Sep 18, 2021 21 min read

Building More Inclusive Communities With the Help of Public Libraries

Image of Guest, Karin Michel, with quote from transcript. "Public libraries have been known as a great equalizer."

Episode 17, 34 min listen

Our public libraries are vital resources to our communities and, as citizens, we own them. In this episode, we interview two librarians: Sarah Voels, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Karin Michel, from Chapel Hill, NC.  Sarah and Karin give us an introduction to the work that libraries are doing in support of diversity, inclusion, and equity. Join us and learn more about how our public libraries can make their community a more inclusive and equitable place. This is a particularly timely discussion as Congress debates infrastructure funding and the Build America's Libraries Act (H.R. 1581).  


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Want to learn more about Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop and her thoughts about how books can be Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors?  Find a text to her article here and a link to a related video.

Sarah mentioned research that she found as she began her work.

Here's a link to the article from Teen Services Underground.

Also, here's the article by Karen Jensen.

Karin Michel spoke about the program that their primary vendor offers.  Here's some additional information about the program offered by Ingram Spark to assist libraries with their audits.

Some further reading about the importance of funding our aging library systems.


Sarah Voels Bio:

Sarah Voels is the Community Engagement Librarian at the Cedar Rapids Public Library. Previously she worked as a materials librarian and was responsible for the youth and young adult collections. For the past three years she has conducted focused research on diversity audits in libraries and has had the opportunity to present at conferences for the Iowa Library Association, Public Library Association, and the State Library of North Carolina. Her work has resulted in the forthcoming title from ABC-CLIO Libraries Unlimited, Auditing Diversity in Library Collections, expected in early 2022.

Karin Michel Bio

Karin Michel has been working at Chapel Hill Public Library (CHPL) for over 20 years. In that time, she’s managed collections, programs and staff in the Youth & Family Experiences division. CHPL is a busy, mid-sized municipal library in a college town full of voracious readers from many cultures and countries. Since 2019, we’ve been engaged in assessing and addressing collection gaps to focus on communities and languages of Chapel Hill, with an end goal of being responsive to and reflective of the communities we serve. Karin drinks too much coffee and works a lot, but also finds time to read, co-parent three tweenage kids, and go on the occasional trail run.



Ame Sanders  00:11

This is the State of Inclusion podcast, where we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. In each episode, we meet people who are changing their communities for the better and we discover actions that each of us can take to improve our own communities. I’m Ame Sanders. Welcome.


Today our conversation is all about libraries. Maybe you wonder how exactly a library or a librarian can help build a more inclusive and equitable community. Let’s talk to a couple of librarians and find out. We’ll talk with Sarah Voels, who’s the Community Engagement Librarian at the Cedar Rapids Iowa Public Library. She’s also conducted some interesting research on how libraries conduct diversity audits and how they approach the subject in general. We’ll also hear from Karin Michel, Manager of Youth and Family Experiences from the Chapel Hill, North Carolina Public Library.

-Libraries and Their Role in Diversity, Equity, Inclusion

So, Karin, when we talk about libraries and diversity, inclusion, and equity, how do you think about those things? And how did they factor into the work that you do every day?

Karin Michel  01:27

Well, it’s something libraries have been thinking about for a while and it’s definitely been a focus for us here at Chapel Hill Public Library also for a while. My coworker earlier today reminded me that public libraries have been known as a great equalizer. When you think about equity and inclusion and diversity and libraries, you think about serving folks who need it most. I think about how we can be a welcoming space and how we can provide materials and programs and services that meet the needs of our communities.

Ame Sanders  02:08

So, Sarah, when you think about diversity and inclusion in your library, what do you think about? Do you think about the collection? Do you think about events that you hold? How do you tackle that? What kind of subjects do you deal with when you’re thinking about that in your library?

