If there is any aspect of reading librarians excel at, it’s the curated list. Over the last two weeks – as protests around the country and the world intensify – librarians in New York City shared countless lists on anti-racist resources for their school communities.
Lists are necessary and needed; they provide an invaluable tool to direct people to vetted sources. We hope everyone reads these resources to build understanding, historical context, and empathy. We hope they read them in a month from now, a year, for the rest of their lives. But therein lies the dilemma: how do we encourage everyone to keep reading about essential topics and experiences when the headlines shift, and we go on to our next list?
The Value of Primary Sources
Lists include nonfiction titles and articles, allowing students and teachers to develop intellectual context on a topic. But the personal connection is missing. I believe this is where primary sources come in: narratives, memoirs, and biographies. It is rare to know someone well – to delve into another’s intimate life experiences, thoughts, and feelings – but narratives and memoirs come the closest. They lack the definite point of view of biographies and general nonfiction. Instead, they recount living as a complicated, messy experience full of contradictions and complexities, offenses, and triumphs. Moreover, they make the most exalted individual accessible and personal, stripped of the perfectionism and idealism we often bestow on those we admire.
I believe this personal connection to issues and history is what changes mindsets and cultivates empathy. Memoirs and personalized novels cannot be relegated to stand-alone units. They must become integral parts of curriculum and discourse.
Shift Reading Habits
So how do we encourage everyone to read personal narratives and memoirs, historical fiction, and influential, personally driven novels?
- Make them part of the required resource for projects and assignments. Topics from climate change to Civil Rights to immigration include articles and multimedia sources, so how about a memoir? Students need to spend time emotionally connecting to personal experiences for an extended period – which is what a book provides. Short articles, excerpts, and videos can be consumed within minutes and quickly forgotten. We need our students to submerge themselves in the lives of others to foster real empathy and listening.
- Form a book club. Student-centered book clubs create a safe and structured opportunity to read, share, and discuss difficult topics and experiences. Take advantage of blended learning tools to extend the reach of clubs and small group discussions.
- Encourage book reviews. Library catalogs allow users to review books. Make your curated lists come alive by having students write reviews of vital titles (vetted, edited, and anonymously, if need be) to spur conversation, thought, and additional readers.
- Host virtual author visits. Author conversations present the background, the development, the real-life context to make books unforgettable and poignant. They create a lasting bond between readers and their work to support an expansive and open-minded worldview.
Go forth and make change.
Below are some fantastic lists from NYC school librarians on racial and social justice. Take these lists, share them, embed them into curriculum and programming, and finally, make them come alive to create the lasting change we need!
An Antiracist Book List from the MLK Campus Library: Teresa Tartaglione, Librarian
Antiracist Resources for Educators: Cheryl Wolf, Librarian
Social Justice Resources: Esther Keller, Librarian
Staff Resources for Exploring Race: Paige Caliguri, Librarian
Author: Leanne Ellis
I am a School Library Coordinator for the New York City Department of Education’s Department of Library Services. I plan and deliver workshops, provide on-site instructional and program support to school librarians, coordinate programs, administer grants, and am program coordinator for MyLibraryNYC, a program administered with our three public library systems.