Friday, July 7, 2017

Community Collaborations-First Nations and Your Collection

I remember hearing in the past year that getting some perspective from community groups on certain collections and services could help us to better serve patrons.
I have to confess, the idea made me nervous in the past.
Opening collections to the review and input of non-library folk seemed like it could be a slippery slope.  That the potential for possible censorship issues could create new problems.  We are the trained professionals, who know our communities, who understand balanced collections and the importance of intellectual freedom.  Better, I thought to continue to improve my own understanding of all of my patrons concerns and make a professional judgement on what to order, what to keep and what to let go.
Sadly, I think for many of us, that is an impossible feat.  For our mostly white, mostly female, mostly straight and cisgendered profession, there is simply too much for us to learn and too many things we need to unlearn. Not to mention the issues of underrepresentation in writing and publishing when it comes to creating really inclusive libraries and the basic lack of time we have to thoroughly assess multiple books in our collection page by page.
So, this past week, we opened our collection doors (figuratively speaking) to our friends at the nearby Ho-Chunk Nation Youth Learning Center.  I talked with Elizabeth, who herself is Ojibwe but works with Ho-Chunk youth primarily, about our First Nations series non-fiction, fiction, and Thanksgiving books.  Maybe, like us, you have a large number of these holiday books that only see the light of day once a year and are then circulated like mad between all of the local teachers.  What Emily and I found in a lot of these items were problematic aspects like:

  • Illustrations of white children in generic Indian headdresses or feathers.
  • Suggestions that the Pilgrims helped the Wampanoag in many ways.
  • Inaccurate representations of the first Thanksgiving such as Wampanoag women and children depicted at a feast that only held warriors.
  • Nearly nude Native people in fall, when they would have been wearing more clothing.
  • Illustration that depicted Native people as white people with tanner skin and a feather or buckskin loincloth.
  • Crafts that encourage children to make a construction paper "costume" headdress.  
  • Non-specific mythology.  "Native people believed..."
While I am proud of the work our selectors are doing to create a more representative collection, it can be really challenging to make the time to thoroughly assess an entire section of your library.  Paging through to look at illustrations, making sure your own historical knowledge is accurate enough to verify the efficacy of the materials our young patrons use for reports, understanding the differences in the 500+ nations that make up our First Nations populations can seem overwhelming.
Taking the time, instead, to meet with representatives from a local group can  ensure that you are offering all of your patrons more accurate, authentic, and true representations of historical and current Native populations in your region.
Some issues we ran into while reviewing our collection:
  • What do you do with classic works that have inappropriate depictions?  For example, Little House on the Prairie or Big Turtle.  These works have value, but are also problematic.  We decided we will add shelf talkers pointing children to more authentic depictions--Louise Erdrich for example--correction under the guise of RA.
  • Is it better to have very little in your collection but to know that it is not harmful to your local children?  Or better to have a broad representation but know there are many inaccuracies or inappropriate interpretations?  We decided to eliminate blatantly harmful or inaccurate depictions, but add an insert with facts you should know from our friends at Ho-Chunk Nation to titles that had a lot of value but missed the mark on a couple of points.
  • Is labeling via an insert or sticker with more accurate information a form of censorship?  We decided this was better than removing titles, and we are not labeling externally.  An educational add-on from our regional experts feels like a good way to keep a solid collection, but still address issues.
  • Where do creation stories belong?  We had some in the 398.2, some in picture book and some in religion (they should be in religion if that is where your bible stories are located.)
We also talked about some resources and guidelines for selection.  Obviously Debbie Reese and the American Indians in Children's Literature site are invaluable.  She also suggested for vetted, high quality materials featuring First Nations authors, illustrators and subject matter.  She suggested watching out for cultural appropriation and costuming.  Beware of stories that don't cite a particular nation for their origin.  Watch out for books that depict the Pilgrims as some sort of white saviors, or that suggest that "everyone celebrates Thanksgiving" (I learned for the Wampanoag, this is a day of mourning.)  When deciding on which Nations to select materials on, look for those that are local or regional to you first.  There are more than 500, so randomly having 47 different Nations on your shelf, but missing your local ones is an issue.
I am so glad that we opened our collection up for this discussion.  We will be a better library for it.  If speaking with Elizabeth would be helpful for your library, feel free to get in touch with me and I will connect you.  She has a lot more to say than I do, and probably some things I missed.  But I highly recommend approaching your local Nation and asking them for their help.  Following this meeting, we are setting up some collaborative programming.  We are doing tours and getting teacher cards for their educators, and we are excited to visit their family nights.  This collaboration will serve all of us better.  


Maria Hertel said...

This is so important! Just the other day, I literally gasped in the store when I saw 2 items marketed toward babies / kids with very stereotypical pictures. One is this baby blanket at Toys R Us

The other one was a storage box at Joanne Fabrics that had a similar picture - animals dressed up with bows and arrows in a canoe. This must be the new "style" trend now, but I thought we were past that sort of thing! I couldn't believe it!

Anonymous said...

I think this is an excellent partnership. As a descendent of 2 Mayflower passengers, I've had to "unlearn" a lot of history, and I actually feel I get more value when I study and learn about the real history of how all these passengers and native tribespeople interacted. We can all learn a lot more when we have the unbiased version of the story. This collaboration is a wonderful partnership, and Elizabeth is a phenomenal partner.

Bryce said...
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