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Virginia Libraries

Current editors:
Beth DeFrancis defrancb@georgetown.edu, Editor
John Connolly jpconnolly@crimson.ua.edu, Assistant Editor

October-December, 2006
Volume 52, Number 4

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They Don't Look Like Me: Library Multicultural Awareness and Issues

by Edwin S. Clay III

(Adapted from a presentation at the 2006 Virginia Library Association's Paraprofessional Forum Conference.)

One would be hard-pressed to find a nation anywhere on earth whose population is more diverse in race, religion, and national origins than the United States.

In an essay celebrating the American Library Association's centennial in 1977, noted historian John Hope Franklin examined the impact of a pluralistic society on library development. His thoughts were summarized in Multiculturalism in Libraries by Rosemary Ruhig Du Mont, Lois Buttlar, and William Caynon (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994). According to Franklin, early views of Americans included only those of European origins. With such a definition, three-quarters of a million blacks already in the country were consideredineligible to be Americanized. There was no willingness to nurture educational and cultural institutions that would serve all people; indeed, the great influx of immigrants in the 1820s and 1830s "raised suspicions and hostility among those of original American stock" (23).

Does this sound familiar?

These new Americans were not like those already in the country. They had different religious beliefs, were willing to work for lower wages, and wanted to keep their languages and traditions. Du Mont et al. continue, "Early expressions of anti-foreignism and anti- Catholicism culminated in the formation of the American Party in 1854. It was a political party whose main goal was maintaining the status quo and attempting to quell the social changes initiated by the thousands of immigrants flocking to America" (23).

The new profession of
librarianship realized
it had a responsibility
to the immigrant
through its services.

In the years following the Civil War, the population of the U.S. grew exponentially due to another wave of immigration. As Du Mont et al. explain, this time immigrants came from northern, southern, and eastern Europe, as well as from China and Japan. The population also became more urban. Cities developed around the mill, the factory, or the railroad. These cities attracted thousands of immigrants looking for work.

Libraries Enter the Fray

About this time, some individuals began to notice that existing institutions were not helping to assist the immigrant in "entering into the American way of life." As time went on and the social problems mounted, many reformers focused on education as the key to solving and resolving the social pressures brought about by immigrants separated from society. There were active protests, as well as publications — again, does this sound familiar? — fomenting public opposition to rights for immigrants.

Libraries in this period were much more identified with education than today. The new profession of librarianship realized it had a responsibility to the immigrant through its services. The library was to become a community cultural center as well.

Du Mont et al. quote Frederick M. Crunden, a well-respected librarian whose article, "The Value of a Free Library," originally appeared in Library Journal in March 1890. Crunden describes the role of the library in helping to integrate immigrants into society:

The free library is the most promising of all measures for social integration because more than any other, it teaches and leads to self-help. Reading library books causes increased productivity of our mechanics and artisans, in the lessening of crime and disorder among us, in the influx of the most desirable class of citizens, the greater sobriety, industry, morality and refinement throughout the community that must necessarily result (24).

Librarians during this period were disturbed by the effects of city life on the population and wished to share their knowledge and middle class ideals with the underprivileged, i.e., the immigrants. They hoped that immigrants and poor Americans alike could be transformed into enlightened, self- supporting citizens.

In order to reach those who would benefit from library services, the library itself was extended through the development of public library branches, deposit stations, and home libraries. Branches and other extension agencies were viewed as a convenient method for catering to special population groups, who would not likely utilize library services in centralized locations.

They hoped that
immigrants and poor
Americans alike could
be transformed into
enlightened, self-
supporting citizens.

The initial emphasis of library programs for immigrants in the 1920s was on the individual. The major goal was assimilation into the American mainstream. Libraries cooperated with day and evening schools by furnishing books recommended by teachers. They aided interested students in their struggle with the English language by sponsoring English classes in the library.

Patron using assistive technologies
Adaptive technologies make the
pleasure of reading possible for
many library users.

Libraries supplied books in native languages, as well as translations from English. Citizenship classes were held in the library. (My library system recently held an updated version of such citizenship classes and had to close registration after one hundred joined!) Libraries in the 1920s contributed pamphlets written by library personnel in native languages describing community rules and laws, prevailing wages, cost of living, health codes, and other information.

A strong theme in the history of the provision of services to immigrants is that the library would help them assimilate into mainstream society. Is this rationale still valid? Is assimilation the goal? What is the rationale for the importance of multiculturalism?

