Developing a Library That’s REALLY For Everyone

COVID19 Pandemic has wrecked havoc across all aspects of human life over the past year. It has also acted as a spotlight and highlight on many of the social injustices that have simmered (or boiled) for years within our communities and society. Within education, the challenges and trauma associated with this pandemic has caused a worsening of many of the equity gaps that we have been struggling with for decades. This, combined with the historic Black Lives Matter movements that saw renewed media coverage this past June in response to the murder of George Floyd, has prompted many librarians to reconsider and to reflect on what we can do to bring an equity focus to our library programs and collections.

I am one of these librarians. I graduated with the MSLIS in 2015, so was fortunate that at the time I went through the program it was at least starting to add discussions about diversity and equity and representation. So when I started at my job in 2016, I did have some idea of the importance of developing diverse collections and of keeping a focus on equity and representation. There was, and always will be, plenty more to learn and plenty of room to continue to improve, of course. And I hope that I am managing to try to continue to learn and continue to improve with each year that goes by.

But even with that, last year I realized that the pace at which I had been trundling along with moving the library programs and collections towards better representation was not happening at all fast enough. How did I come to this realization?

I listened to my students.

In June, our students became both frustrated and empowered to the extent that they formed together and communicated their disappointment very clearly. They communicated to us their disappointment, their sorrow, and indeed their rage that this system we built for them was in fact actively harming and hindering them. They demanded reform. They demanded that we do better. They shouted.

And I heard them. And I listened. And I determined that I would need to push my learning into overdrive, and to take meaningful action.

So I upped my reading, my listening, my learning, my curiosity, my PD.

And I started to audit my library. But not just the books. The library as a whole needed to be evaluated, and much had to change. In this blog post I’ll share some of the things I discovered we can (and must) look out for and change in our libraries to ensure the space, collection, and programs are representative of diverse voices and experiences. There’s always room for improvement, after all.


The Books (physical, ebooks, and audiobooks)

Ok let’s get the obvious (I hope its obvious!) one out of the way first. One of the important aspects of the library to evaluate for representation & diversity is the book collections. It is important to note that you want to work to ensure that the collections are representative as a whole but ALSO that smaller sections are also balanced with diverse voice representation. For example if you audit your collection and find that 20% of the books feature Black main characters, that’s a good sign! But it is important to make sure all that rep isn’t in one place, or of just one specific experience. So if all of your books featuring Black main characters are found almost solely within the “realistic fiction” genre, that’s less good because that means your fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, graphic novel, etc sections aren’t as representative of Black main characters. And if most of those books feature Black main characters experiencing trauma, oppression, or adversity, that too is not a good sign. We need to have balance of representation across genres, ages, genders, gender identities, LGBTQIA+ identities, body types, socioeconomic status, etc. And there has to be balance in having books that feature BIPOC characters where they aren’t always only facing trauma, but also experiencing joy. Or battling dragons. Or saving humanity from Dystopian regimes. Or solving mysteries. Or defeating ghosts and monsters.

And this representation needs to be occurring in all the collections, not just physical fiction books, or just realistic fiction, etc. E-book collections, audiobook collections, graphic novels, nonfiction, magazines, etc etc etc. This is a large scale kind of thing. Its a big, important, time consuming thing. And we have to be doing it. Constantly. Aggressively. Purposefully. And with unwavering intent.

When we say that we are working to develop “diverse” library collections, we have to be “ALL IN” on it. It has to be a priority. Yes, we may have to make room by sidelining other tasks that also feel important. Other tasks might not get done. We have to be willing to let go of some of the other tasks we’ve been managing so we can make room for this. Its important.

I’ve wrote a bunch of blog posts about how to do a diversity audit on your collection, and I’m quite sure I’ll be writing more soon, because its a priority goal for me, but in the meantime you might like to read more about my efforts with this post.

P.S. It is not enough to just be adding books with diverse representations. You have to be adding books with GOOD REPRESENTATION. Not all representation is good representation. It takes a lot of research and it takes listening to readers and reviewers to tell the difference. And it means LISTENING TO PEOPLE OF COLOR AND LGBTQIA+ PEOPLE WHEN THEY TELL US THAT CERTAIN BOOKS ARE BAD REPRESENTATION AND ARE CAUSING THEM HARM. And it means weeding those books. Even if you like them. Even if you “don’t get it.” Even if it makes you mad. Or sad. Or feel like something you like is being “canceled.”

There is no room for nostalgia in collection development. If its causing harm, why is it on the shelf?

