Voices Across the Spectrum, Tough Conversations About Race: Let the Book Start the Discussion

Reposted with permission from AALL Spectrum, Volume 25, Number 3 (January/February 2021), pgs. 39-41.

By Cynthia Bassett, Collection Management and Electronic Services Librarian at University of Missouri School of Law and Kara Phillips, Law Library Director at Seattle University School of Law Library

Below are excerpts from the article, including a section highlighting how private law librarians have participated in diversity initiatives.

Talking about racism is tough. Not talking about it is not an option when people are dying. Across our country, people are having difficult conversations about the racism they see in their communities and the effects that systemic racism—racism that is built into the very structures of our society—have on people of color.

The University of Missouri School of Law has been having intentional conversations about the many ways that people in our country are treated as “other” for many years, but the need to talk about it in a new way surfaced after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, in the fall of 2014. Some of the University of Missouri Law School students called Ferguson home, and his death hit them hard. Others in the school simply could not see why people were protesting and blocking highways, which seemed to be counterproductive to their cause. Tensions rose and the school needed to find a way to talk about and understand how different members of our society experience the world.

Private Law Librarians Participate

From curating diversity resources to organizing book groups, law firm libraries are actively participating in diversity initiatives. Reference librarian Jayse Sessi, at Alston & Bird, reported that the firm’s Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Committee has held several popular Racial Justice Zoom presentations and placed a Racial Justice Banner on the firm’s intranet main page, which features Articles & Books, Podcasts & Videos, Pro Bono & Community Service, and Philanthropy & Fundraising. The Articles & Books section includes items from the weekly D&I Library email. Alston & Bird is one of more than 250 firms to join the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance (LFAA).

According to Mark Desierto, manager of Davis Wright Tremaine Library and Research Services, the library staff at their firm organized a book group to promote the firm’s collaboration and diversity efforts and to reach out to new patrons. After much discussion from the firm’s D&I Committee and others, they chose to read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. The library held three book group sessions via Zoom and, although attendance was optional, they had an excellent turnout of attorneys and staff, some of whom had not met previously. Desierto said, “It has been gratifying and energizing for the library team to provide a space for co-workers to have honest and in-depth conversations around pressing social issues and the role a law firm should play in the midst of these issues. We have colleagues who were directly involved in voter registration efforts in the 1960s, and colleagues directly affected by systemic racism and social injustice. Some felt so strongly about the book that they attended multiple book club sessions.”

The Path Forward

Librarians can lead the way for their organizations using the tools they have at hand—their knowledge about books and readers—to create spaces where a community can change, one conversation at a time.

Tips for Book Groups

  • Decide whether participation is mandatory or optional.
  • Set a budget.
  • Assign an overall point person or committee to coordinate.
  • Ask faculty and staff to facilitate the groups (e.g., schedule meetings, reserve rooms, and lead discussions).
  • Use a survey software (e.g., Qualtrics) for organizing.
  • Set up groups based on day/time preference to help with scheduling.
  • Opt for larger groups as attendance may drop off.
  • Use Zoom to expand participation.
  • Establish book selection criteria and an approval process.
  • Limit book choices to one common text or a few texts.
  • Solicit a variety of book recommendations and review book lists.
  • Ensure book availability in print and online
  • Choose books with discussion guides, or draft discussion questions.
  • Offer complementary events and speakers.
  • Ask for feedback on ways to improve.

Resources for Book Groups

  • American Library Association Book Discussion Groups bit.ly/JF21ALA
  • California Council for the Humanities: Organizing and Managing a Book Discussion Group bit.ly/JF21Californiacouncil
  • “News: Book Club Going Virtual? Consider These 3 Things,” Programming Librarian (A website of the American Library Association 3ublic 3rograms 2ffice bit.ly/JF21Bookclub

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