Sarah Voels  02:24

I think it’s really the core of our library’s work; it’s something that I’m very proud of. I have spent the last five years doing collection development, so my first impulse is to look at the collection itself–what people are checking out, what people are reaching for having done my part to create a diverse and representative collection for our community. I spent that time doing collection development for our youth and young adult collections. So, looking at our youngest patrons and wanting to do my part to make sure that they have what Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop coined in 1990, “mirrors” and “windows.” “Mirrors” being books where they can see themselves and “windows” being about people who are not like them and serve as a window into another culture or another identity in order to learn in a safe environment of literature. But it can’t be limited to just the collection. We’re looking at areas of equity, diversity, and inclusion. We have a really great programming department who’s really excited about creating new programs that reach out into different aspects of our community developing partnerships, with organizations that may be able to do that sort of programming better than we would be able to, and sort of to create that collaboration across our community. As an institution, we’ve been taking a lot of really great steps towards recognizing where the areas of our own strengths as a library staff, and what is better left for other experts. Our library system, we have two branches. Our main branch is downtown, whereas our branch library is on our southwest side. So, looking at the populations that are served by those two branches, we’ve had to treat them as very different entities. Our downtown branch often serves a lot of our city’s homeless patrons who live in the downtown area. While we can of course provide a safe space to be, we have computer access all of that, we can do that. But we can’t take the place of social services, and nor should we. That should be best left to the experts. So, we do have a social service organization that’s housed downtown that we’ve given them an office here at our building, so that they can meet the people that they serve where they are here visiting us. That was one way in which we’ve been able to create a partnership with our community and kind of honor the expertise of others. Our branch library on the southwest side is very close to housing for recent immigrants to our community. We have a large population of immigrants from the Republic of Congo. So, we have housed at that location our Opportunity Center, where it’s staffed by experts in other areas of social services, particularly job development. We’re kind of creating that relationship with experts in those areas and doing so in the way that we can do best, which in this situation is to provide a safe space for those transactions to take place.

-Have Patrons' Needs Changed?

Ame Sanders  06:03

Sarah, when you think about the patrons of your library and patrons of libraries in general, do you feel like what they need and what they want has changed over time?

Sarah Voels  06:15

I really don’t. If I think of the decade’s worth of librarianship, the field itself has changed from its early days as gatekeepers of information–literally preventing people from accessing certain materials–to where it is today, where we’re just trying to get resources to people without serving as those gatekeepers. So, I guess over the past 100 years or so of librarianship? Yes, absolutely, it has changed and changed for the better, and still very much has a long way to go in equitably serving communities across the country. But in my specific career of it, I don’t really think it has changed all that much in that people just want to belong somewhere, to have somebody understand them, to treat them like people. I feel like that is a really universal need and want and this should be served by libraries.

Ame Sanders  07:21

Karin, what kinds of change have you seen over your career in working with libraries?

Karin Michel  07:27

Since I got out of library school, I’ve gotten the opportunity to get to know this community really well and I feel part of it. But in thinking about this question, you see all sorts of changes over time. On the real individual level, you see families grow up. So, I still see a person that I remember as a three-year-old that came to my very first story time. He’s graduated from college, which is great. You see individuals grow up, you see the community change, like the demographics of the community change. You can see that reflected in the community demographic data, but you also see it in the customers that come through your door. It sometimes happens gradually, and it sometimes happens just out of the blue–you see a big change. You see the types of questions that people ask change over time. You see people ask for different books and authors and genres. So, all of that is constantly changing and constantly evolving and it’s kind of what makes the job exciting. There are so many ways that libraries are changing. I know that different libraries are at different places along that spectrum of change.

-Libraries as Welcoming Spaces for All

Ame Sanders  08:42

In this next exchange, let’s hear what Karin Michel has to say about how they make sure that their library and Chapel Hill meets the needs of their community and the people they serve.

