ALA chief: Libraries must evolve to meet needs of more diverse suburbs

  • Tracie Hall

    Tracie Hall

Posted2/5/2020 5:30 AM

Suburban libraries must diversify their resources, programming and staffing to better serve growing populations of blacks, Latinos and immigrants, says the first black woman to lead the American Library Association.

Tracie Hall, whose appointment as executive director of the nation's oldest and largest library association takes effect Feb. 24, notes that libraries have to adapt to changes reflected in the "suburbanization of people of color."


Historically, she notes, large cities contained higher concentrations of communities of color and were the main points of entry for new immigrants and residents. That changed by 2012 with a significant out-migration of ethnic populations from Chicago to the suburbs.

Today, the suburbs are home to more black and Latino residents than Chicago's urban center, and they are drawing more immigrants as well, Hall said.

"That shift is very significant," Hall said. "(It) represents what we are seeing across the country, which is the suburbanization of people of color. If we are going to support these communities of color, we have to be able to support their information needs as well as their social needs in the suburbs as effectively as in large metropolitan cities."

This population shift means suburban libraries will need "an intensive diversification of materials, services and staff," Hall said.

A few suburban libraries, such as Skokie and Oak Park, are ahead of the curve in modeling what it means to reflect their communities.

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"Skokie is one of the most ethnically and racially diverse suburbs in the country," Hall said. "They have been noted for their work to service their multilingual community. Oak Park is noted for its services for homeless residents. There are many (suburban) libraries that are setting best practices examples in serving new immigrants, new English learners, families with small children and low-income residents."

Hall said libraries can help communities of color by increasing partnerships with social service agencies, immigrant service providers and chambers of commerce, supporting small businesses, and creating programs to aid economic mobility.

"Libraries are on the front lines of social justice," Hall said. "My goal is to have libraries be a first stop for vulnerable residents ... to ensure that libraries are sought after as partners for supporting these communities."

Educating underrepresented ethnic and immigrant communities about participating in the 2020 Census is the next challenge for libraries, she said.

"The suburbs have much more to lose in an undercount," Hall said. "Most of the social services to serve these communities, even homeless residents, are really still aggregated in big cities. A lot of these issues are hidden in the suburbs. The country has shifted so much in the last 20 years. We need to ensure suburban libraries have the tools that they need to effectively support the count."

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