Fighting Anti-Asian Racism: Tools for Libraries
By: Lisa Rand
During the COVID-19 public health crisis, misinformation has rapidly spread. There have been webinars and information guides for library staff, with reminders to provide our communities accurate resources about the virus, its causes, and recommended health practices. However, a quick glance at headlines reveals that misinformation persists, and that people do not always listen to public health advice.
One painful result of misinformation, combined with fear and ignorance, has been increased violence against Asians and Asian/Pacific Americans. Major news outlets across the US have covered the upsurge in anti-Asian attacks, with stories by CNN, NBC, PBS, The Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times.
Librarians have been working to respond to misinformation with access to facts from reliable sources. In the case of COVID-19, we also need to offer a counter narrative to the normalization of racism. On March 13, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA) issued a statement condemning the rise in xenophobia, and calling on the library community to stand in solidarity. They provided a thorough list of resources for library workers to combat xenophobia and support Asian and Asian/Pacific American library workers and library users. All are invited to sign the pledge to stand against racism.
As a White librarian committed to anti-racist practices, I strive to be aware of steps I can take to be an ally. On May 1, I attended Confronting Xenophobia and Supporting Asian and Asian/Pacific American Communities During COVID-19, a webinar co-sponsored by APALA and the ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services (ODLOS). The presenters were Erika Lee, a Regents Professor at the University of Minnesota and Sarah Park Dahlen, associate professor in the MLIS program at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Erika Lee provided background on the deep roots of racist narratives and fear of immigrants in the US. She described that racist narratives do not simply arise based on current events, but feed upon pre-existing systems of discrimination. In reflecting on her presentation, I think libraries can help by making sure our collections contain accurate materials that tell the truth about the history of racism in the US. The time for whitewashing our history should be over. We also can order nonfiction, in all categories, authored by Asian/Pacific American writers to be sure our patrons have access to these works.
Sarah Park Dahlen highlighted the importance of talking about racism with young people, and stressed that we need to provide accurate and diverse images, accurate and varied perspectives. I agree with Sarah Park Dahlen that we must “be proactive against white supremacy in our culture,” and uphold our ethical obligation to create safe spaces in our libraries. Whether you want to educate yourself as an individual or train your library staff, there are resources available. Be prepared to counteract hateful statements if you hear them at work. As a starting place, look at the suggested resources for K-12 educators and youth.
There are small steps that, when taken together in many libraries, could contribute to building a culture where racism of any kind would be unacceptable. Using the tools at hand as a programming librarian, my strategies include collection development, book displays, and creating (to the best of my ability) a welcoming space.
Many of our libraries are closed at the time of this writing, due to the public health crisis. When it’s possible, take a look at the books on your shelves that depict Asian/Pacific American experience. There are helpful tools available to assist with a thorough diversity audit of a collection, but for now we will consider a few questions. Do the books represent a range of life experiences, or are they all about one type of story (immigration, for example)? Do the titles depict outdated stereotypes? Asia has 49 member states in the United Nations. Do your shelves reflect the diversity within Asia, or are most of your titles about one country or population? What about authorship? Do the books describe Asian experience from the viewpoint of a White author?
Together, librarians can speak up and let publishers know that we want to see more diversity in book selections. Sarah Park Dahlen is a co-creator of the widely shared infographic “Diversity in Children’s Books 2018,” which starkly revealed the disparity of representation in picture books. We can send a message to publishers by choosing diverse titles for our collections and for use in programming. Check the list of winners of the Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature, given by APALA. The APALA website also has book reviews and other educational resources.
When we provide library patrons with books that tell a fuller story about Asian American experience, we can help eliminate the conditions in which ignorance and fear flourish. We also demonstrate respect for Asian American library visitors. If I say, “The library is for everyone,” but my shelves reflect limited cultural viewpoints, my welcome might feel rather empty.
In the children’s area of the library where I work, browsers always gravitate to displays. They are my opportunity to communicate with patrons. For me, it is essential that the titles on display convey a positive, inclusive message, to the best of my ability. Regardless of display topic, the authors, the book subjects, and the illustrations, should reflect a degree of racial diversity. Inclusive displays are dependent on effective collection development.
With many libraries closed, digital displays and social media are the tools we have at hand. By including Asian American authors in our selections, we convey a positive message that Asian American stories are important. It may be a small and quiet gesture, but this message can have a positive impact on the sense of welcome we create.
By educating ourselves, tending to our collections, and creating welcoming spaces (virtual and in person), librarians can support efforts to eliminate racism.
Lisa M. Rand is a youth services librarian in southeastern Pennsylvania. She exercises her commitment to equity and access for everyone by serving on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association. Lisa has studied at Simmons University and Kent State University. Whenever possible she travels, visiting libraries and walking in the footsteps of favorite fictional characters. Find her on Twitter @lisa_m_rand.