For the past year, Dole Branch has been home to the Multicultural Collection, full of books, artifacts, and films exploring continents and countries around the world, as well as issues like human rights, immigration, disabilities, and family diversity. And it’s been growing under Multicultural Learning Librarian Naomi Priddy, who curates this strong resource to build empathy among individuals, families, and classrooms.

“The Multicultural Collection is here to be a window into other communities around the world, and a mirror to reflect ourselves and our own cultural identity,” Priddy said.

Diving into different cultures

“Using the books and artifacts, we can get a window into different worlds outside our own,” Priddy said. Even seemingly mundane objects can prompt unexpected questions and open up topics spanning continents and centuries.

When volunteer researcher Stacy Fifer first picked up a woven rattle identified as being from Ghana, likely made after 1980, she didn't expect to discover anything too interesting. "But I've made the richest discoveries with this simple rattle," she said. "One of the fun things about doing this research is I'm never sure what I'm going to find."

Fifer runs L'Institut français d'Oak Park, has a PhD in French and Francophone Studies, and specializes in Sub-Saharan African Francophone literature. As a library volunteer, she dedicates her time and expertise to researching the collection, working with Priddy to uncover stories behind the artifacts, most of which came to the library from Oak Park Elementary School District 97, where the collection began more than 30 years ago.

“We don't know for sure where this came from,” Fifer said, referring to the musical instrument she’s discovered is called a caxixi rattle. It’s played in Western and Central Africa, as well as in Brazil, where it’s used in capoeira, the Brazilian dance that uses martial arts movements and music.

Capoeira was developed by African slaves, mainly from Angola and the Congo, who practiced war dances in their home cultures before being sold to what would become Brazil, Fifer notes. To continue their combat fighting under plantation owners watchful for signs of rebellion, slaves disguised it as dance set to music, and it continues in this form today.

"This one rattle could be used by middle school teachers to do research projects that would end up in very different places,” Fifer said, noting that students and teachers could explore not only music but also the development of an Afro-Brazilian cultural identity, colonialism, and slave resistance. “That's part of the beauty of this collection."

Another facet: centuries after originating with African slaves in Brazil, capoeira is now being used in therapy to heal trauma of former child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, providing a way for them to learn how to live with others in a community.

"She's finding so much depth and ways things are connected,” Priddy said. “It's amazing that someone like Stacy, who has this incredible expertise, is dedicating her time to this collection."

Reflecting ourselves

The collection also can help us understand our own cultural identities, and how those identities affect how we act and understand the world around us. For example, Priddy said, one book in the collection—Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy—reflects how she came to understand her own cultural identity, both as a Jewish American and a Star Trek fan.

As one of the only Jewish kids in her hometown, Priddy said, most of what she heard about Jewish identity came from history class and was related to the Holocaust. “Which, while really important to learn about, isn’t the only thing I should know about my cultural identity,” she said. “Learning that Nimoy was Jewish, and that his Jewish identity informed how he played the character Spock, played a big role in me understanding what Jewish identity meant outside that one point in history.”

Fascinating tells the story of Spock’s famous “Vulcan salute,” which came from Nimoy’s childhood memories of a hand gesture used in a blessing at synagogue. “So it’s no surprise to me that I’m a big Trekkie today,” she said.

Seeing our common humanity

“If we are able to explore other cultures and root ourselves in our own cultural perspectives, we can build empathy,” Priddy said. “To me, that means seeing each other in our common humanity and understanding new and different cultures in their own terms.”

With local teachers and students

As a former classroom teacher and instructional design specialist, Priddy works to support local teachers with her expertise and library resources. For Hispanic Heritage Month this fall, District 97 educators and students explored items from the collection, learning about Hispanic authors and artifacts from the Spanish-speaking world.

Growing with our community

“We’re hoping this collection reflects other cultures outside Oak Park, but also that it reflects the stories and heritage of residents of Oak Park today,” Priddy said. “We’re interested in hearing from you and what you’d like to see in the collection. That could mean talking to me about items that would be meaningful and that we could learn from. Or it could mean sharing artifacts from your own collection with us.”

One donation the collection has received in the past year is a Japanese handcrafted doll (pictured here with Priddy), which was given to the library by an Oak Park resident who hosted an exchange student from Japan.

Check it out

Browse collection materials on Dole Branch shelves and find them in the library’s online catalog. Some items are for display or in-house use only, but most can be checked out for up to four weeks (with no holds or renewals). 

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