This is a photo of me, at the academic library where I work. I am an instructional assistant at the research help desk (we no longer call it the reference desk since that was a confusing label for some patrons). As you can see, I have a big smile, and this is not just because I was posing for the photo. I smile this way most of the time. The other thing you will notice about me is that I am wearing an outfit tailored in Cameroon and made with fabric from somewhere in West Africa (I am not sure, maybe fabric from Ghana or Ivory Coast? Who knows!?!). I am also rocking my pretty crazy Mohawk haircut!
I think I am doing something right, based on my observations of patrons reactions when they see me (and this is after what will soon be a whole year of working in libraries!). I also base this conclusion on the countless compliments I receive from patrons at both libraries where I work. So what am I really doing, by looking so weird?
Do You Hygge?
I use my big smile and my strange style to put patrons at ease, to make them feel that they are talking to an authentic person, someone happy to be at the library, someone comfortable with her own physical presence in the library and in the world, in general. My hope is that this gives others permission to feel at home in the library and permission to be themselves. My hope is that all patrons will feel a sense of comfort or “hygge” at our library as soon as they see me (see Michael Stephens, 2016), but I am also interested in the students of color who make up about 60% of the student body at the campus where I work.
This sense of cozy hospitality is not something we convey just with furniture, building design, and programming; it is something we convey by how we present ourselves and how ready we are to be different, authentic, and willing to share who we are with others. By being as much of myself as I can be, I want these students of color to not only feel comfortable in the library but to feel inspired to dream, to strive, to express themselves, to shine, and to succeed. And I know that when they walk up to the desk and give me a high-five, they are happy to see me–and incidentally, they are also cheering me on.
And I need some cheering, because I am entering a profession where there are not very many librarians of color, where most of my coworkers do not look like me and may not relate to some of my experiences. I also know, on a very profound level, that when I walk into a library I wish I could see someone who looks like me. That fact alone could make a great difference in whether or not I can *believe* that the library belongs to me and to people like me. This can also, down the road, encourage people of color to feel that librarianship is a profession that is open to them.
I am beginning to understand the value of visibility for library staff who hail from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds. In their edited volume titled Where are All the Librarians of Color? (2015), Rebecca Hankins and Miguel Juarez highlight the importance of mentoring for the recruitment and retention of librarians of color (p. 23). Library staff of color are an important link between the library and its patrons who hail from many different backgrounds, and staff of color are also important in the work of inspiring people of color to join the field of librarianship.
True Inclusion: Models of Kindness Put Love on the Horizon
Attending the guest lecture with Stacie Ledden from Anythink Libraries, what fascinated me most was how she conveyed so much joy, so much kindness and concern for people. It came through in her voice, in the way she spoke about her work, and in the satisfaction she hoped patrons and staff would feel at the Anythink Libraries. You can also see this people-centered approach to staff and patrons in the Anythink Libraries amazing Strategic Plan.
It got me thinking that, while mobile devices and technologies continues to draw us into a virtual world (IFLA, 2017; Kastanis, 2015), what these devices cannot replace and what will ground/center us in some of the best practices for our profession is face-to-face contact, the in-person connections we make with each other at our libraries.
I agree with Jan Holmquist of the library in Guldborgsund, Denmark, that we have to meet patrons where they are and this now means meeting them on their mobile devices, extending our reach so that we are providing patrons with access to information and services via their mobile devices (Holmquist, 2013; Deloitte, 2016). However, I also feel that we want patrons to come into the physical space of the library, we want them to visit us in person, talk to us in person, and use our space. To do so, I believe that we have to go beyond what we offer them through their devices, and we we have to put ourselves and our personal connection to them at the core of what we do. As Jan Holmquist discusses in his YouTube lectures, we can add personal touches to the way we share our library via social media, and translating this to the physical space of the library, we can bring our very unique, personal touches to how we show up as individuals and how we treat patrons and fellow staff.
