On Wednesday, Sept. 25, several students and two professors, Laura Saunders and Shelley Quezada (who is also Consultant to the Underserved at the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners), gathered in a Palace Road building classroom to discuss the importance and challenges of serving diverse/underserved users in libraries and information centers. Both Saunders and Quezada have taught the Info Services for Diverse Users class (LIS 410). In Quezada’s case, she’s been teaching these types of classes since 1987. Some of the populations that were discussed include kids/teens; LGBT; seniors; disabled; prisoners; ESL patrons; people with learning disabilities; and the illiterate, which can include the technologically illiterate.
One underserved group that may be overlooked are kids and teens. This group can often face age discrimination – one way this manifests itself is through book challenges, usually from their own parents. (This is especially timely because of the recent celebration of Banned Books Week.) The professors remarked that some librarians can be a bit intimidated when helping young people, and training and, in some cases, retraining, can help with some of those issues. Suggestions also included making a safe environment for LGBT teens, by using signage, for example, even if it’s subtle. Also be sure to build a collection that reflects the diversity of your community.
One startling statistic that was revealed at the meeting: Fifteen percent of American adults don’t go online and most of those people are 65 plus. Public libraries are in a position to provide vital digital services to adults who don’t have Internet access at home. These patrons will need basic information literacy guidance. And, Quezada revealed that the MBLC is able to serve only 6 percent of those who need literacy help.
The professors suggested taking advantage of grants to supplement any kind of budget your library may have to help to combat these problems. Joining regional and national librarian groups and drawing upon your fellow information professionals’ experience and knowledge can also expand any limited resources. Outreach is also vital; know your town and their community organizations. Talk to their leaders and find out what their members want from their library. Volunteering can also be another way to find out what an underserved population needs from its library – say for example at the Suffolk County House of Corrections or at an archive that would help diverse users connect with their past.
In towns with no public library but with a university/college library that receives tax breaks, librarians should work on ways to give back to the community. There should be a change in mindset. But Saunders and Quezada warn that there is no one-size-fits-all solution – know your community and tailor your plans to its citizens’ needs. For example, if there is a large ESL population in your community, but there’s no resources or staff for ESL classes, try to start up conversation circles that allow patrons to lead and set their own goals. Go to their turf: Start projects or hold events in cultural centers, housing projects, senior centers and the like.
More tips: Set policy that provides equality – don’t allow teens to sleep in the library if the homeless cannot. And remember not to pigeonhole – a patron can be a member of multiple groups. Advocate for your ideas: Get support from your board and director by presenting a well-thought-out plan. And when you succeed, hold celebrations and bring in patrons to discuss their success stories.
Potential partnerships could include social workers, nurses and teachers. We must reach out to these professionals and train them to refer their clients/patients to us. Librarians should also try to get a seat during their committee/organizational meetings and perhaps assign liaisons with these groups. The San Francisco Public Library even has a social worker on staff that trains formerly homeless patrons to be an “ambassador” to currently homeless and help them navigate the library.
Check out the Thomas Crane Library in Quincy’s literacy program and the Hartford Public Library’s immigration services for some ideas. We’ve also pinned some articles that may spark your imagination on how you can improve access, resources and services to diverse patrons. And here’s an extended reading list we’ve whipped up for you.