Friday, May 20, 2016

Holidays and Libraries: Rethinking Our Programming

This week I was honored to present at the New Jersey Library Association Conference in Atlantic City. I have a few posts mulling around in my head about it, including at least one more really heavy one. For ease of posting something soon, however, I'd like to share my contribution to the panel "Rethinking Holidays & Cultural Celebrations in Libraries" that I presented with the lovely Dr. LaShauna Dean, Assistant Professor of Mental Health and Addiction Counseling at William Paterson University. 

This will probably read harsher than many of my other posts, but understand I am very passionate about the topic of inclusion.

I do not celebrate holidays in the library and do not suggest running holiday programming.

I know how I sound to some of you: I’m no fun, and I don’t like whimsy, and I Scrooge around shushing carolers.

And you’re right about one thing: I don’t like whimsy. I have no idea how I’ve worked with children all my life without a whimsical bone in my body, but it’s true.

But I do love the Christmas season. As I've said here before, every year I fly with my husband up to my parents' home in Michigan. We celebrate the Polish Christmas tradition of Wigilia, and we go to Midnight Mass. On Christmas morning, we open presents from Santa, even though the youngest person in my family is well into their thirties.

I also know what it is like to feel unwelcome. Growing up with cerebral palsy, I remember being told to sit out physical activities since adults didn’t know how to help me and they didn’t want to see me struggling briefly while I figured it out myself. Rather than create opportunities that I could participate-- say, somehow NOT REQUIRING a cartwheel in order to win a game-- I was simply not invited so they other kids wouldn’t “miss out” on a “fun opportunity”. This has happened over and over again throughout my life.

This is where I come from when I approach holiday celebrations in libraries. I really get wanting to share a part of yourself and connect with kids through tradition. I really do. But there are ways to do this outside of holiday celebrations.

When we talk about holiday celebrations, we’re not talking *just* about faith-based programming being exclusive, but that is a huge part of it. But there are also families that don’t celebrate holidays for other reasons. Maybe they live with poverty or transiency or food insecurity so they found it easier not to celebrate holidays. Maybe there was a death in the family or another tragedy that has caused holidays to be a source of sadness, anxiety, or trauma. These families are other examples of people who are inundated with holiday celebration from the time they leave their houses until the time they get home for sometimes more than a month leading up to a dreaded holiday. If they shop at stores in-person still, it’s even more pervasive. I’m pretty sure Walgreens celebrates at least one holiday consistently throughout the year.

So just imagine, for a minute, that you could be the place that is welcoming to all of these people. Imagine for a minute that the patrons who do celebrate holidays are doing that when they aren’t in the library. Imagine the library being a place that is a welcoming environment to all people who step into the children’s room no matter what time of year.

What would that even look like?

 While I’m not very whimsical, I also know that bare walls and no cheer aren’t very welcoming. So if you wanted to spread some cheer, you could decorate your children’s area for a length of time that consequently overlaps with a holiday.

My favorite example of this is Gretna Public Library in Nebraska. They have a very small staff and small area, but they transform their space and add a matching passive program a few times a year. Last year’s theme was “Decemberley”, a celebration in December based on the art of Ed Emberley. They’ve also done “The Game of Gnomes”, a gnome scavenger hunt in November to go along with a “Gnomevember” decorating event.

And if you don’t want to go all-out? That’s okay, too. You can plan events unfettered by the constraints of the moon! Have a beach party over Winter break! A Frozen sing-along in the summer! Have LEGO block parties whenever you please!

Here are some misconceptions and fears that may come up when we think about doing holiday programming:

We will get complaints!
One of the most understandable fears about gearing your programming away from holiday celebrations is that your regular patrons will complain. The thing is, if you are not hearing any complaints about HAVING holiday programming now it’s because the very people who would complaining are staying away from your library. Or, they visit your library, but don’t feel the confidence inspired by a sense of ownership in your library that your regular patrons feel. The people who don’t complain may not feel like the library is FOR THEM in the first place.

If you get a complaint about not having programming centered on a holiday, you can diffuse it by saying:
“Thanks for your concern. We want to make the library welcoming for everyone, including people who don’t celebrate [holiday]. I hope to see you at our [insert non-holiday program here].”

Your regular patrons will come back. This is about making memories for new patrons, and growing your base of regulars. If complaints are your biggest fear, you will be surprised how few you actually get.

