Robin Bradford and Becky Spratford

Steve Thomas: Robin and Becky, welcome to Circulating Ideas.

Robin Bradford: Well, thank you. 

Becky Spratford: Thank you, Steve. 

Steve Thomas: How did two of you first meet and then start working together on the topic of anti-racist library work? 

Robin Bradford: I actually can’t remember how we met. It just seems like we always showed up on different panels and conferences and we would end up either together on a panel or hanging out around the conference. So I actually couldn’t tell you how we met. 

Becky Spratford: Yeah, we talk about this all the time. People ask us and we try to think back and just over time we ended up in the same spaces as we ended up on committees together, and then what happened was both of us were independently doing equity, diversity, and inclusion work. What the big catalyst for this type of programming that we do was people giving me questions and me seeking out advice from Robin on the best ways to answer especially because I had many Black librarians reaching out to me. So I would include Robin with their permission in our conversations, and we started to realize that we were the only people willing to answer these difficult questions that were coming from library workers. We started informally doing it, Robin, we got invited, I think by Library Reads to do something, correct? 

Robin Bradford: Library Reads and the New York they something or other? 

Becky Spratford: Some, yeah. State library association type thing. I said to Robin After that, I was like, maybe we should just do this for real!

Robin Bradford: The pandemic happened and everyone was moving their programs online anyway, so we didn’t have to try and figure out logistics of travel and it was all kind of a perfect storm. 

Becky Spratford: Cause we live so far apart, but also Robin has a full-time collection development library job, so we were able to lean on my skills for being an independent trainer. So I was able to take on all of the work of scheduling and paperwork and contracts and being the communication person so that Robin had more time to focus on the presentation itself. 

Steve Thomas: And during the pandemic is when a lot of these conversations just started culturally too. So it worked out well that this is when, I mean obviously these conversations should have gone for a long time, but they started having happening in earnest with the George Floyd murder and so many other things that have happened just over the past few years. To give a foundation for listeners, can you define anti-racism, especially as it differs from “not racist”? 

Robin Bradford: In our presentation, we have a great quote from the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which I would love to tell you what that is, but I can’t remember it verbatim, but basically, the underlying premise is that the difference between “not racist”, which we all hope people aspire to be and “anti-racist,” is action. So it’s you doing things, taking steps to promote a more inclusive culture. And so anti-racism means acting towards that purpose. 

Becky Spratford: And then we double down on that in our presentation. So we start with that definition about what it means to be actively anti-racist, that it’s active, and then we add a few more caveats that we require as sort of the bedrock of our presentation: that anti-racism requires action, that systemic oppression is a real thing, that libraries are not neutral, and that you must be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and that’s the bedrock. 

We have all of this in a statement that we require libraries sign off on to hire us. We have had libraries say, we can’t have you because we can’t agree to one or other of these statements. And that is extremely unfortunate. And we realize those are the libraries that might need us the most, but we have to set that standard and we’re very firm about.

Steve Thomas: How do you divide up the presentation Robin’s in collection development and, Becky, you do lots of reader’s advisory stuff. Is that how the presentation’s generally split up? Is that the big split? 

Robin Bradford: We do share a lot. Mostly I’m encroaching on Becky’s territory with readers’ advisory. I add that bit at the end of my collection development, but it’s also a nice lead in to the readers’ advisory part, because I’m just telling you, readers’ advisory really from a collection development, the endpoint, and then Becky goes into readers’ advisory in much more depth, but it kind of breaks down evenly. As you know, I’m collection development, so I talk about discoverability and how you go about finding things since everyone thinks it’s so difficult, even though it is not, with things you think about when you are looking for materials and encouraging people to go out and find things. Don’t just rely on what they’re being shown, and a little bit about how to purchase because not every vendor has every item. And so that’s really my focus. 

