Cultural Proficiency in the School Library

Recently, our school’s staff had a professional development session about Cultural Proficiency. I consider myself as a librarian to be very open and welcoming to ideas and cultures that are different from mine. I decided I would listen to the presentation through the lens of the library, hoping to find something new. I left with a completely different outlook.

Ultimately, the focus of the presentation was that we all can appreciate and learn from the diversity around us, whether it is the students, colleagues, or our neighbors down the street. We all come from different backgrounds, different experiences, and every single one of them is valid. This is entirely why diversity is not just suggested, but needed, in every school library.

The presenters, two teachers at my school, began by talking about how to spread inclusivity in the classroom (and for me, the library). Statements like “You belong,” “You’re worth it,” and “You’re welcome here” are not just statements, but overall feelings we want students, staff, and our community to have when they enter our library doors or interact with any part of the services we offer.

Everyone should be able to see themselves and others represented in their library. They need to encounter experiences that are similar to and also vastly different from their own (“mirrors and windows,” essentially). Friends, this includes just about everything: different gender main characters, cultural experiences, race, family situations, settings/locations in the world, lifestyles, and more. Celebrating racial diversity isn’t enough anymore; celebrating all diversity is acknowledging everyone’s experiences, backgrounds, and identities and how they make our world (and library) a better place.


One of the main things I was especially intrigued by was a conversation about the concept of “code switching” – most people change something about themselves when entering a new situation; for example, students on a football team may exhibit more discipline on the team than they do anywhere else – because that’s the culture of their football team. At home, some students are more reserved and respectful than they are at school, because that is the culture. I hope that in our school library, students would not need to code switch but instead, feel safe to be their true self, and see the library as a place to learn more about not only themselves and their interests, but others, as well.

My school is overwhelmingly diverse in every sense of the word – and while my library represents some diversity, I still have a long way to go. Sure, I purchase books that feature homelessness, different cultures, with various family situations, and our nonfiction section has biographies and other books about people from all walks of life and many different countries. I book talk with books who have characters from all types of backgrounds, and I make sure that books on front-facing displays have characters with varying abilities and cultural backgrounds, but what else? What programming can I offer? How can I incorporate diversity and encourage cultural proficiency in lessons I teach? 

Asking for student and staff input into these things is going to be vital. After all, it is their library, and only will they come when they feel safe, welcomed, and represented. This includes collections, programming, and what they want to see in their library. Also, reaching out to my PLN I think is going to be helpful too, to hear about experiences and successes they have had in their own libraries.

One of the ending questions of the presentation was, “What is the culture of your classroom?” I was really struck by this. What is the culture of the library? I would hope the answer my students and staff would give is that the culture of the library is one that celebrates all cultures, backgrounds, and ways of life. That everyone feels like they are represented here, and that they feel safe to learn about others here, too. This is something I would like to address with our Student Library Advisory Team and have students take the lead in how they see themselves in the library. Coming from different backgrounds themselves, as well as being frequent library flyers, it would be an interesting conversation to have.

What is the culture of my library right now, though? I truly sat and thought about it in that professional development, and it is something that I really need to think about and process. What is the current culture of the library? What do I want the culture of the library to be? How do we get from point A to point B? This is on my to-do list of thinking about, because while every year is a new opportunity to change the culture, I have a unique opportunity in the next two years with a new co-librarian and our school being under renovation – with a new library coming soon!

diversity 2

While I’m thinking about these things, I’m going to start asking students about their opinions. What do they see as the culture of the library? After all, our jobs are all about them – making them feel comfortable, safe, valued, and welcomed – in a space that is shared by all. We need to make sure the culture we are creating in the library is doing those things. If we want a thriving, successful library, our actions to create a positive, welcoming culture need to be intentional. 


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