Karin Michel  08:54

Libraries are trying to be welcoming spaces and they’re trying to be welcoming spaces for all. Traditionally, you might think of the collections as the core of the library service. It’s still a super important part of what we do, but the space and the opportunity for people to come together is just as important these days. People might come together to use meeting rooms, or to take a computer class, or just casually like a parent group meet up. All of those are ways that people can come together. Or they might come to story time and not know anybody in town, but the story time is how they’re going to make their first parent friend. So, I think the space side of things is really, really important with libraries. You really want to think about what your space is. Your design of your space, the books that you put on display, what your staff gives off and looks like. All of that goes into the experience that the patron or the customer or the individual has coming into a public library. A few years ago, we really got into the idea of like user experience and user-centered design. We would go into places and take notes. What temperature is it? Did someone greet me? Were they smiling? Do they look like they wanted to be there? Do they look like me? Did I feel welcome? Did I feel overwhelmed? What are the feelings that you get? How do you want your customers to feel coming into your space? Really taking that and flipping how we train and how we hire to try and maximize that welcoming component.

Ame Sanders  10:41

That’s very interesting to hear you say that because in my past life I did some work in marketing with personas and user-centered design as well. I hadn’t thought about it for the library. What you’re talking about is being intentional with your design and the experience that people will have and the experience that different people will have. Not just people who look like you or think like you. You’re consciously thinking about the different types of people who will come to the library or who want to come to the library, or in the case of bookmobiles, in other ways the library goes to them. You’re thinking about what that experience should be like and what they are looking for in that experience.

-Data-Informed, Patron-Centered

Karin Michel  11:25

It’s probably true of all libraries–we love data. We’re always collecting statistics about different things. So, on the one hand, we can see at any given time what’s being checked out. Not to individuals, but just at a system-wide level. What kinds of things are being requested? What kinds of things are being checked out? Even what kinds of things are not being returned? What kinds of things do tend to get lost more than others? So, we’re always keeping those kinds of statistics and that helps keep us in touch with patterns of use. A lot of being a public librarian is being on the floor and interacting with the public. So, you get to have one on one conversations, some of which are lovely and awesome, and some of which are less lovely and uncomfortable. But you get asked for things, you get questions about how you do things and why you do things that really make you think about those issues. Sometimes you get emails that make you feel bad about something you’re doing, but they also make you think and rethink what you’re doing. So, there’s the data piece, there’s the direct customer interaction piece, and then there’s the intentional piece of who aren’t we hearing from? So, a little bit of that is trying to make connections in our local community to talk to underserved populations directly or to talk to community organizations that serve those populations. We’re a small library. We’re a municipal library, and a lot of libraries are systems–county systems or regional systems. But we’re a department of the town which puts us in a slightly different place. So, our coworkers in the town are our Parks and Rec Department and our Housing and Community Department, police and fire. So, we have some connections just built into our organization that are really helpful for some of that as well.

-Collections Need to Diversify

Ame Sanders  13:33

So, you’re saying that you reach out to communities specifically to find out what they’re looking for. One of the ways that we connected, and I found out about you was also about work that your publishers do. Tell me about some of the more systematic approaches that you guys take to looking at your collection and whether it is diverse enough and complete enough?

Karin Michel  13:57

Thank you. In the last 10 years, libraries have been really facing the facts that our collections are not as diverse as we would like them to be. You’re right that it is partially related to issues at the publishing level. Not enough voices are being published, not enough perspectives or experiences are being shared. More books that represent diverse voices and experiences need to be created and published to even get to libraries. But once you are thinking about it and you’re trying to make sure that your collections are diverse, there are lots of things you can do to try and inform yourself about what you’re missing. Something that we’ve been working on and how we connected was something that libraries are getting into a little bit more lately, which is actually auditing or assessing the existing collections to figure out what gaps there are and what steps forward might be needed to make sure that you’re reaching your goals of reflecting and representing your community.

A couple of years ago we started talking about it, and then we put into our business plan that we wanted to plan and conduct a collection assessment to see how diverse our materials were in terms of representing our community and thinking about world languages in particular. We have a pretty–I don’t want to overuse the word diverse–but we have people in Chapel Hill who come from all over the world and speak all different languages. We know that our collection is still primarily in English. So, we wanted to think about what languages we collect, what materials we have, how diverse those materials are.