Becky Spratford: And it really does blend perfectly. And we’ve been doing this I think for two years now, Robin, two full years. And so we’ve made adjustments. We thankfully have done it now a few times in person together at various conferences, right? Both of us build our presentations off of the basic principles of collection development and readers’ advisory. Because one thing we hear is that people say, well, I don’t wanna do more work. Right. Being intentionally inclusive and being intentionally diverse, it’s so much more work. And we both start with, no, it’s not. We’re gonna teach you how to use the same principles you’re already doing. 

So she builds slowly from that leading into reader’s advisory. And then when I come in, I back it up a little and then again, lead in slowly. And my presentation is all about action steps based on everything you’ve heard from Robin and the things I want to introduce, so that there are no excuses when they’re done with our whole training that they don’t know what to do and how to do it. We have given them the background detail they need as well as ways to go about it that are part of their everyday practices. 

And then the third component we always offer, whether we’re doing it for someone like NoveList or for a library system, is a live component where we come answer your questions because we learned so much from the questions we get about what people are actually facing. But also we know that people need to ask some of these questions that might be uncomfortable. I know Robin, especially her and I, that’s something we both talk about when we’re done, the questions we get.

Robin Bradford: And we use those questions then in subsequent presentations and build on those because there are some questions we get all the time, so we can answer those now in the presentation so that people know that we understand that this might happen. We understand people will complain that now all they’re seeing are diverse materials, and that’s a great complaint to get. So we let people know that, yes, we know you’re gonna get complaint. You should be proud to get that complaint. Here’s what we think that complaint means. And here’s what we suggest you can do about it. We know we’re gonna get that question, so we can incorporate that now into the main presentation. 

Steve Thomas: Readers’ advisory and collection development are serving the same thing. It’s getting the materials to the community that you want: one’s directing them to the materials and one’s actually getting the materials. Even passive readers’ advisory stuff is making sure the cataloging is correct so that you can find these materials. That’s work again that you have to actively do. 

Becky Spratford: Steve, I talk about that at length. Robin refers to it and then I talk about it at length and really call people out to do this work, but also it’s something you’re missing too is, we also wanna make sure we don’t do harm. So in my presentation, I have a very famous anti-trans book that sometimes gets the subject heading of like LGBTQ –demographic studies, for example. And if you put that with an anti-trans book, it’s causing harm cause someone might find it with that tag. So you have to be careful. The active is not just adding those tags, but making sure the tags you add don’t harm and then you have to blatantly say anti-trans as a tag. So people know when they find that book. 

Steve Thomas: You said one of the complaints that you get is, “oh, you’re getting too many diverse books”, and on top of that, you’re wanting to build the skills to be able to properly do readers’ advisory with that, promote these titles in the best way. You understand the reasons why you’re doing this. You’re not just doing it to tick a check mark off that “oh, okay. Now we’re diverse.”

Robin Bradford: We actually got a question. I forget about the phrasing that was used, but basically it was “how do we make it so that we’re not pandering to people” and it’s like, well, you’re not, If you are promoting the books in the way they’re meant to be promoted. I have an example of a very hard boiled mystery that features a trans character. And I’m like, if you put that on a cozy mystery display because you need to diversify it, then you’re pandering. That’s not where that book belongs, but if you put that book where it belongs with other books similar in tone or level of violence or if you’re promoting books by area, this book is set in New Jersey, so if you’re doing like a tri-state display or whatever, then you’re not pandering, you’re just showing people another book that fits the display. 

Becky Spratford: So Robin does that and then I go out and call them out in my part of the presentation. So that’s in her presentation. And then we get midway through mine and I say, okay, let’s talk about this right now when we match books when we do reader’s advisory, we match based on appeal, not the characters and/or author’s identity. Black books are not genre, right? And honing in what Robin said, really getting it down and reminding them: we’re not matching books based on the person’s identity, it’s based on how the book is written. So for example, when we have Stephen Graham Jones who writes horror, but he is also Native American, we don’t automatically think Tommy Orange is a read-alike, just cause they’re both Native American. It is not a read-alike, right? There are, Victor LaValle is a read-alike. Sylvia Moreno-Garcia is a read-alike. Alma Katsu is a read-alike. Stephen King is a read-alike. These character centered, thought provoking stories, the strong sense of place that are horror are read-alikes.

