Building Culturally Relevant Libraries

When we think about the school library as a place where reading communities begin and are nurtured, we have to remember that a school is a place where many students do not inherently feel welcome. Historically speaking, school systems have sometimes been an instrumental part of systems of colonization and indoctrination, and culturally relevant libraries are not something everyone has access to. The tendency to demonize the unique parts of us that make us individuals, and to praise or reward the parts of people that demonstrate their assimilation with the dominant culture is pervasive throughout all of humankind. From Japan, which kept its borders closed to visitors from the West (until the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1853), all the way to the Hawaiian Islands, whose indigenous population was decimated with the arrival of colonizers and smallpox in 1778, education has been used to dominate and subjugate throughout human history.

So what can we do to transform our educational system to one where everyone is truly welcome, a system based upon precepts of liberation and freedom? The idea of culturally relevant libraries is a natural outgrowth of culturally responsive education. When we think about culturally relevant librarianship, we have to consider that librarianship is in essence the curation, preservation, and dissemination of information and stories. We must also remember that historically, information, and stories have been the record of those who considered themselves to be the winners and conquerors in societies the world over.

We want to remain responsive to and aware of the need of all children to have an experience in library and classroom environments that is empowering, restorative, and validating. As you begin to explore culturally relevant libraries, begin by asking yourself the following:

  • How do we make sure students feel empowered? We lift up stories and information that depict all people, not just those of the global majority, as inventors, explorers, discoverers, and victors.
  • How do we make sure students are restored through the information they seek and find? We make sure information seeking is a collaborative process and one that includes search terms, keywords, and databases that center around people and funds of knowledge outside those of Western Europe.
  • How do we validate students in an effort to make sure they truly feel welcome in library space? We center their funds of knowledge and make sure they know their stories are valued and valid, even if those from the dominant culture do not understand the cultural norms, language, and value depicted within them.

Many librarians have chosen to genre-fy their libraries in an attempt to emulate the organization systems used by bookstores. Genre-fication is a step toward student empowerment and away from dependence. Learn more from this article in American Libraries magazine.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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