-Audits and Targets

We undertook a project that started off in 2019-2020 and it has continued on this year to do that data research. We looked at all of our new title purchases across all collection areas and we had this pretty complicated rubric to assess what kinds of perspectives or experiences it might include and what it might leave out. We did all new purchases, and then we dug in on sample data sets of our retrospective collection, so everything that existed prior to that year. So, we were both trying to see how we were doing in the now and also how our collection as a whole up to that point measured up. Then we set some targets based on our community demographics for where we might like to reach in the future. That’s what the second year has been, digging back in on more new title purchases as sample sets to be able to continue that work.

Ame Sanders  16:36

So, you saw some opportunities when you did that?

Karin Michel  16:39

For sure. We’ve been thinking about it for years and we’ve been actively trying to grow diverse collections. I’m in youth and family experiences here, so my work has been on the kids and team collections in particular. The hope in the dream is that this data will come back and say, “Yeah, you’re doing a great job” even though you look around and you know that it could be better. So, we had our targets for our collections based on our demographics and we were under what we wanted to be across the board. And we were under in world language representation in a big way. We categorize our stuff as kids, teens, and adults. Our teen materials are the most diverse. The kids are behind that and the adult was behind that, at least in this one chunk of data that we did. We learned that our Latinx representation was definitely under where we wanted it to be. But there was room for growth across the board. We had done this work internally and then it turned out that our primary vendor was wanting to beta test a product that they were developing and so they asked if we would be a test site. So, they ran their analysis of our collection and so we had a different set of numbers with fancy graphs and everything else. The other thing that they did that was really awesome was provided all of these order lists to consider, broken down by different categories or indicators of diversity. So, you want to grow your bilingual Spanish collection, here’s the list of things you might consider. Some of them we owned some of them we didn’t, but it was real targeted collection lists for us to consider. It gave us the opportunity both to seek out additional funding sources to be able to purchase more of them and also, because of the situation that we found ourselves in with a pandemic, when I had a little bit of money left at the end of the year, that’s what it went towards.

Ame Sanders  18:34

We heard from Karin about their audit work, but let’s listen to what Sarah has been doing in Cedar Rapids and also what she’s heard from other libraries across the country based on her research.

-Success Stories from Multiple Libraries

Sarah Voels  18:46

In 2018, I and another librarian here, Molly Garrett, started researching diversity audits particularly as they pertained to library collections. At that time, she was our young adult programming librarian, and I again did young adult collection development. So we decided to assess our young adult fiction collection for its diverse representation. At that time, there is very little research out there, we were mostly inspired by two different articles, one by Jenni Frencham from Teen Services Underground, and another by Karen Jensen from the Teen Librarian Toolbox. They were really the only two articles we found on this subject. Broadly speaking, these audits that were kind of in development then were about assessing a collection for its representation. At that time, a lot of the areas that people were looking at racial and ethnic background of either the protagonists or the author (or both) as well as LGBTQIA+.

We decided to change the way we were going to do it. What had been recommended by others was to create a giant spreadsheet of all the different areas of representation you were looking for and then go through your collection and check the boxes, make sure that everyone was present. We did ours differently, in that we just went to the shelf and looked at the materials that were on the shelf. We surveyed about 20% of the collection, thinking that that would be a fair sample size. We’re talking about hundreds going on 1000s of materials that we were physically assessing one by one. We decided to put all of that information into six umbrella categories of representation. Of course, looking at race and ethnic background, as well as LGBTQIA+. We expanded that to include religion and economic welfare, which is another category that we decided was really important to our population, especially given the number of homeless or homing unstable situations our teen patrons face. Then we had a broad category for health. We realized health and ability needs to be much more expanded to fully encompass the importance of those areas. So, we divided our health and ability category into physical health concerns, disabilities and conditions, and mental health concerns, disabilities and conditions. Understanding that there is a lot of overlap in these two areas, we thought it best that as long as there’s some representation, versus none at all, it was far more important to us. So, we did this assessment in 2018 and determined unfortunately, that our collection was only about 15% diverse across all of those six major categories. We took the next year to actually really study the collection and intentionally seek out books that were more representative of our community.