So we talk about that at length. That’s pandering if you say, “oh, Stephen Graham Jones and Tommy Orange!” No. Luis Alberto Urrea as a great example. He’s an award-winning critically acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning, National Book Award-winning, Mexican American author, but the author he’s most like is Louise Erdrich, who’s Native American, when you actually match for appeal. So we talk about that multiple times in different contexts so people understand. 

Steve Thomas: That’s good that you’re covering just basic readers’ advisory skills there. I mean, you’re applying it to this specific topic, but like that’s just basic readers’ advisory skills. Just give the person a book that they will want to read. 

Robin Bradford: A lot of times these things that we think are basic, which really are basic, people tend to forget them when you start introducing diverse aspects, authors or characters. It’s like all those things that you’ve been doing for years suddenly is brand new. “But I can’t possibly recommend a book with black characters that is doing the exact thing that I’m looking for.” Like, but why not? 

There’s plenty of examples. Why don’t your book lists include any of them? Why don’t your displays include any of them? Why aren’t you thinking of them when people come in looking for exactly that? So a lot of the skills, even if they’ve been working, maybe even, especially if they’ve been working for a long time, they tend to just slip from people’s mind when you introduce books that they’re not familiar with.

Steve Thomas: And if you’re doing this active anti-racist work, then sometimes you are going to be putting this title in front of someone specifically because you’re trying to introduce them to like, you’re gonna use Stephen Graham Jones instead of Stephen King because you want them to see this, atmospherically the same, but they’ve told you they like Stephen King, “oh, well I can give you Stephen Graham Jones instead!” I guess the difference between anti-racist and not racist: not racist is just having it in the collection and then the anti-racist is actually marketing and pushing it. 

You all do this independently, and you also have crafted this into a Learn with Novelist course. Did they approach you, did you approach them? How did that get started to put this content there? 

Becky Spratford: So Robin and I for the first time got to do this program live with Alene Moroni from, the Library in Northampton, Massachusetts, the Forbes Library, as a pre-conference at PLA in March of 2022. We were very excited to do this for a larger group. And while we were there, Danielle, the Vice-President of NoveList, and Angela, who’s been on your podcast and along with others, took us out to talk about this, to sort of start the conversation. And their idea was they didn’t want us to stop giving this to libraries, but we can only do one library a month due to how much work it is, and Robin’s full-time job and my job. They had this platform, Learn with NoveList, and this would’ve been their first hybrid course, which was self-paced and with a live component. And so they approached us about doing it, and Robin can talk more about the process of developing it though, into a course. 

Robin Bradford: It was really interesting because we both had our presentations all set, and even though we changed them up, we’re really just substituting content in, like examples and things like that. We’re not necessarily reimagining the whole class every single time. So to mix that with what NoveList brought, which was the different interactive level that go with what we are doing was really kind of fun to see. Here’s what we have, here’s our presentation. How would you break it up, for one, into different section, and what kind of interactive learning tools do you suggest? So going through that process was actually kind of fun. 

Becky Spratford: And I will say, for example, in my part of the presentation where there are action steps, I tell people to go back to their library and do this, whatever this is. But as part of the course, which I think began in the fall of 2022 and is going all the way through to the fall 2023, everyone who takes the course is actually working on those activities together so they’re gonna be building lists of problematic titles together. They’re gonna be having conversations about, when Robin mentioned how people come in and say, you know, “your books are too diverse.” How do you deal with that? How do we talk about it? What are our talking points we’re gonna use? And I’m excited for the fact that these groups of people from all over the world are gonna get a chance to work on this together, because often in libraries, there are institutional roadblocks that only this work will be done by a few people, and for those people where the buy-in isn’t there, they have this community where they can work on this together. 

