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Baltimore County library reading list confronts racism

E-books on systemic racism, its history and how to recognize and uproot it have been flying off the proverbial shelves of the Baltimore County Public Library amid international demonstrations protesting police brutality and racism.

Across the country, including in Baltimore City and parts of Baltimore County, protesters have taken to the streets, spurred by the death of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man who died as a white police officer pinned him down by the neck for several minutes. The officer and three others have been fired and charged in the slaying.

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In the wake of the widespread unrest, the Baltimore County library has curated an anti-racist book list as a resource for those who may “never have entertained thoughts about race or policing in America” and for those who want to deepen their understanding of America’s fraught racial history, said the library system’s collection development coordinator Jamie Watson.

“This conversation has been out there a lot over the last few years, but I’ve never felt it as much in the zeitgeist as where we are right now,” Watson said. “It’s not going away. Maybe some of that is the benefit of being at home .... during a pandemic and [having] time to think about this.”

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The library has curated a reading list of more than 30 e-book titles and 20 audiobooks from writers like the acclaimed novelist, playwright and activist James Baldwin, Baltimore-born author and University of Baltimore professor D. Watkins and New York Times columnist and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander, with the aim of helping readers “dig deeper” into black lives and longstanding power structures that have disproportionately affected black communities and people of color.

“The impact that both historic and recent incidents have had on the Black community is devastating," library director Paula Miller wrote in a Facebook post June 2. "We stand with all our library colleagues across the country in solidarity against racism. We hear you, we’re listening, we’re trying to make a difference, and we care.”

Watson recommends Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” as an introductory text, especially for those who want to go beyond understanding racism and learn how to take an active role in combating it, she said.

Those who want to reserve an e-book for “How to Be an Antiracist” will have to add their name to a waiting list. On June 2, 16 people had placed a hold on one of the system’s four copies, although Watson said she planned to buy more.

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There’s already a wait list for more than 40 of the e-books and audiobooks included on the list.

“So many folks are really looking to expand their knowledge of what this [unrest] is all about, and this is a perfect time for books to do that,” Watson said.

The list is aimed at adults, but library staff are also putting together a reading list with materials geared toward kids, from toddlers to teens, public library spokeswoman Erica Palmisano said.

Those who wish to read any of the books but don’t have a library card may order one online. Baltimore County Public Library locations are still closed in the coronavirus pandemic, and books can only be accessed digitally.

Library cardholders also can access Kanopy, a video streaming service that allows library patrons to view up to 15 movies per month for free. Kanopy has curated its own selection of movies related to racial inequality, police militarization, the history of the Black Lives Matter movement and more, Watson said.

The library also is working out virtual programming to coincide with the reading material, and on Saturday, June 6 will host a “Black Lives Matter” story time recommended for children 3 to 8 years old.

“As a librarian and as a reader, anytime you read a book, whether you agree or disagree with it, it deepens your understanding about why someone might think the way they think,” Watson said.

“All books [do this], but certainly books that are about such powerful ... topics. They give you a chance to think about things in a way you’ve never experienced before.”

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