Ditching Dewey (Or At Least Adapting It)

Ok I’m sure that last section fired some people up so let’s continue with the hard hitting takes, let’s talk about Dewey. If we are serious about developing and providing both a library collection and library experience that is equitable, anti-racist, and inclusive of diverse voice rep, then we cannot ignore the issues with the Dewey Decimal System. I’ve written two whole blog posts that go into it in far more detail, so I’m not going to recap everything here. But suffice it to say that if you do your research you cannot fail to accept that Dewey Decimal System is inherently problematic from an equity and antiracist (and anti-homophobic, and anti-misogynic, etc etc) lens. Invented in the 1800’s by a man who is a confirmed serial sexual harasser (among other things), this system is full of flaws that make it problematic at best, and despicable at worst, for the modern library’s needs and purposes. Structured in ways that support and further views that are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, colonizer-centric, christian-centric, and euro-centric (among other things) this system should be a cause of concern for all of us. When I inherited my HS library, Dewey had books about LGBTQIA+ rights and identities in the 360s. Next to pornography and criminal acts. Because Dewey categorized those topics under “sexual deviancy.” Dewey puts the religious faith system of Wicca outside the Religions section altogether, denying it equal status with other world religions and faiths. Dewey allocates 200s through 289 for christianity topics and squeezes the rest of humanity’s religions into the 290s. I could go on and on.

But I won’t because this is not the time or place for my Dewey Rant. 🙂 But I do encourage you to reflect on these issues and spend time exploring your nonfiction section. Look at what books are shelved near each other. And ask yourself if any of the groupings seem off, or wrong, or harmful to you. And if they do, I encourage you to consider implementing some form of Ditching Dewey, or Adapting Dewey to remove those harmful correlations. I promise that your students notice things like this. Our LGBTQIA+ students notice if books about them are mixed in with books about crime, social “deviance,” and pornography. Many people counter with the belief that by abandoning or changing Dewey we render our students unable to take the skills of finding books learned in our libraries and apply them to other libraries (public and academic). But I counter back by saying that as long as I teach them to use an OPAC in conjunction with signage, they can apply those skills in ANY library, regardless of which shelving system is being used. There is a reason no one gets upset that grocery stores all organize their food in different ways. With good signage and logical groupings, people will figure it out. Ensuring that I am doing what I can to remove systems that perpetuate harmful ideologies from the library has to be my main priority.

The Signage & Artwork

This is one that I feel gets often overlooked, I know I didn’t start to think about my signage and artwork from a diversity, inclusion, and representation lens until recently. If you are featuring artwork or decor in the library, are the people featured in the art representative of diverse body types, physical ability, races, religions, genders, gender identities, and are they challenging traditional gender norms and stereotypes? Its important to ensure that if we are using signage, artwork, or clipart that features human characters, that those characters are representative of the diversity of our global population. And it is very important that they feature GOOD REPRESENTATION and NOT STEREOTYPES. Whether its the signage, posters, artwork, handouts, bookmarks, or whatever, this is something that is important to audit within your libraries. And if there is room for improvement (hint: there’s always room for improvement) maybe its time to make some changes. This goes for both physical artwork/signage AND digital. So also consider evaluating any imagery you use in the digital realm such as in bitmoji libraries, graphic buttons, digital fliers, video thumbnails, etc.

This is something I did this year, after realizing that the imagery in my library was not very representative or inclusive. I used canva.com to design all brand-new signage for the tops of my bookcases, and new shelf markers to use in the nonfiction book stacks. It was a challenge to interrogate my own biases and to actively attempt to design signage that challenges and avoids stereotypes or biases. Here is a gallery showing some of the signs I designed.

Displays & Voices Highlighted

This goes hand in hand with the above suggestion, but it is important to ensure that your displays and bulletin boards also are full of good representation. Every display. Every bulletin board. Ever time. And that our displays and bulletin boards don’t only feature people of color or LGBTQIA+ people during their things like Black History Month, Pride Month, Indigenous People’s Day, etc. We need to make sure that every display and every bulletin board is full of diverse representation. On a continuous and ongoing manner.

One more aspect of this to consider is when you feature famous quotes on your social media, on bookmarks, on displays, etc. Its important to audit the quotes (or poems, song lyrics, etc etc) you are using to make sure that they are correctly attributed and that you are not only choosing quotes from a homogenous group. If the only Black person who you share quotes from is Martin Luther King, and all the rest are pretty much from white people, it might be a good opportunity to start expanding your repertoire. Following diverse groups and people on social media is one great way to find new material to highlight. For example I just started following the Audre Lorde Project on Instagram and I’ve been getting so many new resources to share with my students from this Insta.

The Book Lists

Another thing that is important to be auditing and diversifying constantly and in an ongoing manner are your booklists. I mean everything from summer reading, books for book-talking, books shared on social media, resource lists, “what to read next” posters, etc etc etc. Any time you compile any kind of list of grouping of books to spotlight, recommend, or reference, for any reason, you should be auditing that list to ensure it is full of diverse representations.