Robin Bradford: Another question we get a lot is about library hierarchy. And what can I do? I’m not this level, I’m not a manager, I’m not a supervisor. We hear that a lot. We’re just this and it’s like, no, you’re not just this, you’re an employee. You have responsibilities that you can weave this into, so you don’t have to be at a certain level to implement parts or even all of what we say into your daily work. 

Becky Spratford: We empower everyone where they are at libraries to do this work and to hopefully inspire change among others.

Robin Bradford: I buy fiction for my library, and even though I do I think fairly decent job, there are still things that I miss. You just can’t see everything. So there’s a staff member that we just hired. I mean, they are literally, I don’t know that they’ve been there six months, and they’re always sending me patron requests, not as a staff member, but as a person with a card, for local items, things that are local to our community that are, there’s small press, and then there’s even smaller small press. And so things that are being published that I would have no way of knowing, they’re not in our vendor catalogs. They sometimes are in the vendors, sometimes they’re not even in the vendors, and you have to buy them from website. That person is utilizing their power. They are not a supervisor. They’re not even a librarian. They are a person who unpacks and sorts our materials, and they’re using their power because they have an ear and they know how the system works. And so they’re using that to get these things in front of someone who can put them in the collection. So that’s something anybody can do at any level.

Steve Thomas: There’s blind spots that you just, even if you wanna see ’em all, you can’t see them all.

So, the course, when you were putting it together, did they show you the platform and say, “this is what it does?” 

Becky Spratford: So they gave us a chance to look at the platform, but Robin and I were very adamant that we wanted it to be the way we do it. So previously they’ve had people give them full scripts of everything they’re gonna say, and both Robin and I are a little more natural speakers. We have notes, we know what we wanna say, but we’re more comfortable teaching from an authentic place inside. Not that writing a script is inauthentic. I think that some people need that, but both of us are better without a script because of our practice. And they were very accommodating with that. So we said, “here’s our content.” They watched the video from another library system with permission of us giving the presentation, and then they took our slides and this was my and Robin’s favorite part. Robin, what do they do when they took our slides? 

Robin Bradford: They took our slides and they made ’em better, basically. They took them, and when I looked at them, I was like, “oh, it’s what I could have been doing this whole time!” They were fantastic.

Becky Spratford: I mean, if we had a professional marketing team… And so they did that for us. And then yeah, we literally had a day, like a full, like five hours on the Zoom where we watched each other present. We had the slides and Robin went, and of course there were times we stopped and started again and used their slides and went through them. Then we did that for me. We were both there for everything. We talked about it. Then they went back and added those learning opportunities, so they have a slide with a video and then maybe they just have some graphics or maybe they have an activity to do or there’s a quiz, and so we went through those with their team working on it. It was like magic, but they let us stay our authentically ourselves, which I greatly appreciate because that was very important to both of us. 

Steve Thomas: It sounds great that they were able to take some of your stuff and improve it, like to bump it up. You don’t always have an Angela Hursh and team. 

Becky Spratford: I do wanna give a shout out to Naima who works with Angela. She is fantastic. It helped that Robin and I have worked with NoveList in the past, so we already did have that level of trust with them and them with us, and I really do appreciate that.

Robin Bradford: Well, and it was clear that they understood what we were trying to say. So while we did our presentation and it’s on the Zoom and we send it off with them. When they came back with the learning opportunities and the things that they inserted, it was what we were trying to say. And so it’s like, okay, now I know that you understand what we were doing. 

Steve Thomas: And Becky, you mentioned the word trust and people will come up to you and tell you all these things that are uncomfortable and they have to be wanna be able to have uncomfortable conversations and be comfortable being uncomfortable, all that. How do you build that trust to allow people to be able to have these conversations? It is very difficult conversations for some people to be able to say what they actually feel, even if it’s harmful, but it’s just they don’t understand. So how do you build the trust to have people want to be able to feel comfortable saying that to you?

