Competency C: recognize and describe cultural and economic diversity in the clientele of libraries or information organizations.
“[L]ibraries in the United States can contribute to a future that values and protects freedom of speech in a world that celebrates both our similarities and our differences, respects individuals and their beliefs, and holds all persons truly equal and free.” – Libraries: An American Value
The need for information knows no boundaries. It’s the man-made limitations and human failings that purposefully or accidentally put that information out of the reach of some groups of people. Not everyone is literate, middle-class or better, able-bodied, or Caucasian. Because libraries and librarians’ ethics are governed by guidelines such as the Library Bill of Rights (as discussed in Competency A), it is acknowledged that libraries must serve all.
However, when people think about diversity, I’ve noticed that they tend to think about traditional diversity topics, especially race, culture, age, or gender. The recent Hmong immigrants need different services than retirees, who in turn require different services than teens in a working-class neighborhood. Even within these populations, there are sub-groups of people libraries should consider, such as immigrants who need books in their first language, or teens who need access to a computer because they have none at home.
People with disabilities are also seen as a distinct group for diversity purposes thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act and the copyright exemption for services for the blind. However, library services for these are often limited to providing audiobooks for the blind and making sure that the height of the handholds in the handicapped restroom is within regulatory distances. Services could (and probably should, within the constraints of budgets) also include providing a sign language interpreter for library events, autism-friendly story times, or similar uncommon programs. Similarly, libraries could provide programs for people with various mental illnesses, creating outreach programs or build special collections in conjunction with mental health providers.
It can seem overwhelming to consider the needs of everyone in a diverse community. Taking the time to research their needs will make for improved library collections and programs, and therefore making libraries a much more inviting place.
Having worked in public and academic libraries for years, I’m keenly aware of the wide variety of clientele who come in to use resources. I am particularly aware that I am part of a group libraries try to serve. I am profoundly deaf and my own sometimes-frustrating experiences with customer service make me want to ensure that nobody else has to experience similar frustrations, and especially not at a library. While I tend to focus on services to people with disabilities, the same ethos that drives this focus extends to providing access and services to people from a variety of cultural, religious, and political backgrounds.
The approach is similar with any group. It’s important to identify what exactly they want or need before actually working to meet the needs. It’s easy to make assumptions, but conducting research makes for a more successful library program or service.
One public library where I worked served working-class families and a primarily African-American area. Being a working-class area, in the summer we often had large numbers of adolescents who hung out at the library every day while their parents worked, as we were a safe place. Similarly, the downtown public library was a safe place for the homeless, where they could use the computers to apply for jobs, attend computer classes, or even simply read. In either place, the librarians developed programs to serve the particular community needs.
Another library where I worked was located in an area that had a high number of recent immigrants from India. Parents and children would come to the library frequently, especially while a spouse worked. Interestingly, many of the adults chose not to read books, perhaps because they weren’t familiar enough with English. Instead, they preferred movies from India. So, one month we made a display of mostly Indian movies, which was a hit. We also worked to make sure we could get more Indian movies at our branch.
Culturally Deaf people similarly preferred to watch (captioned) movies instead of read books, interestingly enough. English is the second language for them, and its syntax is extremely different than American Sign Language. Since I knew some sign language, I was able to help them in a basic way by translating their reference questions for the librarians, or explain policies about fines and due dates. For ethical reasons, I made it very clear to all involved parties that I was not a trained interpreter, but our Deaf patrons appreciated that I was attempting to communicate with them in their native language, and kept coming back specifically on the days I worked.
These are just a few examples of the variety of people who require specialized services.
Because the nature of library services, much of my coursework involves providing information to diverse clientele. I chose the following three evidences because they provided specific examples of what it takes to consider the needs of a specific subset of library users, and how libraries can specifically work to serve them.
As I previously mentioned, I have focused on services for the deaf and hard of hearing. It is a sizeable portion of the United States population, with approximately 31% of the adult population having some form of hearing loss (Agrawal, Platz & Niparko, 2008).
While researching services for the deaf and hard of hearing, I noticed just how many library resources on the subject are grossly outdated. In response, I developed a paper serves to update libraries on issues and accommodations related to serving the deaf.
I used principles from the previous evidence when creating a collection development plan for deaf and hearing loss materials. It was designed to augment the current collection in the Chicago Public Library.
Abused children, and people who might be able to help children who have been abused, are also library users. It is not a traditional subset of the population when one thinks about diversity, however, it is still important to serve their information needs. However, selectors may not know where to begin in developing a collection. Accordingly, I provided an extensive professional resource for selectors, outlining various websites and career development resources.
There is a wide range of diversity among people who use libraries, and the above examples and evidences hardly represent the entire range. It is important, therefore, for libraries to consider as many people as possible when planning services or developing collections. Such thoughtfulness provide improved library services, and represents the librarians’ adherence to ethical guidelines about providing information to all users, as discussed in Competency A.
Agrawal, Y., Platz, E., & Niparko, J. (2008). Prevalence of hearing loss and differences by demographic characteristics among US adults: Data from the national health and nutrition examination survey, 1999-2004. Archives of internal medicine 168(14), 1522-1530. http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/168/14/1522
American Library Association. (1999). Libraries: An American value. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/offices/oif/statementspols/americanvalue/librariesamerican
Last edited on September 11, 2012