On multiculturalism in reference services

For the class I’m taking in “Information Sources and Services,” I was assigned to review a “multicultural reference resource.” We had previously spoken (briefly) about acknowledging and accommodating cultural differences in providing services in information contexts, but it seemed that the point of this assignment was to focus on evaluating an information source. And by the way, it should be about or not geared towards white, straight, cis-, male, Christian adults.

I took this opportunity to review a unique-sounding American Sign Language resource, The American Sign Language Handshape Dictionary. I learned of this resource from our course textbook and wanted to see if it would be better than a standard ASL dictionary when it comes to easily confused signs. It is…sort of. But that’s not my purpose in sharing this post.

My school’s library has the DVD that accompanies the ASL Handshape Dictionary. Or, it has it in its catalog, but it is missing. And would be on reserve with a 1-day checkout period. In other words, not useful to me. The library at Gallaudet, however, has it in general circulation.

I know a few signs. But I certainly can’t sign in “complete sentences” (so to speak) and I get nervous about doing new things, so I was very anxious before going. So anxious that I used the library’s chat reference to see if there was anything I should know before arriving (ID requirements or similar). Or what to do if I needed actual assistance from a real live person. I went to the library, found the book, went to the circulation desk where I shoved the book and my school ID at the student assistant with my patented deer-in-headlights look (perfected during 10 months in Israel), got it checked out, and then confidently signed thank you.

I was much more nervous than I needed to be. I would be much more confident if I were to go back.

And this experience was, I think, vital to my preparation to be a responsive and responsible librarian in a world where not everyone speaks English and not everyone feels at home in the library. This was minor. Five minutes as a language minority where in every other respect I had everything going for me. But it did give me the experience of being culturally “other” so that I can better be empathetic when I’m the librarian in a setting where not everyone is just like me. This is what the assignment should have been about.

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