What about educating about different cultures?
My thought here is to tread lightly. Can you partner with someone in the community to ensure you are doing the non-dominant culture justice? Are you educating traditions using that culture’s source materials, or are you using a version of the story or history written by the dominant culture?

Angie Manfredi at the blog Reading While White, for instance, gives the idea to share a Native tale written by a Native American during the month of November. While November is the month that America’s dominant culture celebrates Thanksgiving, it is also Native American Heritage Month. This is not to say that you should only use books by Native and First Nations people during the month of November, but you can share stories about the Native culture during a time of year when there is widespread misinformation.

One additional thing I’ve learned to think about is that there is NO STRONG NEED to educate people about traditions of the dominant culture. People do not need to be educated about who Santa is unless they specifically ask about it at the reference desk. Traditions of the dominant culture are so pervasive that we can hardly get away from them, so additional programming intended to educate about dominant holidays is not necessary.

Where does it stop?
Mother’s Day? Father’s Day? Birthdays? Not only do some religions ban celebrations altogether, but these celebrations might exclude families who don’t celebrate due to financial stress or trauma. You can always do family-friendly programming at the library without attaching it to a holiday.

 Do I need to accommodate allergies and other things too?
Your programming should constantly be looked at with a critical eye. You can still make fun, engaging programs through that lens, you just need to get a little creative.

The most common allergies in children are: dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy and gluten. To be on the safe side, I do my best not to schedule programming around times that would make food a necessity. If you can’t get around it, individual packages can help with cross contamination.

About a year after I started school-age programming at my former library, I noticed that there were “latex-free environment” signs at the front of each elementary school. I didn’t necessarily know who in the community had a latex allergy, but I made sure to no longer feature balloons in my programs just in case.

But I feel a connection to the kids when we celebrate holidays!
This is where I think a lot of the fear around doing away with holidays comes from. It’s fun to share holidays with kids who celebrate the same things you do. The warm fuzzy feelings you get when talking about the wonder of holidays with kids can feel like it cannot be matched.

BUT: what if it can?

Last year, one of my last programs as a front line staff member became one of my favorite programs to date. It was called Dinosaur-ology. The vast majority of the program was spent talking about what scientists thought dinosaurs looked like back when the first Jurassic Park movie came out, and what scientists think dinosaurs looked like now that Jurassic World was coming out. It was one of my favorite programs I’ve ever done, and it was very well received by the attendees who ate up every second.

And here’s why: when I was a kid, long before the Jurassic Park movie came out, I was REALLY INTO dinosaurs. And the kids who came to this program, they were REALLY INTO dinosaurs. For weeks after the program up until I left the library, kids from the program would come in and ask me if I knew the names of their dinosaur toys, ask me more about my favorite dinosaur, and tell me all about the new dinosaurs they learned about. It was amazing and the warm fuzzies were all over the place, and it had nothing to do with holidays. Two other interests I had as a child that serve me well in this way as a children’s librarian are cryptozoology and professional wrestling.

Want to feel really connected to kids in your community? Remember what it was like to be a kid, and plan a few programs that speak to what you were really into. I promise you’ll find kindred spirits.

All in all, there is no way to NOT be exclusive in some ways. For instance, Harry Potter parties might be avoided by families who shun witchcraft. The difference between programs like Harry Potter and programs that celebrate holidays is that families who dislike the witchcraft in Harry Potter aren’t bombarded with daily messages that if they do not practice witchcraft, they are wrong or unwelcome in dominant society.

Let your library be the place that is consistently welcoming, regardless of what’s going on outside your walls.

Questions I answered after the presentation:
"What about holiday displays?"
I think it makes sense to gather all the books together that many people will be looking for at any given time of year. There's a difference between setting setting them aside and creating a paper mache nativity scene for an adjacent wall or something, though.

"Do you say 'happy holidays'?"
I talk around the holidays the way I normally talk the rest of the year. If someone shares a seasonal greeting, I say "you too!"

For more, here's the digital handout (including slides)

How do you support inclusion in your library?


  1. GREAT post! There are SO many other things to "celebrate" besides holidays!!

  2. This is all SO GOOD; one line that jumped out to me was "One additional thing I’ve learned to think about is that there is NO STRONG NEED to educate people about traditions of the dominant culture."

    In that one sentence, I think you've captured the distance between the public libraries of the Progressive era (teaching people how to be Real Americans) and some the values we aspire to now.