In this second blog post on creating inclusive libraries, we examine the need to identify and remove barriers, and have an expanded definition of ‘the library as a safe space’.

Identifying and Removing Barriers

Paramount to our goal of creating inclusive libraries is removing barriers that prevent diverse youth from feeling welcome. In her research, Kafi Kumasi (2012) found that many youth of color feel like outsiders in library spaces, describing the school library as the sole “property” of the librarian. Kumasi argues that “these feelings of disconnect and exclusion should be attended to by school librarians, if they want to make all of their students feel welcome.”

Physical barriers can be easy to spot and can include, for example, detectors and late fees. Consider the unwelcoming message that detectors—particularly those with a ‘push’ gate—can send about libraries, especially for teens who may regularly be followed in department stores. We must recognize that these kinds of microaggressions are daily experiences for many youth, especially male youth of color, and must be mindful not to replicate them in our libraries. We must also realize that late fees represent a financial burden for some teens and their families causing teens to forego visiting the library, and ask ourselves, what other strategies might we use? Finally, our libraries must be physically and intellectually accessible for teens with disabilities (and, of course, stocked with literature that reflects their lived experiences). Project ENABLE provides free training to help librarians create more inclusive libraries that address the needs of youth with disabilities.

Other barriers are more difficult to unpack, but include library policies or procedures that inhibit teens from visiting or participating. For public libraries, this could manifest as an address requirement for receiving a library card. Teens experiencing homelessness would be unable to fulfill this requirement and thus be denied access to essential public library resources including computer time and material checkouts. For school libraries, perhaps a strict atmosphere of ‘shhh-ing’ is excluding teens from joining in library activities. Janice Hale (2001) reminds us, for example, that African American youth “participate in a culture that is highly dynamic. They thrive in settings that use multimedia and multimodal teaching strategies. And they favor instruction that is variable, energetic, vigorous, and captivating.” Do our libraries support this?

Barriers can also exist in programming. Are we scheduling programs at times that allow teen participation? Are we taking into consideration the public transportation schedules? Are we offering programs at locations in the community, rather than expecting teens to always come to the library? Are we coordinating our teen programs with our programs for children so that teens who are responsible for taking care of siblings can attend? Breaking Barriers: Libraries and Socially Excluded Communities explores ideas related to this topic specific to public libraries.

School librarians must work to embed issues of social justice throughout the curriculum recognizing that building a more inclusive library helps to cultivate a more inclusive school. We must use care to schedule our clubs—book, coding, gaming, etc.—at times when all students have the opportunity to attend. When schools have an enrichment/remediation period, this may seem like a perfect time to schedule library activities, but then we will be precluding any teens slated for remediation time from participating in our clubs—and these are exactly the teens we should be striving to reach. We need to work to select more neutral times, such as lunch, or work with teachers to create a way for students selected for remediation to fully participate

To identify barriers, it is important to see the library through the eyes of our teens— “What do they see?”  Utilizing the ideas in the Culturally Responsive Library Walk, we can ask teens who frequent the library, but perhaps more importantly those who are not regular visitors, to provide their insight into the explicit and implicit messages our libraries are sending.

Library as Safe Space

Overwhelmingly, as librarians, we believe in the idea of library as sanctuary. Are we making our libraries safe for the quiet female teen who doesn’t fit in and likes to read? Undoubtedly. [Bets are many of us were that girl.] What about the male teenager who is loud and funny and needs a place where he feels smart? Is the library a place where it is perfectly okay for him to joke with his friends while doing his homework? What about the trans teen who wants to be in a community or school space where there is no gender sorting? Are we still using phrases like “ladies and gentlemen”? Do we have separate male and female restroom passes? How do we respond when we hear teens make homophobic or racist remarks? Do we pretend we didn’t hear them, or do we intervene?

Language is important. It can be used to communicate inclusiveness or to reinforce privilege. Implicit bias and microaggressions have no place in an inclusive library. Person-first language is a necessity. For example, we don’t have autistic students; we have students with autism. We also need to educate ourselves on examples of loaded words and coded meanings and recognize terms that should not be used to describe youth. For example, we need to remove the term “at-risk teen” from our vocabulary and watch how subtle word changes can alter meaning. “Youth in poverty” implies a changeable condition; “youth of poverty” implies an immutable state of being. Similarly, the term homeless youth oversimplifies these teens’ lives, whereas the phrase youth experiencing homelessness keeps our attention focused on the teens and respects the complexity of their lives.

The Inclusive Library

Committing ourselves to increasing our cultural competence, using our diverse collections, identifying and removing barriers, and expanding our definition of ‘the library as safe space’ can help to make our libraries more inclusive. In this blog series, we have in no way provided an exhaustive list of things to think about, but we hope we have demonstrated ways to embed tenets of inclusivity throughout every aspect of our work. We would love to hear how you act for teens by making your libraries inclusive!  Tell us in the comments, email us, or join the conversation by tweeting out your best practices using #libequity and #act4teens.


Julie Stivers (@BespokeLib) is a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science and works with teens at the Durham County Youth Home and at a local public school.

Sandra Hughes-Hassell (@bridge2lit)is a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science where her research focuses on social justice and libraries.

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