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Everyone is welcome: making school libraries culturally relevant for all students

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Excerpted from “Liven Up Your Library: Design Engaging and Inclusive Programs for Tweens and Teens” by Julia Torres and Valerie Tagoe. Published by ISTE.

A Space for Building Community

When we think about the school library as a place where reading communities begin and are nurtured, we have to remember that a school is a place where many students do not inherently feel welcome. Historically speaking, school systems have been an instrumental part of systems of colonization and indoctrination. In Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s famous essay “Decolonising the Mind” (1986), we learn that students have been socialized to shame one another for speaking Kikuyu, their mother tongue. The tendency to demonize the unique parts of us that make us individuals, and to praise or reward the parts of people that demonstrate their assimilation with the dominant culture is pervasive throughout all of humankind. From Japan, which kept its borders closed to visitors from the West (until the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1853), all the way to the Hawaiian Islands, whose indigenous population was decimated with the arrival of colonizers and smallpox in 1778, education has been used to dominate and subjugate throughout human history.

So what can we do to transform our educational system from one of subjugation and assimilation to one where everyone is truly welcome, a system based upon precepts of liberation and freedom?

Culturally Relevant Librarianship

Liven Up Your Library book coverThe idea of culturally relevant librarianship is a natural outgrowth of culturally responsive education. Many have written and taught about culturally relevant pedagogy, or CRP (not to be confused with CRT) and it is the child of what began as multicultural education. When we think about culturally relevant librarianship, we have to consider that librarianship is in essence the curation, preservation, and dissemination of information and story. We must also remember that historically, information and stories have been the record of those who considered themselves to be the winners, the conquerors in societies the world over.

In modern times, what we call CRP was coined by Gloria Ladson-Billings as a way in which we remain responsive to and aware of the need of all children to have an experience (in library and classroom environments) that is empowering, restorative, and validating.


As you begin to explore culturally responsive librarianship, begin by asking yourself the following:

  • How do we make sure students feel empowered? We lift up stories and information that depict all people, not just those of the global majority, as inventors, explorers, discoverers, and victors.
  • How do we make sure students are restored through the information they seek and find? We make sure information seeking is a collaborative process and one that includes search terms, keywords, and databases that center around people and funds of knowledge outside those of Western Europe.
  • How do we validate students in an effort to make sure they truly feel welcome in library space? We center their funds of knowledge and make sure they know their stories are valued and valid, even if those from the dominant culture do not understand the cultural norms, language, and value depicted within them.

Developing Cultural Competency

Understanding and undertaking this work is a process. According to Monteil-Overall and Reyes-Escudero (2015, p. 24), a continuum of cultural competency exists, from cultural incapacity to cultural proficiency:

  • Cultural incapacity. Failure to understand why a person would need to understand anyone else’s culture.
  • Cultural blindness. Individuals claim not to see differences between individuals and feel it is inappropriate to discuss differences.
  • Cultural awareness. Individuals candidly recognize differences and have some knowledge of what makes individuals ethnically, racially, linguistically, culturally, or in other ways unique.
  • Cultural competence. Individuals who adapt their practice to meet the needs of those around them.
  • Cultural proficiency. Individuals with the capacity to understand social justice issues and who work to eliminate inequities faced by cultural groups. (Adapted from Mardis & Oberg, 2019.)

In order to support people of any age moving along the continuum, it is important to seek tools that facilitate conversation, to read and study them, and to do the internal work of interrogating our own biases and how they have been formed. For example:

  • Librarians curating collections can look to for examples of book lists or readers’ advisory suggestions that align with specific cultural/ethnic/racial groups.
  • Librarians looking to develop their understanding of how library classification systems may be exclusionary or biased may read this Smithsonian article.
  • Librarians looking to depart from the Western methods of library classification may choose to organize library materials with an indigenous system of knowledge classification, like this example from the University of British Columbia.
  • Many librarians have chosen to genrefy their libraries in an attempt to emulate the organization systems used by bookstores. Genrefication is a step toward student empowerment and away from dependence. Learn more from this article in American Libraries magazine.

Julia TorresJulia E. Torres is a language arts teacher and librarian in Denver, Colorado. An advocate for all students and public education, Torres is a frequent conference and event speaker, and facilitates workshops and professional conversations about equity, anti-bias/anti-racist education, culturally sustaining pedagogies and literacy in the digital age. She is a current member of the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award Committee, a 2020 Library Journal Mover and Shaker and a past president of the Colorado Language Arts Society (a regional affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English). She holds a master’s of education in secondary education curriculum and instruction from University of Phoenix, a master’s in creative writing from Regis University and a masters in library and information science from the University of Denver.


Valerie TagoeValerie Tagoe is a high school librarian in Texas. She’s a winner of the S. Janice Kee Award from Texas Woman’s University, and a past president of the Dallas Association of School Librarians. Currently, she’s a member of the Young Adult Library Services Association board of directors. In addition to serving on the board, Tagoe is also active in the Texas Library Association as a member of its legislative committee. She holds a bachelor’s in French, with a minor in history, from the University of Oklahoma; a master’s of bilingual education from Southern Methodist University; and an MLS from Texas Woman's University.

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