It is not enough to just have books featuring diverse characters and authors on the shelves. We also have to be including these books in all aspects and spheres of our influence.

You can also help your school’s other departments with this once you’ve gotten into good habits of doing this in the library program. For instance, whenever our ELA teachers compile a list of books (for summer reading or as choice books for lit circles, etc) I have gotten into the habit of doing quick audits on those lists. If the lists are not diverse enough, I send the ELA team a list of suggested books to add.

Your Personal Reading List (Recommendations & Readers Advisory)

This ties into the above suggestion but it should be specified that its also important to make sure that you, as a librarian, are also prioritizing the reading of books featuring diverse characters and written a diverse selection of authors. We have to walk the walk if we are going to talk the talk. If we are diversifying our own reading lists this helps us to provide recommendations and readers advisory of these books to our students. We don’t want to have all of these wonderful books with diverse rep sitting on the shelves…. and staying on the shelves. We need to be book-talking them, recommending them, and suggesting them to kids during readers advisory. The best way to help us do that is to make sure we are actually reading the books too.

P.S. Books featuring characters of color should not only be recommended to students of color. Books featuring characters who identify as LGBTQIA+ should not only be recommended to students who identify as LGBTQIA+. Recommend the books that best meet the student’s stated interest or needs.

Another good idea is to model the fact that we read widely and that our reading log is diverse. That we don’t only read books featuring characters that look like us or identify like us. I like to keep a “Miss Bogan’s Bookshelf” posted on the doors to the library which shows students which books I’ve read during the year. I also keep track on goodreads and then link the goodreads “recently read” shelf to the library website and in my email signature. For an example, here is a pic of my email signature. I can’t find any pics of the graphics I put on my library doors (grr).

Screengrab of the goodreads bookshelf I have embedded on the library website’s homepage
Screengrab of the signature section of my emails

Don’t Label

By the way, while you are putting in all of this work to ensure your library collections and programs are representative and inclusive, make sure you are not taking this as an opportunity to label books with things that indicate the race, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexuality of the characters or authors. Books should not be outfitted with physical labels stating things like LGBT, Multicultural, DiverseReads, etc etc. Or any labels similar to that. Just because vendors are selling labels such as those does not give us license to use labels such as those. We must purchase, recommend, and highlight books featuring diverse representation without “othering” those books or indicating that they are somehow different than books featuring white, straight, cis, neurotypical, physically abled characters. By labeling them we would be indicating that white, straight, cis, neurotypical, physically abled characters are the “norm” which would not require a label and that everything else would be “abnormal” which would be indicated by the labels.

Curriculum

Finally you may also want to take this time to specifically audit your curriculum to ensure it is featuring diverse experiences and representation. Do you do a Caldecott unit every year? Are you discussing with students how all the winners up until certain time periods were written by white people? Do you feature certain authors for entire units every year? If so are you featuring a diverse array of authors, or are they all white or all male? Do you have recent authors featured in these units or were they all publishing before your students were born?

The Theme

Does your library have a theme? Does that theme cause you to focus almost exclusively on a specific author or book (cough, Harty Potter, cough)? Do you think this theme is preventing you from highlighting or celebrating or acknowledging other authors or books with your students? Are you taking the opportunity with your students to discuss and critique any issues associated with that theme’s author or book so as to ensure students learn how to look at the things they like through a critical lens? Is there a more broad-reaching and inclusive theme that might better serve your students, even if its not something you personally absolutely love/adore/relate to? Could it be time to make a change?

The Programs

This is a good time to take a hard look at your programming. Is your programming demonstrating inclusion and representation? Do you have author visits and if so are the authors all white? Or all male? Or all cis? Or all straight? What could you do to change that homogeneity? Do you have other speakers or guests come in to run programs or events? Are they all white? Or all male? Or all cis? Or all straight? What could you do to change that?

The Celebrations

Finally, you might elect to take a look at the celebrations you are recognizing or hosting or spotlighting in the library. Are you celebrating certain authors? Which ones and why those? Are you celebrating certain religious events in the library? If so, which ones and why those? Are you celebrating a wide range of religions’ celebrations and if so, do you know enough about those religious celebrations to celebrate them responsibly and have them be well and authentically represented? Which ones, and why those? Which ones aren’t you celebrating, and why aren’t those being celebrated?

