How do you start to have conversations about an object?
It’s something the library’s new Multicultural Learning Librarian, Naomi Priddy, has been reflecting on as she immerses herself in the library’s Multicultural Collection.
Her goal? To promote intercultural learning and empathy, in part by sharing the curiosity-sparking stories the collection’s artifacts can tell.
“What do you see? What inferences can you draw? What questions do you have?” Priddy asked as she considered a Senegalese souwere, or glass painting. Returning her gaze from the 5x6.5-inch frame: a woman draped in green cloth and gold jewelry, a vessel atop her covered head.
Originally used to depict scenes from the Quran, the souwere art form has been made in Senegal for at least 800 years, but was outlawed under French colonial rule. After Senegal regained independence in 1960, the souwere began to flourish once again, commonly depicting people and scenes of everyday life. The library’s painting was made after 1960, Priddy said.
“It’s a great example of how knowing the context adds so much,” said Priddy, who came to the library from The Field Museum. “Objects don’t say just one thing. From this object, we can start to learn about things like the diverse expression of Islam around the world, colonialism in Africa, how art can be a form of resistance to oppression, or how people dress and choose to represent themselves in everyday life. It’s sort of a choose-your-own-adventure form of learning.”
“Libraries are such places of individual curiosity, where people can learn about things they really care about,” she said. “I want to provide a starting place for an individual’s curiosity.”
The Multicultural Collection, which the library acquired from Oak Park Elementary School District 97 last fall in a collaboration that freed up classroom space at Julian Middle School, includes thousands of items, including sculptures, paintings, books, posters, clothing, and games.
“Now that it’s in a public library, I want to make sure that it’s accessible to all,” she said.
The Multicultural Collection is meant to circulate: you can check out most items and take them home. It also will continue to grow and develop as Priddy curates both books and artifacts.
“I want to ensure we have as robust and diverse a collection as possible, to continue to inspire people in our community and beyond,” she said.
Engaging the community
“This collection is all about looking outward, both globally and locally,” Priddy said. “While much of it is focused on international diversity, it's exciting to see community members coming in and finding objects that relate to their cultural identity across generations.”
“As we add the stories behind each artifact, I want to get perspectives from communities in Oak Park that identify with these cultures,” she added. “Representation is really important. Seeing yourself reflected in different spaces is really important.”
The collection can be used to talk about universal human experiences while creating a greater appreciation of diversity, Priddy said. For example, Being Mortal, the selection for this summer’s One Book, One Oak Park program, explores mortality.
“We can use items in the collection to explore how different cultures around the world have responded to death and mourning,” she said. “It can remind us that there are some things that we all have in common, and maybe even learn things from other cultures that will help us face our own challenges.”