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Culture and Bias in Library Policy, Part 2

Some public libraries have policies that seem, to me at least, precisely made to reduce access for homeless and disabled patrons. Like?

“Offensive” odors as cause for asking patrons to leave. Did you know that some illnesses and disabilities cause an increase in body odor? Can you imagine how hard it is when you live on a disability check and you’re undergoing exhausting medical treatments to then worry about how you smell all the time? One thing I fully appreciate as a woman is that maintaining a standard of beauty and socially acceptable bodily presentation is not cheap and it requires resources like disposable time and income and access to a bathroom for a long period of time.
Is it distracting when someone has strong body odor? Absolutely. For me, it’s not harder to deal with than a toddler who is having a tantrum next to my desk or a kid with poor boundaries who keeps interrupting me while I help other patrons.My humble solution to this “problem” is get over it. I try to be genuinely happy when I see patrons like this because I think of how many very serious priorities they must have tugging on them. Spending time in the library must be both an escape and a sacrifice for them.

No sleeping in the library. It’s easy to imagine why homeless patrons may come to the library to doze off for awhile. It’s a relatively safe space and it tends to be busy but nowhere near as loud as the sidewalks outside. In addition to homeless or intoxicated patrons, I do see some parents coming to the library and falling asleep. If their child is playing quietly and safely, I sometimes let them rest awhile until I gently wake them and ask if they’re okay.  I usually get a story about working two or three jobs and sincere apologies for dozing off.
Life is just really hard for a lot of people. I understand how in some branches, if you let people nap, you would quickly run out of room at all of your tables from all the patrons seeking rest and refuge. (Isn’t that a heartbreaking problem?) My solution is just to be compassionate in your response. Not every patron will want to talk about it if they don’t have a safe place to sleep, but some may, and it takes some training to learn the difference and to know how to enter those conversations. I personally think that if a patron is not taking up too much space and they’re not known to be problematic, it’s worth considering allowing them to rest for a few minutes.

Loitering. What does this even mean? Is someone loitering if they’re standing outside the building, using the wifi to download something on their phone? Or is just loitering if someone makes staff feel uncomfortable? To me, most people think “loitering” when they don’t understand what someone is doing and worry it could be something criminal. I have a lot of questions about the circumstances surrounding asking a patron to leave based on a loitering policy. I have a feeling this is used as a cover, at least sometimes, for some racially biased thinking.

What are some policies you’ve seen that tend to target homeless or vulnerable patrons?

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Culture and Bias in Library Policy (Part One?)

I’m here to talk about the hard stuff today. I want us to take a look at some common public library policies and to examine who they’re impacting and how. I want us to go to work and really examine our experiences. Are there policies that are having heavier impacts on marginalized populations? Are there ideologies at work that show cultural bias?

Public libraries have a history of raising barriers to access and putting policies in place that are biased or discriminatory. Many of us in the South are working in buildings that once had separate entrances for white patrons and people of color. Dewey is downright offensive for pretty much every population but white, Christian men. We know that fines are especially hard on patrons with limited income and access to transportation. The movement against neutrality in libraries has brought so many of these issues to the foreground, but I’m of a mind today to call out some specific policies and practices that I haven’t seen tackled elsewhere. Ready?

Eating and drinking in the library.

Okay, I get it. People can make a mess, or eat something smelly, and they may even smuggle in alcohol in a juice bottle. I see you and I hear you. The flip side is that during the school year, I see lots of children who arrive on the city bus after school and they don’t leave until the library is closing. If we don’t allow them to eat or drink, it means that they’re probably hungry until they get home, which could be 8:30 or 9 pm. (That’s assuming they have food at home, which is not always the case.)

It becomes an issue of culture because the people I see trying to bring in a snack are usually people who need to spend as much time as possible in the library. They’re the family struggling to get homework and job applications done at the same time because they don’t have internet at home and unemployment is running out soon. It has a bigger impact on patrons who live in poverty, because, sure, if you have a car and income, you’re probably not the kind of person who needs to spend a whole Saturday at the library. You probably can leave at will to have lunch across the street or to just go home. If you have the kinds of struggles that come with poverty, it’s not so easy, and eating lunch over the keyboard or huddled over homework assignments seems like a necessity.

