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 Stoughton, this has led to a policy change that eliminates the question asking for gender on library card applications and a short list of immediate goals, such as increasing the font size on hold slips and improving signage and wayfinding.

Library director Jim Ramsey said the library never used the gender information internally or reported it to anyone externally, so the staff eliminated the gender question from the library card application.

“That’s a relatively small change a lot of people won’t even notice, but for people who may be nonbinary or gender nonconforming, that is one less barrier for them,” Ramsey said.

Stoughton’s library also invited Michaelson Schmidt to lead exercises in examining bias at a staff in-service in September 2019.

“She had us looking at the idea that the public library by its definition is for everyone and how to break down barriers that may prevent people who enter our doors with certain backstories or backgrounds from using certain services,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey said there are some accessibility problems the library cannot fix cannot without a building upgrade such as widening the aisles.

Michaelson Schmidt said the inclusivity 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.

The assessment first came to Ramsey’s attention while working in Middleton in 2018, when members of the task force presented a draft of the guide. When he became Stoughton’s director in April, it was something he wanted to use as soon as possible for policy planning and overall library direction.

Ramsey held an in-service to look over the assessment with staff and presented it to the Library Board.

There is a policy committee on the library board that meets almost monthly to ensure that policies aren’t unnecessarily onerous to library users. Ramsey said the committee has begun using the assessment guide to ensure the library does not have any policy that creates an undue barrier to service.

He said it’s an ongoing project, not something with a specific beginning and end date. The library will continue to look at the document when putting together strategic plans and planning for the future.

“Some things in there are easier to implement and some are harder, but it is a way to ensure you are providing the greatest level of accessibility to the greatest number of people,” Ramsey said.

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, Verona Community Reporter, can be contacted at neal.patten@wcinet.com.