After a year, we did the audit again on every item that was available on the shelf, during the week that we were conducting the audit which ended up being about 54% of the overall collection of young adult fiction. In that time, we were able to increase the diversity (the overall representation of the collection) to 25.5%, which in one year of shifting a collection by over 10% was pretty pleasing. So, the research has just expanded from there. It was around that time that Molly decided to leave the project to focus more on programming as we were getting ready to get into an all-virtual environment. Since then, I have just continued assessing the remaining portion of the collection. So now 100% of it has been audited. As well as taking the time to reach out to librarians from across the country and kind of compile the stories of how other libraries and in theory, different communities from my own, how they’re approaching diverse collection development, particularly in serving increasingly diverse communities. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to small one-building libraries in Wisconsin to the staff at the New Orleans Public Library, as well as the New York Public Library. It’s been a really great opportunity to talk to other professionals on this very important subject, but to also gather their stories into what will be one resource. It’s been really fascinating to talk to other libraries and other professionals on this. Everyone has done it a little bit differently, especially when you’re talking about libraries as living organisms that are constantly transforming and changing to meet the needs of constantly transforming and changing communities. A lot of really great conversations have been had with this because it is, as you could guess, a very labor-intensive project.

The staff at the Carnegie libraries of Pittsburgh made it a whole team challenge. They put their initial framework for their audit into a cloud-based system and had 50 staff across their system be trained on what their parameters were to contribute to that. I think that’s a really great idea because it includes a whole staff buy in, which just means that more people are aware of how important this research and this project can be and working on it collaboratively. I think that was a really innovative approach to it. Again, conversations with the New York Public Library–largest library system in the world–they can’t go to all of their shelves across all of their boroughs and branch locations to do the same work that we did. But they were able to transform it and looked at incoming orders as they were being quarantined from book distributors before being sent on to their branch libraries at the beginning of the pandemic when so many of the branches were closed and didn’t have staff at that time to receive those items. They were able to store them and assess the orders that had just arrived and looked at it that way. There’s no one way to do this work. It is so large and it’s unwieldy, but it can be adapted to suit the needs of those who are doing it. At the same time that I was doing this huge project with our young adult fiction collection, I was looking at the 124 titles in our book club kits. I was doing completely different research there, just because it was a very different beast. They’re mostly adult fiction titles, not young adult. They serve a population with different needs than our young adults. It’s important to adapt.

The most important thing with regards to diversity audits is that you then use that information. If you’re taking the time to put in all of this labor to learn about your collection, then do something with that information. Use it to inform for future purchases or the way you promote the collection. There’s no sense to doing all this and then doing nothing as a result. That’s the first thing, to have a clear purpose in mind. It is a lot of work to do, no matter how you scale it. It’s a lot of work, so make it count. Also, don’t be afraid to accept your flaws. I’m not excited about what our results looked like that first year, and as a consequence I have told just about everyone who will listen “This is what it was then. But here it is now. This is what we did to make a difference.” This is not something to hide away from because it’s about serving our patrons to the best of our abilities. How can we do that if we’re not acknowledging our own flaws and areas to improve upon? Also, don’t be afraid to learn whatever there is to learn about it. Sometimes it is actually library science. You have to let the data speak for itself.

-Sarah Voels - What I Want Most...

Ame Sanders  27:49

In the work that you’ve done in auditing your collection and trying to improve your programming, what is it that you hope to accomplish with all of this? You said it’s a lot of work.

Sarah Voels  28:02

It is. The thing that I want most–and this is not necessarily something I can measure–but my hope is that every patron who comes in can find something that they feel was written just for them, that our materials are readily accessible, that our programs are exciting and relatable, that everyone who comes to the library or is where the library has gone to (we do a lot of outreach as well) feel that they are truly part of the library community here.