And, actually, depending on where you live and the demographics in your area, issues that largely affect impoverished patrons probably have a lot of overlap with racial economics, too. If you find yourself primarily telling people of color not to eat or drink in the library, I think it’s worth examining if that’s a discriminatory or even racist policy.

What might be a more balanced approach? If all things were possible, I would look at designating a certain space in the library for eating and drinking. I would try to make it as easy to clean as possible, and then I would also consider giving the custodial staff a small raise for the increase in their duties, as well.

Could most libraries do this? Probably not. I think some could, though, and that’s worth something.

Swearing in the library.

Some patrons are offended by it. It’s considered impolite or inappropriate, but by whom and in what circumstances is totally fluid. What I know, living in an urban area and spending plenty of time around people from all walks of life, is this. For lots of people, it’s completely normal conversation and it’s even a friendly, communal practice at times. People who like it and people who don’t are all over the place in terms of what demographics they could fall into, and, honestly, if I tried to describe how it works in my city, I would probably be relying on stereotypes and that’s never helpful. However, there is an observable culture around swearing as a gesture of friendship.

In my experience, most library personnel won’t stop an adult from swearing if they’re not being really loud and angry, or cussing someone out directly. If they get a complaint, they might step in and point out that, technically, the library does have a policy against swearing. (This has been true in all of the libraries I’ve worked for.)

It gets trickier with children. Lots of people in my area swear in front of their children, and lots of people don’t. Most families that are on opposite sides of the issue seem to co-exist pretty peacefully beside each other. But should I let adults (or children for that matter) swear in the children’s department?

For me, it’s not as easy as having a policy or not. It comes down to differences in culture and what my role is when there’s a clash. I am a white lady and most of my patrons are black. If there are two black women who are casually talking and they happen to drop in some swear words, but are otherwise pretty happy and keeping an eye on their kids, I let that go every time. It’s a private conversation and walking over to ask them not to behave a certain way is just…wrong. It’s making a judgment on their way of life and it feels imperialist to me. If a patron happened to complain to me about that situation, I would probably say something like, “I understand how you must be concerned about what your child is exposed to, but I think those patrons are using the library in a respectful way and don’t feel it’s necessary for staff to step in.” This has never happened to me and I doubt that it ever will. If it did, though, I imagine it would be hard and the patron would be very angry with me, but I would try to make them comfortable, provide my supervisor’s name if necessary, and stand up for my decision.

I would and have interceded when adults have used loud and angry swearing in the children’s area. I say, “This is not a conversation that’s appropriate for a library. It’s our policy that you go outside.” I’m fortunate that I have security available if I need back-up, but including that “policy” word is important for signaling that they need to comply.

 

I feel like this post is long enough for now and I’m running out of juice today. I hope to return later with what, doubtless, will be more unpopular takes on policies that overlap with cultural bias.

 

 

 

 

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From Small Town to Big City

Long time, no see, amiright?

First came summer reading and then came something exciting. I moved from a small city in North Carolina to Baltimore! (You can collectively say “oooo-ahhhh” now.)

As you might imagine, it’s been a huge adjustment and I wanted to start my writing ventures off again by talking a little about what that process looks like.

First, there’s getting used to living in a place with a much, much denser population. Even though Baltimore is actually somewhat small, there are a lot of people packed into the area. Combined with a very old infrastructure (indirect routes, poor road conditions, and precious little parking) and tons of pedestrians, basically any errand that takes me out of my neighborhood takes two or three times longer than it would have in a smaller city. I’m also contending with being a very sensitive introvert. I’m outgoing, but having people crowded around me in a grocery store or being in a noisy restaurant makes me anxious. I’ve had to find ways to cope with that.

For work, that means I’ve done a lot of driving around, figuring out alternate routes to work and getting to know the lay of land in my branch’s corner of the city. I’ve also familiarized myself with public transportation routes in case of emergencies and to help patrons find their way to us.

