By Stephanie Campbell, MLIS
Which holidays to observe and/or celebrate at your library is a local decision, sometimes to the chagrin and confusion of staff and patrons alike. Libraries are, at their core, inclusive: accepting and sensitive to all community members and their respective races, ethnicities, cultures, and religions. But it’s hard to please everyone.
When to be open and when to be closed?
Federal holidays are generally a safe bet in that closing the library is acceptable—but that doesn’t mean that you or your patrons have to like it or understand it. Controversy surrounds what is/isn’t or should/shouldn’t be a “holiday,” and observance can differ across the country. No matter what you do, you will probably always hear someone say “I’m surprised you’re open” or “I couldn’t believe you were closed.”
Keep in mind that your library holiday schedule is negotiable. State library standards may limit how many days you are closed per year, but do not specify which ones. Perhaps your board would consider letting you close for a different purpose or trade one holiday closure for another.
Scheduling professional and personal development opportunities can also be a struggle for libraries. Rather than honoring Presidents Day and Columbus Day as holidays, perhaps you could close for staff training or community service? In other words, if you’re going to close for Columbus Day, devote it to staff development and make that known. It’s not because you care more about Cristoforo Colombo than indigenous peoples (as some might infer).
Some argue that purely religious holidays shouldn’t be observed at all by public institutions. This article from The New York Times provides historical insight into what constitutes federal holidays and also helps those who struggle with explaining why libraries observe some, but not others.
Opening the day after Thanksgiving was the bane of my existence as a library manager, as many staff like to travel then. And because we were always open the weekend after Thanksgiving, I argued that staff deserved two days off for Thanksgiving.
Conversely, while many municipalities close for Good Friday, I considered it superfluous for my library to be closed that day. Our community had a significant Jewish population; therefore the library was closed both Saturday and Sunday for Easter and Passover. Being closed on Good Friday would have meant a three-day shut down—something many libraries are loath to do. After surveying my staff, I proposed to our library board that we trade Good Friday off for Black Friday off.
I stressed that this wasn’t sanctioning one holiday over another, rather providing the opportunity for staff to spend extra time with their families. Patrons and boards who love their libraries generally love their library staff and are happy to see them rewarded in this way. And it worked! The board approved this change when they voted on the upcoming year’s calendar.
What about holiday programming?
Think about whether your decorations, displays, story times, and other programming should be holiday-focused. I’ve found that a lack of holiday-themed programming goes largely unnoticed, whereas you will definitely hear about it when patrons feel something is exclusionary or inappropriate. One person’s time-honored tradition is another person’s pagan ritual. Should libraries have Halloween parties and put up Christmas trees? Given that there are so many alternatives to choose from, is it worth the risk? “Reframing” seasonal themes is often all it takes to make your programs and décor more inclusive. See these opinion pieces from School Library Journal and American Libraries for more.
Holiday Theme Alternatives
What I’m suggesting is libraries need to “spin” things appropriately in order to be respectful of everyone.
For children’s programs and story times, replace holidays with secular, seasonal themes. Instead of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, think autumn (falling leaves and harvest), winter (cold, snow, and hibernation), and spring (growth and renewal.) If you can, create a holiday book section and leave it up to children and their caregivers to choose what they want to read and learn about, whenever they want.
We can, and want to, cover many cultural and historic topics for both children and adults, but reframing is crucial. Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos) is not Mexican Halloween. Present it as a cultural program, part of Hispanic Heritage Month.
By adhering to heritage and history months, you have greater freedom to present informational and recreational programming that is of a religious/cultural nature. Just make sure you call in an expert to cover the material. See the Library of Congress guide to Commemorative Observances. For program planning in general, it’s also important to consult a comprehensive calendar to choose dates/times for events so that you don’t exclude members of your community based on their culture, religion, or ethnicity.
Ultimately, you need to do what’s in the best interest of your community.
We would love to hear your ideas and experiences!
Stephanie Campbell has worked for more than 20 years in public, academic, and special libraries in roles ranging from children’s and older adult services, outreach, administration, and technical services. Click here for more.