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 Michaealson 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, Michaelson Schmidt 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 Oregon, that assessment has led to several initiatives already, including diversity and inclusivity training for staff members, offering adaptive technology accessories such as a track ball mouse and portable digital magnifier and making their Facebook page and website more accessible on screen reader devices.

Other changes the library staff wanted to make are not possible in the current building because the space doesn’t allow for it, Oregon Public Library director Jennifer Endres Way said adding that the changes will be implemented in the new library.

Endres Way said for her staff, it’s a great framework to evaluate how they are doing.

“It really helps us take a step back to make sure we are being as inclusive as possible and eliminate any barriers,” she said.

Michaelson Schmidt said the statement and resulting assessment guide are partially intended to provide how DPI interprets state statute 43.24(2)(k), the law that sets requirements for libraries to remain eligible for state aid.

The trends that shaped the statement – which was 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, Michaelson Schmidt said. To get there, she said, 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 over the state to look at race, social justice and bias – using examples of experiences guests have had – for the Inclusive Services Institute.

Among the topic areas the resulting assessment 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.

Endres Way said the tools in the assessment have been helping them make sure that the new library will be accessible for everyone. She believes the plans have exceeded what’s recommended in the document, not just met the minimum requirements for the new building.

Based on recommendations from the guide, goals for the new library include providing state of the art technology in meeting and event spaces, like microphones and sound system; adjustable lighting; reducing the height of shelving to allow easier access to top shelves; a new mothers and caregivers room for people who are nursing or pumping and to offer a hearing loop system in meeting rooms, which lets people with hearing aids hear better during meetings and programs.

“There’s a lot to it,” Way said, “We are going through it systematically to determine where we are now and we’d like to be.”

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,” Michaelson Schmidt 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 said she is now working on additional resources tying together the statement and assessment document. This includes new checklist prompts based upon the feedback she’s been hearing of more areas where libraries are not inclusive. She is also creating video modules which could 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 can be contacted at neal.patten@wcinet.com.