For me, balancing my life got a little trickier. Having to spend more time running errands, doing more planning when I go out with my husband (finding out where to park mostly), dealing with a much higher cost of living and a lower salary, and setting aside time for self-care was initially taxing work. Ultimately, I rely more heavily on my husband now as a partner, which is a good development, but I’m also learning to regularly stop myself before a weekend and gauge how I’m feeling. Am I missing my time in nature? Maybe I need to plan to spend a day outside the city, hiking or walking along the bay. Am I missing quality time with my dogs? They can come too. Am I stuck in a rut of cleaning and meal prepping the whole weekend? It’s time to make a date of doing something new.

There was also a huge change in culture. I went from living and working in a place that was mostly white, Christian, and conservative to a place where I was in a cultural minority as a white woman. Baltimore is rich in diversity and it’s a pretty liberal city. I want to write a lot about what’s it been like to work through such a huge transition and especially about working with populations with experiences that couldn’t be more different from mine. Let me just say for now that it’s been an amazing journey and it’s one that’s freed me to become the kind of librarian I’ve always wanted to be.

Adjusting to being a very small part of a large urban library has been the most challenging process. In my last position, I had meetings once a month with our director, I was close allies with city managers, and I was able to swing by and talk to our county manager when he was available. I had friends in different departments of our county government, and I felt deeply connected to the work we were all doing for our patrons and citizens. In my current position, I often don’t know about important library initiatives until the last minute or until after they’ve passed. Our administrative structure is so vast and complicated that I barely know who does what beyond my own branch manager. There are also smaller things to adjust to like a work culture that doesn’t necessarily get to know patrons who are with us regularly, a deeper divide between librarian staff and circulation assistants, a greater emphasis on policy enforcement, and the presence and influence of a security guard. Learning how to use my voice and to show some leadership under these circumstances has been discouraging at times, but I always fall back on my love for my work and for the families I’m serving.

I’ll be back soon to talk a little more about transitioning and some things I’ve done to be successful. Until then, xo!

 

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Who I Am After Three Years of Blogging

Today, I’ve been cleaning up my blog and taking small steps to make it more useful and accessible to readers. If you’re a frequent reader, you’ll probably notice me tweaking the layout and categories and tags in the coming weeks. For today, I was just reviewing some of my older posts, things I haven’t seen or thought about in years.

This incarnation of my blogging life began when I started my current job a little more than two years ago, but I was blogging before that as a paraprofessional, as well. When I became a librarian, I had a lot of things to face up to right away. Not only was it my first job as a librarian, but I was alone as a branch manager in a new county with two teammates to supervise and really high expectations for how many programs I would provide each week. If you read my posts from the early days, bless you. I was struggling. HARD. My posts were about how overwhelming everything was and how I was making mistakes. SO. MANY. MISTAKES. I knew my blog was a kind of confessional and I thought that had some merit, too.

Others were talking about their storytime plans, their visions for how youth services should be structured and valued, and how we can better the field. I didn’t think I had anything to contribute to that at first. I was twenty-five when I stepped into my big role as a librarian and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just knew, even then, that no one should feel alone in that kind of confusion. So I wrote about it, all the while hoping it would mean something to some other lost newbie one day.

As time went by, I got better and more confident. With big responsibilities to handle, I grew rapidly and now with just two years under my belt, I’m understanding and operating on a level that’s much, much higher than I would have if I’d been a low-level librarian in a big system among dozens of others just like me. My early years have been a trial by fire that forced me to find a way that was all my own.

I realized that my work was broad and significant and deep as a small-town/rural librarian and that there wasn’t enough recognition in the world for this caste of librarians who compose roughly 80% of the public library field. So I started speaking to how my work varies from urban libraries and how powerful that can be.

I understood that the way I was feeling–burdened and exhausted to the point of depression–wasn’t the way that anyone should feel in any career. I started sticking up for myself, saying no and negotiating lower expectations, asking for more staff.

I started building relationships with my local peers and better ones with my co-workers. I was supportive and created a way for us to get to know each other. (The first SU local chapter.) When I did, I found that my co-workers came to my defense more readily. They listened to me in staff meetings and became my allies. My peers in other libraries shared their resources and knowledge and gave me a place to vent. They encouraged me.

One day, I was surprised to feel that I had my own unique voice in the blogging world of librarians. I used it to lift up other people and to understand what kinds of needs existed. I started focusing on more school-age content, information about how to be a community builder in a small town, and child development.