-How You Can Support Your Library

Ame Sanders  28:37

So, Karin, it was really exciting for me to have the opportunity to talk to my librarians about diversity and inclusion, but there are lots of ways that people who are interested in the library can make a difference. If you wanted to suggest to them ways that they could engage with their library to make it the library that they want it to be, what would you say?

Karin Michel  29:05

I would encourage those conversations with your local librarians to ask what their needs are give them an opportunity to talk about what they’re doing and what they would like to do. I would say that some libraries–hopefully most libraries–have groups that support the work they do. So, the Friends of the Library and foundation are two distinct organizations. Both of them are fundraising entities that can help contribute to collection growth. So, if folks are able to support those fundraising efforts, that’s a huge help. Volunteering for your local public library, especially if you have a language skill. It may be that they could use you. So, donating time or money or talking to librarians. Often librarians have sort of wish lists of what they would do if they had the resources and sometimes the resources means people power. Sometimes it’s financial, but they may have suggestions for things that would actually line up with what your listeners are able to contribute.


Ame Sanders  30:10

That’s a big help, because sometimes we may just think of the library as this very large, static thing that we take for granted. We don’t really take as much initiative as we could in helping to influence and shape that and in supporting them. Also, a lot of people don’t know that there’s a foundation for most libraries and Friends of the Library. They just think their taxes pay for it and they don’t realize that often there are additional funds or special projects that are needed that require some fundraising activities to make those things happen in the community. So, I’m really glad that you shared those points with us because it’s good to think about how we can make our wonderful libraries even better places and what our role is in doing that. So thank you so much for that.

I was grateful for the opportunity to talk with Karin Michel from Chapel Hill, and Sarah Voels from Cedar Rapids. I’ll tell you, I, for one will never think of my public library or the librarians who work there the same way again. They opened my eyes to the important contribution that libraries can make and do make to community inclusion and equity. You’ll remember they told us that the roles of libraries have changed from gatekeepers of information to connectors that link so many of us to important and vital information and services. Libraries are evolving just as their patrons’ needs and expectations are evolving. Many libraries and librarians across the country take diversity and inclusion in their work and their offering very seriously. I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear that. Such good news. These librarians are tackling this work in many deliberate and professional ways. From user-centered design and patron experience design, to more welcoming spaces and displays that help us feel welcome and also encourage us to choose more diverse and inclusive books. They’re partnering with local service providers and nonprofits, even giving them a home in the library to help meet people where they are. They’re offering increasingly diverse programming and events to meet the needs of their changing patrons. They’re conducting professional and thorough audits of their collections. In the end libraries are creating collections, environments and experiences that allow for books, and perhaps even the libraries themselves, to be both mirrors that allow us to see ourselves or windows that let us safely experience cultures and get to know individuals different from ourselves.

While we know that many libraries are working to be more inclusive and equitable, how about yours and mine? We own our public libraries and have the opportunity and perhaps the responsibility to ensure that they meet the needs of our community–all of our community. So let me encourage you to reach out to your librarian. Both Karin and Sarah were quick to tell me that librarians welcome the opportunity to hear from the community. Find out what your library is doing with diversity. Nudge them, celebrate them, encourage them, and however you can support them in their work to build a more inclusive and equitable community, one library at a time. In our next episode, we’ll learn more about diversity initiatives in the publishing industry. In order to have more diverse and inclusive collections in our libraries and in our homes, we need more diverse books. Incidentally, that’s the name of our next episode, and the name of the nonprofit our next guest represents. Join us, won’t you?

This has been the State of Inclusion podcast. Join us again next time. If you enjoyed this episode, the best compliment for our work is your willingness to share these ideas with others. Leave us a review. We’d love your comments. Thanks so much for listening


Guest: Sarah Voels and Karin Michel

Host: Ame Sanders

Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson

Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski

Sound: FAROUT Media

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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