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Libraries and Rainbows: the importance of action, however small

A Public Library shared with me a letter from a young member who had realised she was gay in her last year of high school. She lived in an Australian country town and witnessed several deeply homophobic experiences so did not anticipate any positive outcomes for herself. She also had many questions and no-one to ask. This was just prior to smartphones so access to the Internet was not ubiquitous. She hid her reading in the library and certainly did not check anything remotely lesbian themed out in case she was met with disgust and judgement from a library staff member. Then in her mind a miracle happened in the form of a purple pamphlet titled Rainbow Reading listing every LGBT themed book in the library. She still has that pamphlet many years later and in her letter of thanks she states that the library’s small act of support made her feel considerably less alone.

I tell this story to show that every explicit act of inclusion is important to those who feel excluded in our communities. It is not enough to have a LGBT collection and then rest on your inclusive laurels congratulating our library on its inclusiveness. You have to make a stand to show that it is alright to read, and borrow without judgement.

We now have libraries openly supporting rainbow families with storytime and recognition of the different types of families that exist in our communities. Libraries are very much ready to act to bring communities together over some very challenging issues building cohesion and a sense of belonging to all at a time when a divisive #marriageequality debate is happening in the nation. Libraries are taking leading and courageous positions openly. Which is great right?

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And then I read Chris Bourg’s blog and realise we still have a long way to go as an industry filled with well meaning, overwhelmingly white, privileged straight women. This is a story about how being welcoming, when we are ill informed, and coming from a position of privilege, makes an assumption about ‘otherness’ and has the opposite impact from intention. So being well meaning and being a bit of a leftie does not cut it — librarians need to ask, listen, learn and then respond. This quote from Chris Bourg really resonated with me and has a wider implication in our library business than just the marriage equality debate.

What I’m saying is, we need to move beyond the notion of being welcoming and we need to consider real fundamental, cultural and structural changes that would foster inclusion and justice.

Our industry prides itself on being welcoming of diversity yet is not diverse in its makeup, we pride ourselves on being welcoming yet close ranks on other professionals who work in libraries, we pride ourselves on being inclusive of our First Nations peoples yet do not ask some hard questions of how to be actively inclusive instead of just being passively welcoming by putting a sticker on a collection of Aboriginal books.

I recognise all the great work that libraries are doing in being actively inclusive but know that we have a long way to go because I do see that we come from that position of welcoming the ‘other’ — someone not like us. Ask just two of the hard questions that Chris poses and we can move further on our inclusive journey, supporting diversity from a position of openness:

  • What needs to change at my institution to go from passively “welcoming” to actively inclusive?

Written by

Librarian, interested in libraries, digital disruption, startups, Australian politics

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