Over the next few years, the state is asking its member libraries to take steps to better listen to underrepresented voices in their communities.

Those voices will likely include people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, the elderly, low income individuals and people from all walks of life, Tessa Michaelson Schmidt, youth and inclusive library consultant at the state Department of Public Instruction said. The voices at each library will differ based on the community.

In her role, she serves the roughly 400 libraries across the state’s 16 regional public library systems. For the past eight years, she has focused her work on supporting inclusive libraries, and that has resulted in an inclusivity statement in May 2017 and an assessment guide for libraries in July 2019.

In Fitchburg, a variety of changes have been made in recent years to be more inclusive and user-focused, including redesigning the parking spaces in the garage to better accommodate accessible vans, creating gender neutral restrooms on the second floor and eliminating overdue fines.

Library director Wendy Rawson said the goal of each of these projects was to make library patrons feel comfortable and welcome at the Fitchburg Public Library.

“We are fortunate that our newer building was created to be accessible, but there are always ways to improve,” Rawson said. “We are looking forward to using this new tool, crafted by DPI, to make additional improvements.”

Michaelson Schmidt said the statement and resulting assessment guide are partially intended to show how DPI interprets the law that sets requirements for libraries to remain eligible for state aid.

The trends that shaped the statement – drafted by people actively working in Wisconsin libraries – came from local library input, as stakeholders found it helpful to have a set definition of the law, she said. To get there, she did a lot of listening to the different libraries to learn what would provide more inclusive services.

“Things like income, race, identity – what that actually looks like and concerns or hesitations or complexities will look different in every community,” Michaelson Schmidt said. “There’s not one prescription that will work for everyone.”

She held a retreat that led to the drafting of the statement, then brought library staff together from around the state to look at race, social justice and bias, using examples of their experiences for the Inclusive Services Institute.

Among the topic areas the guide addresses are: collections, services, practices, policies, procedures, perceived friendliness, programming, location, hours, restrooms, computers and technology, library card registration, online access (website and internet card catalog), marketing, community engagement, funding, self care for library workers, and inclusive culture at the library.

The assessment includes a checklist of questions and prompts representing these topics which were made to align with Wisconsin Public Library standards.

The assessment and guide were shared with the Fitchburg library’s Board of Trustees in the fall of 2019 and will be referred to during the library’s strategic planning process this year.

A workgroup of library staff has been formed which will focus on completing the various assessments in the guide and consider how to improve the facilities, collections and services that the library provides.

Michaelson Schmidt said the assessment provides overall goals that all the regional libraries can be striving for, but adapt to the needs of their local community.

“In many ways, it’s exciting words like equity, social justice and inclusion are more understood now than even one to five years ago,” she said. “I am pleased to hear libraries are taking these documents to heart and not just having these conversations because this is a nice thing to do or trendy or on the radar for now. This is what libraries have always stood for, to be a place for everyone regardless of literacy or income, it’s one of the true democratic institutions in our country.”

She is working on additional resources tying together the statement and assessment document, including new checklist prompts based on feedback about areas where libraries are not inclusive. She is also creating video modules to be used at board meetings or staff inservices to help buffer difficult conversations on topics like race or class and diffuse potential tensions.

“Libraries can be a great location for having conversations that can be hard to wrap your head around, a place of safety and trust,” Michaelson Schmidt said.

Neal Patten, community reporter, can be contacted at neal.patten@wcinet.com.