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Thursday, June 24, 2021

Indianapolis Public Library amplifying diversity efforts

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The heightened disparities in resources and technological divide in Indianapolis throughout the pandemic came as no surprise to public library workers.

That’s why, even as we’re nearing the finish line in the fight against COVID-19, staff in the Indianapolis Public Library system are addressing these issues and making their spaces more welcoming for a diverse audience.

Jessica Moore, the diversity, equity and inclusion officer for Indianapolis Public Library, said the 2021-23 strategic plan for the library system is a continuation of the work the library system has been doing since she started working there in 2019.

“When I started in this role, the library had already been sending staff members to racial equity training, and having partnerships with IPS, and they wanted to drill in on why this work is important and critical,” Moore said. “This past summer, we made a decision to drill in on [social justice]. We wanted to do more than just a book display, because we don’t make systemic changes through displays.”

Libraries play a critical role in addressing the digital divide. The library took notice of data from Indianapolis Public Schools that showed roughly 40% of responding families didn’t have a device that would work for e-learning, and 30% lacked reliable internet connection and decided to focus efforts on closing the gap. The Haughville branch of Indianapolis Public Library now checks out Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots to members of the neighborhood.

“Lack of access isn’t a new problem, but the pandemic elevated it. It shined a light on a lot of the inequities we face,” Moore said. “When you start to shine a light on inequities, you can’t run away from them. Now is the time for us to really drill into it, that’s how we’re really going to make some leeway in terms of fixing the problem.”

In addition to closing the digital divide, library branches will cater their collections to their diverse audiences. For example, the new branch in Perry Township will have materials focused on Burmese culture and characters to reflect the area’s large Burmese population while the Central Library in downtown Indianapolis will highlight the contributions of African American and women writers in the building itself.

Library officials recently discovered an area they overlooked. When Central Library was built in 1917, 76 authors’ names were engraved inside or outside the building. Five more names were added during renovations in 2007, bringing the total to 81. However, none of the authors memorialized in the building are Black, and there’s just a handful of women included in the group.

Tariq Robinson, adult program specialist for Indianapolis Public Library, hopes to change that.

Now through June 30, library patrons can nominate late African American and female authors to be memorialized in the library. The names will be unveiled later this year during the fourth anniversary of the library’s Center for Black Literature and Culture. Patrons can also donate money for the engravings. Michael R. Twyman, a longtime library patron who brought the disparity to the attention of library administration, will match up to $9,000 in donations.

“[The project] is really about making it clear for all who enter the Central Library that this is a space for everyone, and to have that reflected in who we remember and who we memorialize on our walls,” Robinson said. “It’s an opportunity to make sure that history is not only written by those who have traditionally had power.”

With the first phase of the strategic plan underway, the library is looking ahead to the future.

“We still have a lot of work to do, and I think that’s true for every institution in our entire country,” Moore said. “This isn’t aerial work, we have to be in the thick of it, and we have to be committed to it. This is the beginning of our journey, but I’m grateful to our commitment to dive in fully.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

To submit a nomination for the engraving project or donate, visit indyplfoundation.org.

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