You probably know that the Dewey Decimal System is the way most public libraries organize their books. But what you probably don’t know is that the man who created it, Melvil Dewey, was racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic. Things got so bad he was eventually forced out of the American Library Association, which he co-founded!
And the literary prejudice doesn’t end there — did you know that Little House of the Prairie writer Laura Ingalls Wilder has been widely criticized for “racist and anti-Native sentiments”? Or that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl often proclaimed he was an anti-Semite?
Public libraries are not immune to the racism and prejudice that blemish our lives. And like many of you out there, those of us who work in libraries, and at this library in particular, have been asking ourselves the question: “What can we do about it?”
Do we remove Huckleberry Finn and Little House on the Prairie from our shelves? Do we put notes in these books explaining our objections to the authors or the texts themselves? We genuinely do not know the answer to these questions, but we are determined to continue with these conversations among staff and with our communities until we’ve figured out a way forward.
Our library colleagues in Creston are having these conversations as well, and have explored the topic in a recent newspaper article as well as in their library board meetings.
Here in Nelson, our library board is developing policies that address Indigenous territorial acknowledgements, as well as collections and programs at the library.
We are continuing to build our diverse collections for children, teens, and adults. We’re also providing programs that continue the important conversations that are happening in our communities. One such program is our From the Heart: Indigenous Learning Circle. Another is our upcoming Awaken your Inner Activist: Anti-Racism talk, to be held online on Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. (for adults and teens).
At the provincial level, we are part of a movement to decolonize our library cataloging practices, updating the language we use and ensuring books are shelved in culturally respectful categories.
Another step we have taken is creating Anti-Racism Kits for children. The kits contain books and other materials for parents who want to discuss racism and prejudice with their children but need some help starting the conversation and guiding it in the right direction.
Our Anti-Racism Kits (there are two identical ones) contain 10 books, with a mix of picture books for the littlest ones (ages 1-6), chapter books for the older ones (ages 6-12), and non-fiction ones for all ages. Some of the titles you’ll find in this selection include: Let’s Talk About Race, What Makes Us Unique?, The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family, Krista Kim-Bap, and Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation.
In addition to books, the kits also contain a laminated set of 10 Tips for Teaching and Talking to Kids About Race, as well as a booklet (Beyond the Golden Rule: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing and Responding to Prejudice), and a card game, The New Happy Family Game, a fun game that nurtures children to be open-minded, empathetic and introduces them to all sorts of different families (ages four-plus.
And it’s not just parents who might need help with conversations around anti-racism — adult readers can borrow book club sets (with five books each) from the library. We’ve got a great selection of relevant titles: Indigenous Writes, The Skin We’re In, Policing Black Lives, and 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act.
In 2018, the American Library Association decided to strip Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a prestigious award they give out yearly. In 2019, they did the same to Melvil Dewey. Neither of those steps is enough to make any significant change, of course. But with each incremental step we can all get a little bit closer to where we need to be.
Avi Silberstein is the Children’s Librarian at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week. If you’re interested in learning more about library programs and services, sign up for our monthly newsletter on our website or by giving us a call.