Moving Multicultural Collections Online

Promoting diverse materials virtually

June 26, 2020

In the age of COVID-19, how can library workers help students and patrons access diverse collections?

In a June 26 session at ALA Virtual, two panelists discussed the challenges and strategies of doing just that. As part of the Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table (EMIERT) Chair’s Program, the session, “Promoting Multicultural Library Services in Virtual Spaces,” was moderated by EMIERT Vice Chair Andrea Jamison, librarian and lecturer at Valparaiso (Ind.) University.

In physical spaces, said Jamison, libraries can display books, create signage, and read aloud about different communities and cultures. How can they continue to advocate for diverse groups now that programming and services have moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic?

One of the challenges is that the serendipity of stumbling upon a new book or other resource “is less likely to happen in a digital space unless we make it happen,” said panelist Heidi Rabinowitz, library director and media specialist at Feldman Children’s Library at Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, Florida.

She suggested including diverse books in general-interest storytimes, programs, book discussions, and concert and speaker series, for example. She added that there is a need to avoid siloing of multicultural materials, so that, for example, patrons and students shouldn’t find “Jewish material only when looking for that topic, or find Black books only when they come to a Black lecture.”

Panelist K. C. Boyd, library media specialist at Jefferson Academy in the District of Columbia Public Schools, said the “huge challenge” for many of her racially and economically diverse students was that they lacked e-reading devices. As they waited for those devices to be distributed and Wi-Fi hotspots to be created, they weren’t reading.

Once that was resolved, however, Boyd said the students needed to be taught how to use applications and websites to access the interactive ebooks or audiobooks for virtual learning.

“We often think, ‘Oh, because these kids are often online, they know what to do online.’ Not exactly,” said Boyd. “Showing them how to do these things really makes an indelible difference between a proficient user and a user who is reluctant to log on.”

One thing she said she couldn’t stress enough was the importance of carrying a diverse collection into a digital space. “That [collection] needs to piggyback and go right into the ebook format,” she said. “The kids are looking for those same books online.”

When schools closed early because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Boyd said, there was initially a “big data dump” online, with links to free resources for students. She said she compiled a list of relevant resources for her school community and uploaded it to a Google document, making it public not only for her students but also teachers and parents. Said Boyd: “That helps literacy continue on in the home throughout this pandemic.”

Rabinowitz cautioned librarians against overrepresenting or misrepresenting certain aspects of a culture when developing a multicultural virtual collection.

Those not well versed in Jewish literature, for example, may not know that “not all Jews are white European Ashkenazi from the Lower East Side,” she said. “That stereotype may persist because they may not know to look for books about Jews of color or Jews of different kinds of backgrounds.”

Said Rabinowitz: “As librarians, we don’t have to know everything. We just have to know who to ask and where to find it.”


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