Last year, after taking the time to listen and learn more about the problems inherent in celebrating religious holidays in a public school library, I made the decision to keep our HS library secular for now on. It was a little sad (personally) to let go of the “book tree” tradition I had been doing in the library for 3 years. I had been doing a book Menorah and book Kenorah too, but I had to admit to myself that those were no more than token actions taken in an effort on my part to put up a showing of inclusion. After much reflection and discussion with my students and with other educators I had to admit that the library is comfortable for everyone when it remains secular. And my main priority is NOT to celebrate certain religions with my students. My priority is that the library remain comfortable, welcoming, and use-able to all my students at all times. So when viewed from that lens, its actually a really easy decision to make.

Concluding For Now

These are just some of the different aspects of the library’s collection, program, and environment that I’ve been working on auditing and evaluating for diversity representation and inclusion over the last year or two. Reflecting on these things and striving to continue to learn more has meant I’ve had to make a lot of changes to the way things “have always been.” And not all of those changes are easy, or comfortable for me. But they are necessary.

I hope you’ll share any insights or experiences you have on what it takes to move libraries in the right direction for diversity and inclusion and representation. I know I still have so much to learn.

2 comments

  1. Hi Kelsey,
    I wanted to let you know that I was so impressed with the amount of reflection you did in order to develop your inclusive library. I am currently studying to be a teacher-librarian in Vancouver, Canada. I have to say that you have really opened my eyes to what it truly means to have an inclusive library that makes everyone feel safe and accepted. Your advice on taking a close look at how diverse the collections in our libraries really are, is very insightful. I really connected with “the idea of the entire collection being diverse as a whole but ALSO that smaller sections are also balanced with diverse voice representation”. I think that is something that I have never thought about and I think it’s not only brilliant, it’s spot on. I have only thought about including diversity in general.

    I also agree that it’s important to make sure that the representation is not just in one place or based on a specific type of experience. I have often felt like this when it comes to collections that deal with Indigenous voices. In my province of British Columbia, our curriculum now includes a strong emphasis on First Nations texts and oral traditions. I sometimes wish that we could explore other topics besides the horrific cultural atrocities that occurred in the past. It is of great importance to discuss, read and explore this topic, but I also want to move past this to include other experiences or stories that don’t necessarily reflect this. I liked when you said that “there has to be balance in having books that feature BIPOC characters where they aren’t always only facing trauma, but also experiencing joy. Or battling dragons. Or saving humanity from Dystopian regimes. Or solving mysteries. Or defeating ghosts and monsters”. I feel the same way about First Nation texts.

    The only thought I had though was whether this variety has been a struggle to find. Is your school budget considerable to allow you to buy books, magazines etc… to include in your library? The library budget is quite small where I am from, so I can see that this would pose some challenges. Also, are there texts written by diverse authors for such varied categories? What kind of challenges are you experiencing with this shift?
    The idea of labelling has also bothered me in the past, especially when I see it labelled as “First Nations” or “Multicultural” etc… Some libraries in my district do have those stickers and I don’t really agree with having them for the same reason you pointed out.

    The idea that it’s not enough just to read these diverse authors, but to also recommend and talk them up in book talks etc.. is so important since part of a TLs job is to expose students to different world views and experiences in order to be better global citizens.

    As I am just beginning to learn about the teacher-librarian job, I was also interested to read about your thoughts on the Dewey Decimal System. This was also thought-provoking, and I had no idea that some subjects have been favoured over others due to all the reasons you stated.
    Thank you for introducing me to some very insightful, thoughtful ideas in how we can make libraries truly inclusive.

    With much appreciation,
    Laurence Bolton

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    • Hi Laurence, I’m sorry for the delayed response, somehow your comment didnt show up for me until now. I’m so glad my post resonated with you, I completely agree with you that is frustrating and limiting to see such a focus be placed on adversity or trauma fiction when it comes to diverse representations…. its utterly critical that our BIPOC and Queer readers can experience joyful representation and are not only seeing themselves represented in ways that dehumanize or traumatize. It is definitely a struggle to find these books, ESPECIALLY with representation of BIPOC boy main characters. I’m struggling to find fantasy, sci-fi, and mystery books in particular with good BIPOC, especially BIPOC boy, representation. I’m fortunate to have the budget for adding new books each year, but even with that its hard because the publishing industry seems to simply NOT be publishing a lot of the kinds of stories I need to add to my collection. When it comes to labelling my opinion is that we should not physically label the books to indicate character of author identity information. I don’t like the idea of “multicultural” stickers or even “diverse” stickers because it seems to me that these stickers act to “other” the books, or to reinforce the idea, visually, that white is the default. Nor do I think these books should be shelved together separate from the main collection (I’ve actually seen librarians do this). I think instead librarians should be making the collection diverse and ensuring that every display, list, etc is full of diverse representation. I do think creating virtual tags are good though so that ppl searching the online catalog are able to easily find such books when specifically looking.

      Thank you for reading my blog and for your thoughtful comments!

      Like

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