From October 2018-March 2019, 21 diverse organizations participated in the First Wave pilot of the OF/BY/FOR ALL Change Network. We’re sharing stories from their journeys to become of, by, and for the communities that matter most to them. These stories were written by Titania Veda in partnership with the First Wave teams.
The St. Joseph County Public Library joined the OF/BY/FOR ALL First Wave to deepen its community connections. The library is located in South Bend, Indiana, a region of the Midwest with a growing Latinx population. As part of the First Wave, the library’s team decided to focus on the growing Latinx community on South Bend’s West Side. The question the team raised is: How can they ensure their community feels the library is for everyone?
OF/BY/FOR ALL spoke to the First Wave team from St Joseph County Public Library: Jennifer Henecke - Communications Specialist, Sara Maloney - Research and Technology Manager, Erin Lawrence - Community Engagement Manager, Michael Moriconi - Branch Manager, and Leah Steinhiser - Assistant Branch Manager.
You joined OF/BY/FOR ALL’s First Wave last year. How has the experience been for your team?
The First Wave directed us to look internally and to identify the areas that needed work. It gave us the structure to begin making changes. As a small example, one of the OF/BY/FOR ALL activities we were asked to do was to visit places where our community of interest spends their time. We saw what life is like for the people we’re trying to reach. What do they see every day, where do they shop? It was a start. We wouldn't have come up with that on our own. The First Wave gave us the courage to begin pushing forward institutional changes at our big organization.
The world is changing and the role of libraries is shifting as well. Your team is exploring how a library can adapt to these changes. What lessons have you learned?
The biggest discovery has been how much we need to shift internally before we can change how we interact with our community. Librarians are very skilled at what they do, and we sometimes think that we know what people want. We need to learn how to say “can you tell us what you need?” We need to change our mindset, and realize that being “for” people is not the same as being “of” and “by” them.
What are the challenges that you are facing within your organization to become more OF/BY/FOR ALL?
It represents a huge culture shift for us. We have had to depend a lot on communication. Our staff is not in the same department or the same part of town. We have to reiterate what OF/BY/FOR ALL is over and over. We talk about it at staff meetings, we made a video about it to share across the branches, and we keep communicating about it. If someone from a branch or the technical services misses this message, we won’t be successful. If our Administration doesn’t fully understand what we’re doing, we’re not going to be able to make these changes. We all need to be together on this.
What is at stake if you remain as you are as an institution?
It’s a necessary change for us. Our inherent purpose is public service. We come to work to help people. Yet there’s some elitism within library culture. We value information and for so long were the judges of quality—what is fact, what is literature. There is so much MORE information out there. We need to expand our horizons and give up some control. Above all, if we do not, our community loses out. We have the capacity to give so much, but we must understand and meet the community’s needs.
What are some changes you’ve made in the library to become more welcoming to your community?
We're re-evaluating a lot of the signs in the library. We’re rewriting signs to be more positive. Instead of saying “your bike will get stolen if you put it here,” we say “we’ve provided these bike racks for you.” We want to present ourselves as a place of belonging. All our new signs are bilingual, and we are being much more proactive about advertising in Spanish language media.
Including Local Authors
In the past, we had a restriction on what was considered acceptable material to be added to our catalog. That limited the amount of local authors in our collection. A local author disagreed with that policy. We reconsidered. Now we have a “Local Authors” section, and we accept all books. We’ve given up control in favor of supporting our local authors.
It is important that someone who walks into the Library feels represented by our staff. Across our profession, librarians tend to be white women. There’s a need to get more diversity. We’re creating a position that would be inclusive of our community of interest. We want it to be a paid internship for a bilingual student. They could be a liaison for the community and the library. And more importantly, they will discover what it’s like to work at a library. We want to open this up as a career path.
If you think of your small wins within this big change, what stories come up for you?
When we sent out our first email to staff about OF/BY/FOR ALL, we were thrilled with the response. We got an email back from a new person working in our Circulation Department, which said: “I read your email and selected books for the Spanish collection. I’d like to talk to someone from the community about what books I should be selecting.” She had seen the potential part she could play in this change.
Since then there have been a lot of these little moments. We are starting to see conversations occur across the Library about what this project means. For us, that seems like a success. The spirit is in the air. We all feel that this shift to become more community directed is beginning to happen.