‘Conversations’ Shed Light on Librarians’ Task

Tri-Town Against Racism invited the public to the third in a series of “Community Conversations,” focusing November 14 on “The Importance of Representation in Literacy” during the 90-minute session at the Stroud Center on the Tabor Academy campus in Marion.

Representation of diverse groups in school and public libraries became a hot topic in the tri-towns in 2020 after then-10-year-old Rochester resident Kelcey Robertson sold heads of lettuce off his family’s backyard garden to raise money to buy books about minorities and offer them to local school libraries.

At the same time that Robertson’s effort was gaining national recognition, Tri-Town Against Racism began erecting remote-location “Little Free Diverse” libraries to encourage the circulation of such books.

More recently, the depictions of sexual activity in books available at the Old Rochester Regional High School and Junior High libraries have become the subject of heated debate.

Tri-Town Against Racism did not veil its support of the inclusion of the controversial books that not only represent diversity in race and color but also in sexual orientation and gender identity.

Before panelists responded to pre-submitted questions from preregistered audience members, ORR junior Alia Cusolito was invited to read from the book “Gender Queer.” The section Cusolito chose focused on a transexual’s first-person account about the decades it took to find a version of the subject that did not feel shameful. Cusolito, who identifies as non-binary in gender, was glad to have read the book, saying it helped “them” understand their life better.

After the question-and-answer session with the panel yielded many facts about libraries and librarians for different age groups, Jason Chisholm, executive director of TTAR, said, “We want to create an environment where people can show up and be their true selves.”

That environment, he insists, extends to those who do not agree with the inclusion of such material in school or public libraries.

“If you have a real problem with content, send a letter, talk to the powers to be. Keep in mind the intent of what these educators are doing … thoughtfulness has gone into the content that has been provided to our children,” said Chisholm. “Be courageous. But to try to be divisive is not going to be constructive.”

Chisholm said the world is changing rapidly and that the debated content is going to be made available to young people. He said parents can let them find it on their own or participate in a guidance that he strongly believes will lead to a healthier outcome for the child.

“If anyone disagrees with anything they’ve heard, we invite you to have a conversation respectively,” he said.

Ground rules for the question-and-answer discussion included welcoming all and agreements to listen respectfully to others’ experiences and perspectives and to speak from one’s own experiences and perspectives.

The panel of librarians consisted of: Laura Gardner (Dartmouth middle school and Fairhaven mother of two); Maura Deedy (library specialist at the state level); Kyle DeCicco-Carey (director at Millicent Library in Fairhaven, whose daughter recently graduated from ORR and whose son attends Center School in Mattapoisett), Allie Thiel (Millicent Library); and Ann Richard (head librarian at Tabor Academy and Fairhaven resident).

Randomly the panelists took turns responding to the questions read aloud to the audience by Rhonda Baptiste, TTAR’s vice president of Community Engagement.

Gardner, who has been at Dartmouth for over 13 years, said her favorite part of being a librarian is selecting, reading and recommending books.

“A big part of the way that I select books is I read them before I buy them, and I decide, ‘Is this a book that’s going to fit my community, is this a book that students are going to want to read?’ Because we all have limited budgets, so we have to make sure we spend our money effectively,” she said. “And, also, is this book going to support all of my students? I want to buy books that support the students who want to learn about their favorite sport, and I also want to support the students who are interested in reading graphic novels … and I want to support my kids who don’t see representation maybe all the time, but I want to support my LGBTQ kids and I definitely want to support kids of color … because that’s something that’s been very underrepresented in literature over time.

“Once I see an author who writes really great books for kids of color and it’s an author of color, I want to buy all their books, and I want to have them on the shelf, not just for the kids of color but for all the kids so they can all understand what it’s like to live all of these experiences.”

A professional reviewer for publications, Gardner said she uses Library Journal and Booklist along with blogs to see other professional opinions but said she does not need to use a professional company to send her books.

“I know what books I want for my library, I know what books are going to fit in my community,” she said.

Richard said that, as is the case with most libraries, Tabor Academy has a collection-development policy. She said she purchases books that go along with the school’s curriculum for research purposes and has a fiction collection.

“It’s not just fiction books that we need to think about with different voices, we need to hear voices that are current and voices that are different from maybe what we had in our collection 50 years ago,” said Richard. “We have to think about our changing curriculum and our different classes that we teach here at Tabor and what books need to support that.”

Gardner said middle-school libraries offer more fiction, while high school libraries focus more on research. She asserted that middle-school students have more time to read.

“I think that one of the biggest ways I build my collection is by knowing the kids and the families that come in and use that collection all the time,” said Thiel, noting the excitement that goes with bringing in books on subjects that pique the interest of children in their current state of fascination.

Deedy explained that the collection policy influencing public libraries is informed by standards established by the American Library Association. Library trustees (an elected office at the municipal level) approve policy and library directors execute those policies, she said. “Any changes to that policy should be done in collaboration between your board of trustees and the library director.”

Gardner said, whether school libraries have a collection policy is determined by the school committee. Dartmouth, she said, has a collection policy voted for approval in 2019. She stated further that towns lacking a collection policy are getting caught “flat-footed” without one.

Asked if books stay in the library forever and how it is decided which ones are removed as leveraged by space constraints, Richard mentioned the new library under construction at Tabor and how it affects current operations.

“We have to weed the collection,” she said, indicating that changes in curriculum and the frequency at which a book has been checked out can influence such decisions. “Space is limited, and even in our new space we have to think about limited shelf space, so we have to go through and decide what books to keep and what books to not keep.”

Thiel said children’s books especially have a natural cycle and humorously noted how some are tattered and torn and need to be replaced. Non-fiction, she said, must stay current with accurate information. Pluto, for instance, is no longer classified by the astronomy community as a planet.

DeCicco-Carey estimated that Millicent Library has approximately 57,000 books in its collection. He referenced a 2021 article estimating that 1,500,000 new books were published in the United States, not counting e-books or self-published books.

“When there’s that many books, you have to choose and you have to pick,” he said.

The task of making readers out of young people is at the forefront of public and school librarians, and the theme of the November 14 event, “Representation in Literacy,” is a front-and-center issue for librarians.

DeCicco-Carey, who classified himself as a “straight, white, middle-aged man,” said that reading “Gender Queer” opened his eyes to others’ experiences.

Gardner said, over the last couple of years, she has diversified reading options and added a “queer” category. “I’m really proud of that,” she said. “I want students who graduate from our district to have a rounding … and more empathy as well.”

Baptiste told the gathering that a survey will be going out, and people can unsubscribe from receiving it.

The next topic of TTAR’s Community Conversations was yet to be determined as of November 14.

Tri-Town Against Racism

By Mick Colageo

Leave A Comment...