Promoting Multicultural Library Services in Virtual Spaces

EMIERT Chair's Program 2020 at ALA Virtual
Friday June 26, 2020, 10AM Central Time

Panelist Heidi Rabinowitz approaches the issue of virtual library services from a Jewish point of view. The panel also includes well-known mover and shaker, school librarian K.C.Boyd, whose approach is from an African American point of view.

Heidi's Remarks:

Closures during the Coronavirus pandemic affect all kinds of libraries, including many that may be unfamiliar to the general public, such as specialized Judaica libraries. Libraries in synagogues, Jewish day schools, museums, universities, archives, Jewish community centers, and research organizations have been shuttered during quarantine. These specialty collections serve Jewish patrons as well as others with an interest in Judaica, who now suffer from lack of access to Jewish books, programs, and services.

Many Judaic libraries are small, without the budget to purchase e-books, and many Jewish books (especially obscure academic titles) are considered too "niche" to be offered as e-books. Public libraries may pick up some of the slack by offering Jewish e-books in their general collections, but a lack of awareness can lead to inauthentic representation of the Jewish community. Without knowledge of pertinent issues, purchasers may inadvertently create collections that over-represent white European Jews, or that exoticize Orthodox Jews, or that place excessive emphasis on the Holocaust and Inquisition.

Lack of awareness can also lead to scheduling that adversely affects Jewish library patrons. Jews who strictly observe the Sabbath (Shabbat) and other Jewish holidays are not available to attend programs and not permitted to use electronics on those days. Recorded programs available on-demand via the Web ameliorate that issue to some degree, but thoughtless scheduling can still preclude these community members from enjoying interactive livestreams.

Awareness is the key to mitigating these challenges in online and physical services: the Jewish calendar is a Google search away (here's one that tells you which holidays preclude activity and which don't), Jewish libraries that can lend expertise or support exist in myriad communities, and there are a plethora of Jewish organizations ready to offer Jewish programming and help in identifying quality Jewish literature.

Libraries in need of Jewish expertise might seek partnerships with:

1. Local Jewish organizations such as synagogues, or the Jewish Federation
* advice, information
* local history
* programming

2. Association of Jewish Libraries, the leading authority on Judaic librarianship (an ALA Affiliate), which encourages public librarians interested in Judaica to become members
* book reviews
* selection standards for Jewish kidlit
* book awards for children and adults
* scholarly journal
* suggested books for non-Jewish readers
* annual conference
* Jewish identity not required for membership

3. Jewish Book Council
* book reviews
* book awards
* book clubs
* author speakers network

4. Jewish Women’s Archive
* research material
* book clubs
* speakers
* podcast
* teaching tools

5. Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (Jews/Gender)
* research
* artistic projects
* speakers

6. PJ Library and PJ Our Way
* free Jewish children’s books by mail
* Jewish children's online radio station PJ Library Radio
* active Facebook event schedule
* local programming for libraries

7. American Jewish University B’Yachad Together
* online classes and speakers

8. Association for Jewish Studies
* scholarly journal
* magazine
* podcast

9. The Book of Life (full disclosure: this is my own project)
* podcast - please note Field Guide to Jewish Kidlit
* blog - please note Diverse Jewish Kidlit
* consulting

In addition, the Association of Jewish Libraries has created a crowdsourced Google document of Jewish Virtual Resources to help you identify Jewish e-book sources, lectures, livestream events, film and music, podcasts, and more at Keeping such resources on the radar will help all libraries be prepared for future shutdown scenarios.

This illustration by Vanessa Brantley-Newton from the We Need Diverse Books webpage shows a multicultural group of children, none of whom is visibly identifiable as Jewish. No child is wearing a kippah or a Jewish star necklace. At the same time, any of these children could be Jewish (even the hijabi girl might have Jewish heritage). This is a good reminder that Jews are part of your community even if you are not aware of it. Despite being a vulnerable minority, Jews have often been invisible within the literary community's diversity conversation. Happily that is changing, and you can be part of that change.

As we all know, diverse books are not just for diverse readers. To build a healthy and inclusive society, all readers need both mirror AND window books and programs. In a quarantine situation, without the browsability of a real life library, patrons are less likely to happen upon materials outside their specific searches. We need to create that feeling of serendipity for them in virtual spaces. Libraries must provide those windows by including Jewish and other diverse representation in all online offerings, including general storytimes, book discussions, bibliographies, speaker series, concerts, watch parties, and so on. This will ensure that marginalized populations are not ignored or siloed, during quarantine or at any time.

A final word: Judaism itself is diverse. Be aware that the Jewish community is highly intersectional and reflects a variety of needs and interests. If you don't know what your Jewish patrons want - just ask!

  • Strive for authentic Jewish representation in your physical and e-book collections
  • Include diverse Jewish content in general programming, IRL or digital
  • Try to avoid scheduling events when observant Jews cannot participate
  • Jewish organizations are here to help you