Becky Spratford: So Robin and I talk about this a lot. I think I was modeling behavior of being inclusive. After I’d give a presentation, someone would write to me and say, “Becky, it was so nice to see a white lady, which is 88% of our profession, saying these things” because Robin can tell you she’s been saying these things for years and people don’t listen, and her and I have had this frank conversation. She’s like, “Becky, you look like them and they’ll listen to you.” So sometimes I bring the little bit of nastiness in calling people out. Robin’s always laughing but I’m like, you can’t do that. And then, you know, and then she can come back and say it again.

Steve Thomas: Becky, you’re white and you’re from Jersey, so… 

Becky Spratford: Right, but I am also Jewish. We talk about how when we walk in a room, there are people that hate both of us, and Robin knows, they know right away about her and it takes them time to find out about me. So, we use that to our advantage. But I will say that the key is that I listened. I always listened. When you authentically listen, people understand that. So marginalized people, specifically LGBTQ and Black, came to me from a very early time from years ago, but I always brought in Robin, or if it was another person, LGBTQ, someone from that community who helped me answer the questions because I wanted them to understand I was listening, but that I don’t have the answers. No one does. Let’s have a conversation. And I think the word just got out that we were willing to have these hard conversations directly and difficultly, but with respect to an understanding of how people are served. Robin tells a really great story about when you would sometimes sub at the desk at your former library.

Robin Bradford: Oh yeah. So I would do some desk hours and any time I would go, the Black people who lived in that community, which was quite a few, would come up to the desk and they would chat, and they would ask questions and all of these things that weren’t happening when I wasn’t there. And so the branch manager was one of my best friends would say, “people never come up and talk to us like this when we’re here.” And her thing was, “you need to come work at my library all the time.” And I’m like, “no, you need to hire her more people of color to work on your desk.” It’s not me specifically, it’s that there’s a lack of any diversity. And when they see diversity, they’re like, yes, there’s someone who might understand me a little bit better, and then on the on the other end is Treating them like people, but that’s the other thing that’s not happening. If they’re not coming and talking to you, and they’re just coming in using the computer and leaving, then there’s not that chance for understanding to happen on either side. They don’t know me anymore than they know anyone else here, but there’s something that looks familiar and feels familiar and that breaks down a barrier. She took that to heart. She actually did hire more diverse staff. And you know, that’s a good thing. 

I think the other thing for us is we let people submit questions anonymously when we do a library. Some of those questions that we get, we have a conversation about, but we always answer them as if they were serious questions. Even if we’re like, “oh, they’re messing with us.” But when we are at the live session, we treat their question like a serious question, and we give it a serious answer. And I think people, if they were the ones who submitted that question, they clearly weren’t expecting that. They were expecting us to either ignore it or to be snarky about it or something like that. And we’re not. You asked us the question, we’re going to answer it, and we’re going to give you a serious answer. 

I think that has made people more willing to ask questions, where like, “I can’t ask that.” Yes, you can! And we tell them now upfront, you can ask us any question. It doesn’t matter. People sometimes try to stump us. My favorite question is “What if I wanna buy diverse Amish romance?” And I’m like, yeah, “what if you want to? The answer is you can’t right now because there isn’t any.” Does that mean you stop buying Amish romance? No, it doesn’t. It means that you’re on the lookout for diversity in religious romance across the board, and if you happen up to come across the diverse Amish romance, you hit the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and snap it up and tell everybody so we can all buy it. Yeah, so I think people are expecting us to say, “well, if it’s not diverse, you can’t buy it.” That’s not what we’ve ever said. And so we answer those questions seriously, and we give them things that they can do to increase diversity in areas around that or across the board. 

