It’s Not Just Sexism

I’ve been reading a lot of great blog posts on privilege in librarianship, like this one by Cecily Walker and this one by Nina de Jesus. I mentioned to Cecily that I had been ruminating on a blog post about the ways in which children’s librarianship is discriminated against within the profession, and she encouraged me to do so.

And then I thought, a lot, about how I want to see more posts about what we as youth services librarians are, or are not, doing to make the profession more diverse but also to make storytime more inclusive. I thought about questions of, are our storytime demographics much whiter than those of our neighborhoods? Why? Do the ways in which we structure storytime privilege a Western, white experience and make other families feel uncomfortable or unwelcome? I want answers to those questions, and I want to see those posts (And host them! Do you want to write that post as a guest blog here? Let us know!!) but I don’t really think I’m the person to write them. So that’s not this post. This is YET ANOTHER post about why no one but us pays attention to us, because, you know, that’s kind of what this blog is about. How y’all are doing amazing work and we want more people to pay attention.

I don’t even have any solid evidence, really, that the reasons we as youth services librarians get, well, I really hate to use the word ghettoized, but whatever the cushy white version of that is: Suburbanized? have to do with sexism, but also racism and classism. I just have this nagging feeling about it.

Here’s the deal: I’m sure it’s sexism. I mean. I know sexism when I see it, folks, and boy howdy do we have it in spades when it comes to who we do and don’t talk about in librarianship. Working with children is traditionally seen as “women’s work” and as such gets undervalued at a deeply ingrained and institutionalized level. I feel like that’s pretty well covered. But I don’t think it’s just sexism. And the reason I started thinking that is Maker Spaces.

Stop. I think 3D printers are as cool as you do. They make tiny plastic TARDISes. TARDII? I think there are a lot of people championing Maker Spaces specifically because it will help bring STEM skills to patrons who would not otherwise be able to access those kinds of equipment, due to lack of funds or just lack of exposure. And I’m for that. I loooooove providing access and opportunities for skill building.


There’s something about the whole phenomenon that reeks of coded speak to me. It’s like there’s a tiny beacon that goes off when I read about Maker Spaces that says, this is to encourage a different kind of user. . .and that kind of user is white and middle class. The kind of person who has enough extra time on their hands to get into niche hobbies, and also might want a tiny plastic TARDIS (look I know not only white people are into Doctor Who, but show me the fandom demographics. I suspect it’s a heavy skew. When was the last time a black person was even on Doctor Who? (PS, THANKS MOFFAT God I hate you bring back Martha Jones)).

So, assuming I’m not seeing racism and classism where it’s not, if the kind of innovative programming that the library world is interested in lauding is the kind that brings in middle class white dudes, well, Children’s Librarians are screwed. I mean, actually, I have a lot of middle class white dads come to storytime, because they can take Tuesday mornings off, and I welcome them, but a) ideologically, they’re not really our core concern and b) I’m not sure anyone outside of storytime knows that dads come to storytime.

I do NOT want to make it seem like we are anybody’s white knight, or want to be. Hell, I’m a terrible horseback rider. I’m not saying there’s no racism, classism or sexism in children’s librarianship, intentional or otherwise. I see listserv posts complaining about poor grammar or “weird” names. I SEE YOU (kidding. We all bring privilege to judgments sometimes and have to step back and check it). We all have work to do. I’m not saying librarianship as a whole is not about inclusion. I applaud the adult services librarians providing free ESL classes, building showers for their homeless patrons rather than kicking them out, and hiring psychologists and nurses for their staffs. I don’t think we have a lock on inclusive services designed to provide access to information or learning experiences specifically to the poor, the non-white, the underserved or underprivileged.

That said, I do feel like the core of youth services is specifically designing spaces, collections and services that welcome and provide access and learning opportunities for people who can’t or don’t know how to find literacy information. To people who are institutionally, systemically left out of learning environments, whose cultural values or experiences are at odds with the structure of those learning environments, who are everywhere being asked to assimilate rather than having their experiences honored–but are being held back, actively, from acquiring the tools to assimilate even if they should choose to.

There are more examples of this than I can cite.

Youth Services Librarians are like, you’ve never seen an iPad and you’re worried your kid is going to be way behind her peers when it comes to tech? We have iPads to check out with curated apps for learning!

Youth Services Librarians are like, you don’t speak English? I’ll get an interpreter to do storytime in Chinese! (Real thing Angie Manfredi really does in her library)

Youth Services Librarians are like, you heard that reading out loud with your child will make them better at school, but you are intimidated because you’re not a strong reader? That’s amazing, let’s find the right books.

Youth Services Librarians are like, you can’t come to storytime during the day because you work two jobs? Let’s stay open later and have storytime at night!

In a world that is afraid of young men of color to the point that it can be fatal just to be one, Youth Services Librarians actively try to bring them in, listen to them, give them tools to tell their stories and speak out and do whatever they want with their lives. Not because we’re white knights but because as a core of our professional ethics we believe in the power of young people to succeed given whatever tools they need–not the tools we think they need. The tools they tell us they need.

Most of that is just good librarianship. It’s stuff I learned in libschool that I was supposed to do to be good at my career. But it’s, you know, a bunch of women (or worse! men doing women’s work!) listening to a bunch of poor brown folks, so, we just put it in the corner and don’t talk about it.

We have all these cool toys that are going to attract a new kind of library patron. The right kind. You know who I mean.

Posted on December 28, 2013, in Rants. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. What a terrific viewpoint! I am in a very small library, in a very diverse area. I have white, black, Asian, German, Russian and Hispanic, moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, and caregivers. Mostly white, black and Hispanic in storytime. I am now going to monitor what I am doing a little more closely and see how I can “step up my game”! Thanks for the insight!

  2. I think about this a lot. I started doing storytimes as an outreach service in daycares and preschools that typically served low-income families. When I moved to my current library, I found that our storytime frequenters consisted entirely of White, middle class or affluent moms, nannies, and grandmothers. It was a big transition and it constantly bothers me that I never see minorities in storytime or any of our other programs.

    I think to change that, we would need to increase advertising and maybe even create face time in places that minorities tend to frequent in their daily lives like grocery stores and markets, or even churches. We have a weekend storytime once a month and afterschool programs at least once a month too, but we might need to increase those. Right now, I’m the only person on my team who seems concerned, though. One step at time.

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