I volunteered to be a Joint Chief for Storytime Underground and was also selected as a director for my state’s youth services board. I’ve been trying to use both to connect people and make sure that no one needs to feel isolated.

When I look back at those first posts from a couple years ago, I feel like a completely different person and part of me is embarrassed by how vulnerable I was. Still, I remember twenty-five year old Brytani fondly and I want better things for her and I’m leaving all that content, but hoping that no one needs it.

 

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Resolve to Rock…by owning your power

The internet has a lot of things to say about how women should stop speaking in ways that betray our strength. We shouldn’t say “just” or “sorry” or use up-talk or vocal fry. Growing up in the South, I was always socialized to believe that women should always be polite and sweet, full of compliments and pet names, and God forbid that you should ever snap back at someone who is rude to you. No, ma’am. You just blush and back out of the room like any well-bred lady.

All of it–and I repeat ALL of it–is hogwash. Malarkey. Drivel.

Unfortunately, as much as I know that intellectually, I do see how it’s true that most people expect certain behaviors, appearances, and customs to be observed for them to consider you respectable in whatever way. As a young woman, I’ve struggled with tossing all that aside to be myself, especially in the workplace. Even in a field as progressive as libraries, there are far too many people ready and eager to judge. The older I get and the more experience I gain, though, I’m finding it easier to cast off what’s expected or what would be pleasing to people (even people I love) to be myself.

This year, I want to step fully into that.

 

Resolve to Rock meme image

 

This year, ladies and gents, I resolve to OWN MY POWER.

1. I will speak in a kind and caring way when I’m working, using whatever intonation or diction I wish. The words I choose and my vocal patterns are not a reliable reflection of my self-confidence and strength. What I do, the work that I create, the people I help and the communities that I build–those are reflections of me and of what I’m capable of doing.  So, sir, do not read too much into whether or not I say sorry when bumping into you with my book cart.

 

 

2. I will be more direct. For a long time, I worried about voicing my opinions in a way that would make co-workers think I’m too cocky. I’m a young woman, and I’m aware that some (maybe even lots of) people have feelings about relative youth that make them doubt my skills. (What I love about this is that it can be both a reason to condemn me and an excuse for why an older person can’t match me. “Well, I guess you young people just do things differently.” “You’ll feel differently when you’ve been around longer.” “Sure, you can get all this done. You’re young and have energy.” Sometimes being young means that people will doubt you and then write you off even when you do amaze them.) I’m not going to waste time on that kind of side-stepping anymore. I just want to say what I know and what I think is best without worrying if everyone will still like me for it.

 

 

3. I’m going to stop thinking that everyone else’s opinions or experiences are better than mine. I’m still relatively new to the profession. I’ve been a librarian for two years and was a paraprofessional a little before that. I’ve done some things I’m really proud of, largely because of my PLN and how they’ve inspired me. Still, if I’m being honest, I’m always looking at the way other people do things because I’ve always wanted someone to turn up like some kind of fairy godmother to tell me everything I need to do to “make it.” I didn’t really have a mentor in any of my workplaces, and I’ve always felt a little bit insecure because I’m only going off my own guesswork. When I became a librarian in charge of two branches, I felt so lonely because there was no one who could really help me figure out the best way to do things. I think that’s common in libraries because our work is fluid and constantly evolving. Everything depends on your community and how you understand and relate to them. What works for one library will not work for another. It’s not an easy profession to rise up in the ranks, I think, because there’s no one way. If you’re like me and you crave a Yoda in your life, libraries might be tough going for you. This year, I want to stop waiting for Yoda, though. The longer I go and the more I succeed by winging it, the more certain I am that I will always be my own hero. I will figure it out and overcome any obstacle on pure force of will and resourcefulness. Also, I have joint chief sisters. So…

 

 

4. I’m going to let myself take some credit. I mean, let’s be real. I’m pretty legit as a librarian. I still have a lot to learn, but I’ve also more than earned my stripes. I ask hard questions, push myself beyond my comfort zone, make the impossible work, bring visions to life, blaze new trails, and juggle about a million things. I need to stop myself from saying things like, “Oh, no, I’ll never be as great as [insert other librarian I really admire].” It’s true, though. I’ll only ever be as great as me, and that’s still pretty great.

So in short, this is my resolution: