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"As someone who has had the privileges ... I work hard to be a respectful ally"

Deb in Civic Square
Deb in Civic Square

My mother gave me my love of books and libraries and also taught me the value of community – of being responsible for each other. She was an activist who was a driving force behind founding the first public library in my hometown as well as numerous other initiatives aimed at social justice. While I have at times been careless and clumsy over the years in my personal quest to live up to her example, it has remained a part of how I have tried to be in the world.

I am privileged. While never what you could call “well off”, my parents provided me with a childhood rich in culture, nature and a sense of community. I am female and a lesbian but I am also white and educated with ancestors of colonial stock, chiefly western European. Being open about my LGBTQ status at my workplace was generally accepted as early as the mid-1970s and has not hindered my career aspirations. However, I believe it has made me just a little more humble and able to be sympathetic to the ways in which others may feel excluded from the mainstream.

In my 40 plus years working in libraries, I have seen a marked shift in the way in which workplaces view diversity. Diversity in my early years in the profession meant a woman rising to a senior management position (rare) or men working as children’s librarians (less rare but still not common). Even rarer was a person of colour in a senior position. Sadly this is still relatively rare in MetroVancouver.

Diversity now means working toward a staff component that reflects the many differences of the people in the communities we serve. My former workplace, Burnaby Public Library, is actively reviewing hiring practices in conjunction with the Human Resources department at the City of Burnaby to consider how the current practices may disadvantage people from other cultures or who are disabled or transgendered. It has been a particular challenge finding librarians and library workers who are indigenous and who can provide valuable insight into the relationship between public libraries (which for all their wonderfulness are, after all, a colonial concept) and indigenous communities.

An important part of effective diversifying is, of course, encouraging staff awareness of barriers faced by various groups of people who want to work in public libraries or use them. In my last few years as Deputy Chief Librarian of Burnaby Public Library (BPL), I organized a series of inclusion lunch and learns that covered a variety of topics including queer competency, indigenous awareness, how to serve people with dementia, and awareness of issues faced by people who are deaf or hearing impaired. All of the presentations were excellent and well-received but the one-hour format was too short for in-depth coverage or discussion. After my retirement, BPL staff were encouraged to attend a KAIROS Blanket Exercise to enhance awareness of indigenous issues and about half have done so.

As someone who has had the privileges of being from the dominant class, I work hard to be a respectful ally – someone who listens and doesn’t assume and encourages action when it is requested.

The Chief Librarian noted on my retirement that I was “patient with people and impatient with bureaucracy.” My mother would be proud.


Bio: Deb Thomas is recently retired and has worked in libraries for over 40 years, 30 of those as a public library manager. She has served in a number of leadership roles including president of the British Columbia Library Association and chair of the Association of BC Public Library Directors. She has been an out lesbian for 50 years.


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