Steve Thomas: It’s like the conversation Becky and I had about her previous book, the Reader’s Advisory Guide to Horror. You don’t stop buying and recommending Stephen King, he’s a fantastic author. If you’re not reading him and you’re reading horror, maybe you’re just not into his kind of thing, but he’s a classic, it’s somebody you should be reading. However, that doesn’t mean that the main portion of your effort should be only getting Stephen King and only getting Dean Koontz and only getting white authors. It’s building on top of what you’re already getting. I mean, maybe stop getting some things…

Becky Spratford: Well come for my program and hear when I tell everybody that JK Rowling’s a horrible human being and her books shouldn’t be on display. Robin’s laughing right now. That gets the people every time. 

Steve Thomas: You’re not saying not to have it in the collection, you’re saying not to focus on it, and that’s the thing is like I don’t care that people have Little House on the Prairie in the collection. It is a classic whether we want it to be or not, but you can buy all these other titles that are positive portrayals of Native Americans and 19th century American life in general.

Becky Spratford: We also talk about ways to deal with having that book and having conversations, and I use an example from the Nashville Public Library. We do take these things head on, like Robin said, I think that’s why people are drawn to the way we do this because we do not shy away from anything. We are also extremely respectful of people, and we provide an anonymous way for questions to be asked as well as a chance to ask them live in any way, whether it’s with NoveList or with the libraries we work with because we wanna make sure it’s a safe space to actually have these serious conversations. 

Steve Thomas: Even if JK Rowling wasn’t a horrible human being, it’s the same thing as the Stephen King thing. Really, people know about Harry Potter. You don’t really need to do Harry Potter displays anymore. 

Becky Spratford: Don’t put books on display people are gonna find on their own. That’s basic readers’ advisory.

Steve Thomas: So we don’t wanna obviously do the entire course here cause we want you to go on to Learn with NoveList, or if you can’t do that, hire Robin and Becky to come to your library. 

Becky Spratford: Well, we actually talk about this. To hire Robin and I to come to your library is actually more expensive than making the NoveList course. There are actually group rates available to make it even cheaper from NoveList. Depending on the number of seats you buy, the discount goes all the way up to 40%, and I think Novelist is offering a coupon code that’s CIRCULATINGIDEAS to give anybody 20% off in order to try our course through the end of February.

But Robin and I are very honest about this. We would love for you to hire us, but here’s the thing, it might cost you less money to just take our course, even if it’s like your whole library rather than paying us. And people can do it at their own pace. We make it slightly self-paced. We give people like a two month span to do it, but this is a whole year. 

Steve Thomas: Yeah, and the in-person thing is gonna be a different experience. It’s not like it’s just reading the same slides that you have. There’s a different feel when you’re actually interacting. My advice is do both: get the Learn with NoveList and hire Robin and Becky! Like you said, you’re limited. You’re two people. One with a full-time job, one with a full-time job, but on her own. 

 So if people have questions, how can they get in touch with you to follow up, like if they wanted to book you guys or just ask questions about the concept? 

Becky Spratford: So we try to funnel everything through me, like I said, because Robin has a full-time job, and consulting is my full-time job. So if you have questions about working with us, you can email me at, and I can talk to you about both opportunities. I just recently was working with a library in Virginia about something else that I’m gonna go do in March, and I sent them to Angela at NoveList to get more information as well. So you come through me, I share all of those with Robin, and we can get back to you about what we think fits your needs best. 

Everything goes through RA For All,, and there is a page for Actively Anti-racist Service to Leisure Readers with more information, including the rates to have us come independently to your library. Sometimes I just come, it costs also a little bit less, still more than the NoveList course, but a little bit less because Robin can’t make more than one a month.

Steve Thomas: Robin and Becky, thank you so much for coming on the show to talk about this very important topic, and I hope people engage with you in some way to learn more.

Robin Bradford: Thank you. 

Becky Spratford: Thank you, Steve.