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Commentary: Summer time and the living is ... literate?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 31, 2011 - African American and Latino librarians do exist. African Americans make up 7.8 percent while Latino's 1.6 percent of the 217,0000 librarians, archivists and curators employed in the civilian labor force.* In the world of literacy, you guessed it, here, too, race matters.

You find it in the placement of a new or existing library, recruitment and hiring practices as well as in the diversity of authors and available book selections. Diverse and global music and film selections are hard to come by. Especially vexing is the organization of these materials.

Race matters in the geo-spatial relationships that the brick and mortar building has to the individuals that desire and need the resources that a library provides. The strategy around who gets to use the breadth of resources of libraries and the location of these resources is consequential. Libraries certainly provide books and reading materials; however, today's library is a critical link to the online world and they also offer film nights, CDs, DVDs, books on CD, lecture series and fun activities geared toward children. They link whole groups of people to digital technology and are computer centers and hubs in communities that are unfortunately not linked to Wi-Fi and internet portals at the "local" Starbucks.

Library science is not listed in the top 10 careers for recent college graduates. But having librarians with diverse backgrounds and ethnicity may help with the cross-cultural communication styles and needs of users. The way the library is organized is important, yet at times can be confusing.

Some libraries have an African-American section. This is where most of the books by African-American authors are located even if they did not write on the "black" experience. I have yet to see a French section or a Jewish section of the library.

It would be great if libraries would get together and convene diversity and outreach committees to help decide on literature, programming, and the needs of individual communities.

It is even more important to pay attention to the ways that youth, black and brown young people are either welcomed into to these spaces of knowledge or discouraged from actively participating in this quest for literacy. In one of the St. Louis County libraries, police officers walk around to "enforce" the quiet rule on the children's level and promptly escort mostly teens out of this free and public space.

Since literacy still is one of the greatest predictors of a child's success, we should all cherish and feverishly support our libraries when and wherever we can. According to standardized tests, African Americans and Latinos are not yet out scoring their white counterparts. Access to libraries could be a strategic and thoughtful way to shift the racialized paradigm of literacy in America as well as the digital divide.

While some libraries may be poorly staffed and close before night fall, others are open all night. Having a library close at 6 p.m. may discourage working parents from positively engaging in literacy events with their children after work. In Portland and on some university campuses, libraries are open 24 hours a day.

It would be wonderful to have libraries in the urban core open 24 hours. A comprehensive strategy encompassing libraries might change the educational landscape of black and brown people's experience with literacy, schooling and their personal intellectual and spiritual liberation.

* Source: A.Dawson 2000; Census, Civilian Labor Force 1990; Library Personnel News (1993, November-December)

Amy Hunter is director of Racial Justice for YWCA Metro St. Louis. YWCA Metro St. Louis is dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. For more information, visit www.ywcastlouis.org.

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