I attended OLA* for only one day this year, partly because I'm already missing so much work for bargaining and other union business, and partly because one day is often enough. There's a huge lineup of presentations, poster sessions, book signings, vendors, keynote speakers, tours, receptions, etc. - lots of etc. - but the presentations are the meat of the conference. Four presentations a day for three days is just too much.
As it happened, three of the four talks I attended shared a theme: bringing library services to underserved, marginalized, and socially excluded communities.
My first of the day was Choosing to Walk a Path: Library Services with Indigenous Peoples on Purpose. Monique Woroniak, from Winnipeg, a city with a significant indigenous population, first set the social and political context. It was a bit like being at our annual socialist conference: the presenter using the expression the Canadian state, as opposed to Canada, and speaking about settler colonialism as an ongoing structure, rather than an event in the past.
Woroniak showed an old family photograph from a few generations back, when her own forebears - as for many Canadian-born Canadians - were "settling" the prairies. She set the current context as the marked increase in "public expressions of indigenous sovereignty," beginning with Idle No More, but echoing through Canada with a heightened presence of indigenous literature, and in Winnipeg, with social spaces, a magazine, and other events.
I liked her explanation of the difference between diversity and anti-racism initiatives. Diversity programming celebrates multiculturalism - a commendable goal, and better than its opposite - but it leaves power structures unchanged. Anti-racism programming and services seek to create conditions to transform that power imbalance.
That can only happen with (what is now called) a "community development" model. Rather than think of ourselves and our institutions as experts - the holders of special knowledge or at least the keys to that knowledge - telling the community what we have to offer, we work to build relationships, so the community can tell us what they need.
What this looks like in practical terms, as far as I can tell, is not substantially different than a purposeful and meaningful attempt to be more inclusive, combat racism, and educate the public at large about a marginalized community. The difference, it seems, is how one arrives at that goal. And in a field where we are measured by statistics - how many materials circulated, how many people attended a program - this shifts the focus from end result to process.
The most important thing - something we talk about all the time in relation to youth, older adults, or any other population we serve - is not to tell people what we're doing for them, but ask them what they want us to do for and with them. Sounds simple, right? The reality is remarkably elusive. In the context of austerity budgets and skeletal staff, taking time to build relationships and focus on process might as well be a unicorn ride on a rainbow.
One minor note I found interesting was Woroniak`s take on the use of the word "ally". She said (I paraphrase), "You don't call yourself an ally. If a person from the community you are serving calls you an ally, then accept that as a great compliment, but you don't decide that." I'm not sure what to make of that, given that Idle No More shares "I am an ally" badges online.
Next up: Prisons and Libraries: A Relationship Worth Incubating.
* Officially the Ontario Library Association Super Conference, but always referred to as O-L-A, as if we are attending the organization.