more inclusive.  We can help our communities be heard. We just need to tune up our voices. The specific thing that made me add this to the list is the verdict in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and an article another librarian from my system posted about it. This verdict reminds me that racism is part of our systems, and that justice for black people is separate and not equal.  I am wondering how my library can respond to this verdict.
  9. Instruction and Education Series:  Ok, I actually did take a (really good) class in teaching information literacy in library school.  But I’d add more courses on teaching!  I instruct people every day, not just in library usage, but in basic computer tasks, in reading comprehension, and in all manner of life skills.  I often learn along with my patrons; we look at an article together and discuss what it means.  I’d love to be better at using this time.
  10. First Aid Certification:  I never know when I should dial 911.  I usually have to ask “would you like me to call 911?”  I’d love to be better at understanding what is really a medical emergency, and to be able to jump in when someone is in trouble.

That turned out to be a lot longer than I thought it would, when I sat down to write.  What did I miss?

Photo by Flickr user Char Booth (infomational.com) via Creative Commons License