Definitions: Assimilation versus Coexistence

Perhaps we need to look at some definitions before attempting to answer that question. For Du Mont and the coauthors of Multiculturalism in Libraries, "Cultural diversity refers to sensitive recognition of existing cultural differences" (9). The authors go on to cite a working definition developed by the National Coalition for Cultural Pluralism described in Cultural Pluralism in Education: A Mandate for Change edited by Madelon D. Stent, William R. Hazard, and Harry N. Rivlin:

Thus, it is a state of equal coexistence in a mutually supportive relationship within the boundaries or framework of one nation or people of diverse cultures with significantly different patterns of belief, behavior, color, and in many cases with different languages. To achieve cultural pluralism, there must be unity with diversity. Each person must be aware of and secure in his own identity, and be willing to extend to others the same respect and rights that he expects to enjoy himself (9).

Sounds a bit like a combination of the golden rule ("each person must be aware of and … willing to extend to others the same respect and rights that he expects to enjoy himself") and a New Age philosophy ("there must be unity with diversity"). But perhaps such a definition that stresses coexistence is more on target today.

Here's another set of definitions from the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. According to this reference, "multicultural" is defined as "1) of, relating to, or including several cultures" or "2) of, or relating to a social or educational theory that encourages interest in many cultures within a society rather than in a mainstream culture." The phrase "cultural pluralism" is defined as "a condition in which many cultures coexist within a society and maintain their cultural differences; also called multiculturalism." Finally, "multiculturalism" is defined as "the doctrine that several different cultures (rather than one national culture) can coexist peacefully and equitably in a single country." Again, that word: "coexist."

Three young patrons using computer.
A good library draws young people
into a rich learning environment.

How do these definitions, with their emphasis on coexistence, square with the earlier rationale of assimilation? Do you remember some of the metaphors for assimilation? "Melting pot" was one. Then something changed and "melting pot" became "mosaic." Has the rationale for serving immigrants changed? Has our view of the new American changed?

Well, something has changed — for there sure are a lot of library customers who don't look like me. Virginia's population statistics certainly support the fact that the face of Virginians is changing. According to the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia, even though the commonwealth remains a majority-white state, it has experienced high growth rates in nonwhite and Hispanic populations. Virginia is far more diverse than it was even a few decades ago, and projections call for this diversity to increase.

Changing Strategies

In the best of all possible worlds — and in the best library systems — there is the recognition that change in the operational environment is a given. This change (or changes) are anticipated and planned for. The changes — and the response to them — may take the form of a library's budget, strategic plan, or other such document. How many of you have such a plan or document in your library that addresses the issue(s) of multiculturalism?

An initial and incredibly important aspect of any library's approach to becoming responsive to multicultural issues is that of attitudes, knowledge, and training. Obviously, these three components are staffcentered.

Those interested in multicultural issues in libraries have suggested that a library system should foster attitudes toward multiculturalism that include:

  1. Committing to cultural diversity and working to achieve it.
  2. Accepting that the "world has changed" for the better.
  3. Making judgments that are centered on the individual; caring about what happens to each person as a result of culturally diverse experiences.
  4. Being aware of how background and experiences form perceptions of cultural diversity; understanding clearly individual cultural assumptions and patterns of behavior.
  5. Understanding other people's cultural assumptions and patterns of behavior regardless of their race or ethnic background; appreciating perceived discomforts and prejudices of minity toward majority and majority toward minority.

A library should encourage knowledge about multicultural issues that includes:

  1. Responding to a wide diversity of cultural experiences.
  2. Understanding the community and the resources that can help in promoting cultural diversity in library settings.

A library should offer training that develops such skills as:

  1. Ability to put a person at ease regardless of cultural background.
  2. Ability to be at ease in culturally diverse situations.
  3. Ability to deal with the stress that develops with proactive behavior in a culturally diverse library environment.

Such attitudes, knowledge, and skills are developed through formal training opportunities, our own personal experiences, and our backgrounds, as well as other opportunities. But it all begins with a staff's commitment to a library system's goal to provide services that respond to the unique needs of all.

The Value of Self-Awareness

There is an exercise often used in multicultural awareness training. It asks individuals to stand up if they have certain characteristics in common. For example, all those who are the oldest in a family are asked to stand. All those who are thirty and younger are asked to stand. All those who are married are asked to stand. This illustrates how many different groups individuals may belong to and reinforces commonalities.

