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All Students Are Welcome: Culturally Responsive Libraries

In August 2019, the Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) system in Albuquerque, New Mexico gave every K-8 classroom a collection of culturally responsive books for their classroom libraries. These books reflected the interests and the diversity of students and represented diverse authors and points of view. The underlying goal was to encourage the APS student population to feel seen, valued, and welcomed in schools, and to help students value the races and cultures of others.

This was no small feat since the process involved tons of books—literally. APS is located in the largest city in New Mexico with a population of 560,000, spread across 1,200 square miles, including 144 schools with approximately 80,000 students. This makes APS amongst the fifty largest school districts in the United States.

The two APS employees behind this massive undertaking were Rachel Altobelli (Director of Library Services and Instructional Materials) and Jessica Villalobos (Senior Director of Language and Cultural Equity). They received the 2020 Excellence in Student Achievement Award from the New Mexico School Boards Association for their work in bringing culturally responsive books to APS students.

The process of creating these diverse classroom libraries began in 2017 when two departments – Library Services and Instructional Materials and Language and Cultural Equity – started working together to provide books and materials to English Learners and bilingual students. Altobelli and Villalobos soon realized the importance of, as they put it, “surrounding [their] students with stories that reflect, represent, respond to, and celebrate their often intersecting identities – race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability status — and experiences.” Altobelli adds that they “feel a strong need to begin to redress the long-standing inequities our students experience when only given the opportunity to learn from materials that exclude, marginalize, or portray falsely and inaccurately their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, or other identities.” From this need came the idea to give each APS classroom their own culturally responsive library (CRL) collection.

Altobelli and Villalobos were inspired by the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, as well as We Need Diverse Books and the #ownvoices movement. When asked how they created the CRL book lists, Altobelli said, “We tried to read everything we could find about what was being published, and what had recently been published. We read reviews, blogs, and many, many lists.” To ensure the inclusion of marginalized communities, they looked for both #ownvoices titles and sought out reviews written by people who are from the communities represented in each specific book. One issue they struggled with was sourcing sufficient quantities of some titles. This appeared to be a particular issue with books by Native authors and books in languages other than English. Altobelli and Villalobos hope that publishers and vendors will work to remedy this problem going forward.

When it was time to order and receive the books, due to receiving deadlines, APS vendor partner Follett shipped the titles, and Library Services staff sorted the books over the summer. When school was back in session, Library Services delivered the books to schools and, with the help of school librarians, got the books into classrooms. The Library Services department also held an inservice for school librarians on why the CRL books are so important for students and shared ideas on how the books could be used with students.

For those considering creating their own CRLs, Altobelli and Villalobos share these recommendations:

  • Get as much input as you possibly can – from teachers, librarians, colleagues, community members, and students – and build on what already exists.
  • Build in time for colleagues from representative communities and departments with relevant expertise to review possible selections.
  • Use the principles of CRL when doing collection development on your existing collection; that way, teachers have in-building support from school librarians for building their own classroom CRLs and may be familiar with the titles already.
  • Be as inclusive, and intersectional, as possible, both in terms of representation and in terms of types of stories.
  • Look for titles in places beyond just traditional sources of reviews – read those traditional reviews, but also read blogs and follow authors and librarians on social media.

Altobelli and Villalobos emphasize the fact that there is so much more to be done. Although they didn’t have a way for community input at the beginning of the process, there is now an online form for recommendations that can be found on the APS website. “We’re trying to shift what’s available for students to read to a much more representative place, and that’s a significant undertaking,” Altobelli says. “Every time we add books, or make a list, or do a project, we think, ‘But there’s so much more to do.’ We always want families and the communities to know that we don’t think we’re done – we think we’ve just begun, and there is a lot more to do.”

Find more on CRLs here.

Natasha Carty is a Teacher Librarian at Tres Volcanes Community Collaborative School, a K-8 school in the Albuquerque Public School System in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is a member of AASL/ALSC/YALSA Interdivisional Committee on School/Public Library Collaboration.

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