First African-American Female OLC Board Chair Gives Her View on Diversity in Ohio’s Public Libraries

Armstrong photo

Kacie Armstrong

Euclid Public Library Director Kacie Armstrong is wrapping up her term as Chair of the OLC’s Board of Directors. Armstrong made history this year as the first female African-American Chair of the OLC’s Board of Directors. From day one, Armstrong made diversity and inclusion a top priority for the organization. She was instrumental in bringing an entirely new diversity session to the OLC’s New Directors Workshop last summer. In this session, she challenged new and aspiring directors to create a library culture that is truly inclusive and sensitive to everyone regardless of age, disability, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. By working closely with the members of OLC’s Diversity Awareness and Resources Committee, Armstrong was able to bring more thought-provoking sessions like this one to OLC conferences in 2019. Armstrong knew that libraries play a crucial role in empowering diverse populations, but as she traveled the state this past year, she was surprised to learn just how complex this issue could be. From New Straitsville to Twinsburg, Armstrong reflects on her experiences and the diverse nature of Ohio’s public libraries.

Diversity in Ohio Libraries
by Kacie Armstrong

New Straightsville Public Library photo

Built in 1927, the New Straitsville Public Library in Perry County, Ohio serves a population of 722 people and dedicates one of its computers solely to job seekers.

After enjoying a sample of “Paw Paw” Moonshine at the Black Diamond Distillery in New Straitsville, Ohio, I took a quick walk down the road to the New Straitsville Public Library. At the library, I was warmly greeted with a bag of popcorn and offered a tour.

On tour, I learned about the annual Moonshine Festival, the unique history collection, and even learned that the library has a special display of moonshine festival plates. I was stunned that this small, yet mighty, library team was working so hard, with only seven computers (one of which was broken), and the only reliable broadband connection in town to meet the needs of its residents.

Libraries matter for everyone! As this former coal-mining town seeks to find new ways to rebuild, find resources to keep residents from leaving and encourages others to move to the area, the local public library remains a vital community connector. I was amazed that out of the seven computers, one was solely dedicated to job seekers!

The New Straitsville Public Library, along with libraries across Ohio, is stepping up to help solve critical problems. This past year, in my role as the Board Chair of the Ohio Library Council and a student in the Leadership Ohio program, I had the opportunity to visit urban, suburban, and rural libraries throughout Ohio. The 251 library systems in our state have opened their doors to people of all ages, races, faiths, socioeconomic backgrounds, abilities, genders, and sexual orientations.

When libraries say the words, “All are welcome” — they mean it!

Diversity in libraries is critically important to me. However, I am learning that diversity runs much deeper than color, gender identity, sexual orientation, or age. It is a leadership issue. There are many parts of our state where “diversity may not be what is visible” – a phrase I’ve quoted from my colleague and friend, Nancy Levin, Director of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library.

Through the Leadership Ohio program, we are learning about what it means to be a leader. As leaders, how do we take what we learn at a local level and translate that to a statewide level? In addition, as an OLC Board Member, I am constantly evaluating how we can learn from each other and share that knowledge throughout our public libraries.

The Guernsey County District Public Library just hosted Jill Sharrer, a survivor of human trafficking. Jill shared her story with a captive library audience to help others recognize trafficking signs and to keep vulnerable youth and women safe. Can libraries across our state offer similar programs? Can we make sure that we have books and movies on our shelves that will educate and inform our residents about human trafficking?

If you travel to the Middlefield Branch of the Geauga County Public Library System (GCPL), you will see hitching posts for horses. Library staff understands that this may be the only transportation system for an Amish family, and it is a helpful tool to make sure they have access to library resources. As the Amish use the bookmobile and other library resources, the staff has on-going discussions about how to ensure that the library is a welcoming place for this unique group of library users. (By the way, GCPL is seeking an Amish Board member). GCPL is showing us all that it is essential to meet patrons at their point of need.

Armstrong and Sullivan photo

Kacie Armstrong (left) with her sister Pastor Kellie Sullivan at the Twins Days Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio.

At the Twinsburg Public Library (yep, I’m a twin), not only are they part of the annual Twins Days Festival, which brings more than 20,000 people into the area and contributes $3.8 million to the local economy, they also provide English as a Second Language (ESOL) Classes and Citizenship Classes to their new residents. Library Director Laura Leonard knows that this suburban library system is one of those places where people can walk-in and be “wowed” by what they see. They can also get a glimpse of things outside of their neighborhoods through the books, movies, programs, and resources they use right in their local library.

In the Greater Cleveland area, libraries are working together to bridge the digital divide and help people in our community who are often overlooked and need a fresh start. All nine urban and suburban libraries in Cuyahgoa County work to provide new programs and services, including wireless internet access through mobile hotspots, GED and workforce development programs, and a countywide reading initiative, One Community Reads, to encourage residents to seek community solutions.

As I conclude my role in Leadership Ohio this November and OLC Chair at the end of the year, I know without a doubt that the public libraries in Ohio understand the unique needs of our various communities. Libraries offer the most important lesson or piece of the puzzle in that we have figured out that each community is diverse. Uniquely, we celebrate that diversity and provide local solutions that can ultimately benefit our entire state.

I hope everyone takes the time to visit their local public library and see for themselves the diversity in services, programs and resources that are available.  If you are in the New Straitsville area, visit the library and then stop and try the “Paw Paw” Moonshine — it’s really good!