Library staff member assisting patron.
Carefully trained staff put patrons at
ease in culturally diverse libraries.

Self-awareness and acceptance is the basis of an individual's approach to multiculturalism. Without this commitment, it will be difficult for a library to have a successful program. It will also be quite difficult to have a successful program without a plan or direction of some kind — a direction that identifies the elements, enumerates a response, and quantifies what success looks like.

A Successful Model

Let's begin with the internal issues that have to be in place. The first element to consider is the staff. I've discussed the need for appropriate staff attitudes, knowledge, and skills, but how can these be achieved? Training, recruitment, scheduling, and the establishment of diversity committees can all impact staff awareness of multicultural issues.

Another element that is significant in a library's approach to multiculturalism is its collection. I believe a library's collection is its third most valuable asset behind its customer base and staff. In developing a collection that responds to multicultural needs, a library system must determine the needs of its customers and then acquire appropriate resources. It's a challenging task that involves juggling the budget, priorities, languages selected, and the difficulty of cataloging materials in languages other than English.

Next, a library must look at the services it offers. Do the reference and information services meet the needs of a multicultural audience? Does programming for both children and adults respond to these needs? Adult programming can include English conversation classes or even more formal English language classes. Are new Americans aware of the free Internet access that can allow them to keep in touch with their home countries?

Marketing these services is important as well. Libraries must decide how to reach their market. Does this mean publications in different languages? Should internal signs be in more than one language?

Last, a library should consider how to evaluate its success. What criteria will determine if activities to promote the collection and services to new Americans are working?

Potential Barriers

It's one thing to prepare a plan and develop strategies. It is quite another thing to actually implement the plan. There are many potential barriers to implementing a creative program. One area is library administration, where there may be resource shortages, a lack of multicultural staff, the inability to change strategies, local government demands (a significant issue), or lack of understanding of different cultural attitudes and beliefs.

A second area where barriers can exist is the library staff, who may have problems with the reassigning of staff roles; competing demands among various staff ethnic groups; resentment toward new cultural programs; or cultural differences, conflicts, and misunderstandings among staff members.

A third, and surprising, area is the multicultural customers libraries seek to serve. Often these customers lack knowledge of library services because the public library is not a worldwide institution, because some immigrants would never give their names and addresses to a public institution, or because of communication difficulties with administration and staff. In addition, time and energy constraints can limit visits to the library. Other problems include the gap between what multicultural customers need and available library services, cultural differences between customers and staff, and cultural differences between various potential customer groups.

Ignore this changing
base at your own peril
and be prepared
to wither away.

A fourth potential barrier is the age-old problem that libraries always confront — resources. How will a library system pay for the changes required by an appropriate response to multicultural demands? If additional funds are required, how can a library secure them? There are a couple of strategies. First, make a budget case. Let the powers that be know about the changing face of your customers. Second, you can reprioritize, which means some things are added and some things deleted. Third, secure outside funding through foundations, grants, etc. My library system has been able to partner with ExxonMobil to buy children's books in other languages, and two ethnic communities — the Koreans and Vietnamese — have raised funds to purchase materials in their native languages at library branches that serve their populations.

Challenge or Opportunity?

Is multicultural awareness a challenge or an opportunity? I think awareness is a positive challenge, but that the responses provided by a library to this challenge offer an opportunity. Being aware is nice — responding proactively, aggressively, and appropriately is wonderful! The role of a library is to respond to its community of users. Not some of its community of users, but all of them.

I am a practicing cynic, but a closet idealist. So the cynic side of me says that if for no other reason than enlightened self-interest, a library must be aware of and responsive to its customer base. (Remember, I believe the most important asset of a library is its customer base.) Ignore this changing base at your own peril and be prepared to wither away.

My ideal self believes that becoming a library responsive to multicultural needs continues the tradition of the library's role in society and in the community as a place where all can come to learn, enjoy, and recreate. Simply recall the early history of the library: libraries have previously faced and met the challenge of responding to the new American successfully.

Perhaps we just need to be reminded of this. VL


Edwin S. Clay III has been the director of the twenty-one-branch Fairfax County Public Library since 1982. FCPL is the largest public library system in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, as well as the largest in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Clay is a past president of the Virginia Library Association and the Virginia Public Library Director's Association.


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