Is your library interested to offer more programs that promote civic engagement? Your library can serve as a conversation starter and community bridge.  In this interview, you will hear from Priya Rathnam, Director at the Shrewsbury Public Library about the many ways that the Shrewsbury Public Library supports civic engagement and DEISJ (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice). Read on to hear from Priya.

How does the Shrewsbury Public Library serve as a conversation starter and community bridge for civic engagement?

Priya Rathnam: Librarians at the Shrewsbury Public Library have regularly planned programs, talks and presentations on topics of civic interest. In 2019, three programs were scheduled on topical issues and community members were invited to attend the programs, engage in dialogue and maybe, spread their knowledge to others.

  • The New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC) sent 3 journalists and a first amendment lawyer to lead a panel discussion on First Amendment and the Free Press. They discussed the role of the press, especially that of local journalists, how social media has changed the news landscape and the importance of safeguarding the first amendment. They responded to questions from a very engaged audience. You can view the recording of this program on the Shrewsbury Media Connection’s YouTube channel.
  • SpeakOUT Boston is an organization that sends volunteers to educate people on the history of the gay rights movement in MA, and help create safer spaces for LGBTQ+ people through their informative and interactive sessions. The volunteers who came to our library shared their personal stories and answered questions from the audience. You can also view the recording of this program.
  • Middle Eastern Lives Up Close was a 4-week program series comprising of viewing of documentary films followed by a discussion. The discussions were facilitated by an American first-generation Middle Easterner who has traveled through and lived in several countries in the Middle East. The documentary films are created by Unity Productions Foundation.

Please tell us about the upcoming series of virtual programs on anti-racism.

Priya Rathnam: A series of virtual presentations on topics of social justice have been scheduled for the months of October, November and December 2020. This series was sponsored by the Friends of the Library.

Carter Jackson
Kellie Carter-Jackson

On October 28th, Kellie Carter-Jackson, Professor of Humanities in the Department of Africana Studies at Wellesley College, presented on the topic, Rights and Wrongs: Black Women’s History and the Suffrage Movement.

Carl Robert Keyes
Carl Robert Keyes

On November 18th, Prof. Carl Keyes, Professor of History at Assumption University, presented on the topic Slavery Adverts 250 Project. The Slavery Adverts 250 Project identifies every advertisement mentioning enslaved people (for sale, wanted, runaways, captured, and so on) that appeared in every newspaper published in colonial America 250 years ago that day.  All advertisements were distributed via the project’s Twitter feed; they were also included in a daily digest that appears on the Adverts 250 Project.

Cinzia Pica Smith
Cinzia Pica-Smith

On December 9th, Dr. Cinzia Pica-Smith will present on the topic of Inter-racial friendships. Pica-Smith is the Associate Professor of Human Services and Rehabilitation Studies and is also the Director of the Women’s Studies Program at Assumption University. She will give a presentation on the importance of inter-racial friendships. After a 30-minute presentation, she will answer questions from the public. Register here to attend the event.

We’re very excited to share that the Shrewsbury Public Library Foundation will be sponsoring the first in a series of talks by distinguished authors. Professor Ibram X. Kendi will join us for a 45-minute virtual “In Conversation” followed by a 15-minute Q&A. Ibram X. Kendi is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University and the founding director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research. Kendi is the 2020-2021 Frances B. Cashin Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. He is the author of many books, including Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and three #1 New York Times bestsellers, How to Be an Antiracist; Stamped; Racism, Antiracism, and You, co-authored with Jason Reynolds; and Antiracist Baby, illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky.  For more information on this speaker please visit

Register here for the event. Registrants will receive an invite to the Zoom webinar. If you would like to have a question answered by Prof. Ibram X. Kendi at the conclusion of his talk, “The Difference Between Being ‘Not Racist’ and Antiracist,” please submit that question ahead of time via this form, and the question will be presented to Prof. Kendi by the moderator, time allowing.

Any advice about how to connect with local professors as guest speakers for library programs?

Priya: The Worcester University of Senior Education (WISE) is a premier lifelong learning institute sponsored by Assumption University and offers courses and other educational activities for self-defined “seniors.” The Shrewsbury library and WISE cross-promote each other’s programs and, as all programs are now virtual, it’s easier to promote programs to a wider audience. The Director of WISE connected me with other faculty members at Assumption University when I asked her for recommendations of speakers on topics such as racial justice, racial inequity in the U.S., and the history of the civil rights movement. Reaching out to faculty at local colleges and universities is worthwhile as they would also be interested in speaking at their local library. The advantage of hosting virtual programs is that the speaker doesn’t even have to be local – they can be in any part of the world!

How did the library get involved with the Town’s Task Force on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?

The Board of Selectmen established a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force that “comprised of an intentionally diverse cohort of Shrewsbury residents representing a cross section of the population.” The Board sought applications from community members and I decided to apply to be a member of the task force. As a resident of Shrewsbury and as the Library Director, I wanted to be part of a community discussion on issues of diversity. I also thought that I could contribute to the continued education of the community as the library offers access to diverse collections, and programs and services.

Other thoughts you would like to share?

Public libraries strongly believe in welcoming everyone to the library, ensuring equitable access to resources and engaging community members in topical conversations. I believe that librarians have a role to play in advocating for social justice, speaking up on behalf of minority rights and responding to issues that are debated at the local and national level.

Priya Rathnam
Priya Rathnam

Interview with Priya Rathnam, Director, Shrewsbury Public Library

Interviewed by Michelle Eberle, Consultant, Massachusetts Library System