Bringing Your Personal Brand to Your Library
Something we LIS students and professionals can consider is our personal brand. While branding is something we can do with our social media profiles and library pages, we can also consider our in-person brand. Who are we, who do we wish to become, how do we want to be known and perceived, and how do we want others to feel in our presence? What kinds of interactions do we wish to foster at work and with the patrons we serve? What would we like to be personally remembered for?
In the same way that we might create identities in our virtual spaces, we can think about our identities in the physical space of the library and how these matter, the impact they have on the (experienced and perceived) level of quality in our services and the value that people feel they gain from being in the library and being around us. Considering how to be a better person (let’s call it… You 2.0) and not just someone who uses technology in effective ways is important–and probably so for any professional who wishes to be successful in the modern world.
I know that I think about this a great deal, as a person of color working in libraries. I know that my experience of libraries is something that seems to elude the powerful and potentially empowering realm of virtual reality. In the real world, I will surely always be perceived as brown, as lower in status than my white peers, with my darker skin color leading the way in almost every interaction I have. I also know that for patrons of color, this is something they deal with constantly in the American context.
In Black Minds Matter, a new MOOC that is being offered through San Diego State University and taught by Dr. J. Luke Wood, Professor Wood explains that people of color typically deal with three things in their interactions with others: “distrust, disdain, and disregard” (Wood, 2017). To be on the receiving end of this kind of negative treatment is what causes many young African American men to leave academia. Similarly, this kind of treatment is also the reason why many people of color leave jobs in libraries and opt not to pursue graduate work in library science (Hankins and Juarez, 2015).
Putting Love First
Professor Wood is using a great deal of virtual conferencing and collaborating technology (Zoom and Google Drive, for example) and various social media tools (YouTube, for example), in order to share his focus on African American men and their experiences in academia and the larger, racially unjust social context of the US, as well as bring together Arican American leaders who can speak to the experiences and needs of young Black men in America. LIS staff who want to improve their skills for serving African American patrons can learn a great deal from Black Minds Matter, and specifically from the example set by Professor Wood. He is very loving and gentle and generous but honest in his demeanor and words. He models love and kindness beautifully. This, in and of itself, can be incredibly healing for a person of color witnessing his lectures.
I view giving and receiving love and kindness from each other as one powerful solution to the ongoing pain and historical trauma of racism in America, and because people of color make up the communities we serve, we have to replace “distrust, disdain, and disregard” with lots of warm, compassion, inclusion, trust, and attentiveness (Wood, 2017). I hope that LIS professionals will always strive to bring these loving values into their work and spaces. If they can do this, then we can expect to see more people of color in the profession and we can expect to see happy patrons of color coming joyfully through our doors and using our libraries.
Laughter and Fun at the Library
In summary, we can bring more and more joy into the world of libraries. We can choose to do this for all people, celebrating the presence and participation and contributions and leadership of people from backgrounds that have been historically marginalized in our society. Our models for how we staff and structure hiring in our libraries, how we serve patrons, and how we shape the space of the library can be models of kindness, of having fun, of learning about each other, of sharing who we are, and of having abundant laughter.
I will conclude with a photo of me goofing around at the academic library where I work. We give out snacks at the end of the semester, when finals week leaves many students hungry and exhausted. So I decided to be an African market woman carrying some edible goods in a basket on her head. I feel very happy to work at a library where I can express my sense of humor and so many facets of my multicultural identity, and ultimately, have more fun at work and lots of laughter. 🙂
Anythink Libraries. (2012-2014, and extended to 2015). Strategic Plan.
Deloitte. (2016). How do today’s students use mobiles?
Hankins, R., and Juarez, M. (2015). Where are all the librarians of color? The experiences of people of color in academica. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press.
Holmquist, J. (2013). Guest Lecture Videos (used for the Hyperlinked Library Course, Fall 2017).
IFLA Report. (2017). Trend report.
Kastanis, D. (2015). What technology will look like in five years.
Ledden, S. (2017). Guest Lecture (for the Hyperlinked Library Course, Fall 2017).
Stephens, M. 2016. The hygge state of mind: Office hours.
Wood, J.L. (2017). Black Minds Matter.