Diversity in Libraries, Diversity on the Bookshelves by Alexa Hight

How can we claim that our libraries are diverse, if the books and other resources do not reflect said diversity? This month, in preparing for Banned Books Week for my library, I was perusing the American Library Association’s website for lists of challenged books from this year and found a list that I had not seen before: Books with Diverse Content. ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) found that “out of the 2015 Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books, nine of them contained diverse content” (2017).

The complete list of books challenged with diverse content contains 86 books that include content “by or about people of color, LGBT people and/or people with disabilities” (ALA, 2017). ALA additionally explains their definition of diversity, citing their own policy manual: “The American Library Association (ALA) promotes equal access to information for all persons and recognizes the ongoing need to increase awareness of and responsiveness to the diversity of the communities we serve. ALA recognizes the critical need for access to library and information resources, services, and technologies by all people, especially those who may experience language or literacy-related barriers; economic distress; cultural or social isolation; physical or attitudinal barriers; racism; discrimination on the basis of appearance, ethnicity, immigrant status, religious background, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression; or barriers to equal education, employment, and housing” (2017).

The OIF mentions the work of Malinda Lo, who stated that diverse content means “books by and about people of color, LGBT people, and/or disabled people.” (2014). In her article, Lo breaks down the demographics of books banned because of diverse content, and books banned or challenged written by diverse authors. It may seem appalling to many readers that the books that are getting challenged are arguably the books we should be reading the most, in order to become a more just and equitable society.
What can we, as librarians, do? Apart from ALA, there are organizations, authors, and librarians doing the work towards diversifying library materials. We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) has a mission to put more books that feature diverse characters into the hands of children; they envision a world where all children can see themselves in the books that they read. As a grassroots organization, WNDB is made up of children’s book lovers that advocate essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people, and as such, all people (2017). We Need Diverse Books not only advocating for libraries and schools to hold and teach books of diverse content, but they go to the root of the issue by advocating for publishers to produce literature written by and containing diversity. Getting children to read books with diverse content is one thing, with the traditions of Dr. Seuss books and fairy tales, not to mention the fact that the majority of banned books have diverse content, so getting parents to allow their children to read and enjoy diverse books will be a challenge. Recently, a librarian rejected First Lady Melania Trump’s gift of Dr. Seuss books, citing not only issues with the administration, but the racist content of the books themselves (Chason, 2017). Not only do we have to advocate for books with more diversity, but we must question so-called “childhood classics.” Now, any librarian can comment on the reverse effect of refusing books for containing racist, or other non-PC content. If we advocate for Intellectual Freedom, should we advocate for all points of view?

Last spring, I attended the conference held by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). One of the keynote speakers was Roxane Gay, a feminist and African American author. Gay had recently pulled her book from the publishing house Simon and Schuster over the fact that the publishing house had given the controversial figure Milo Yiannopoulus an advance (Jamieson, 2017). During the Question and Answer portion of the keynote, Martin Garner, co-chair of ALA’s Task Force for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, asked Gay what her advice was around the issue of libraries holding Yiannopoulus’s book. As a non-librarian, her response was simple: don’t buy it. As a librarian-in-training, I struggled with this idea. If librarians are supposed to promote equal access to information for all persons, does that include the writings of people like Yiannopoulus? If we want diverse content, can that include content that may be considered sexist, racist, homophobic, etc.?
Continuing the idea of access, at the university where I work, the center for culture, identity, and social justice (or cultural center for short) has its own library branch. The collection reflects the university’s commitment to social justice. The separate branch exists in order to further the community’s understanding of systems of oppression and privilege. The collection offers a diverse array of reading materials and films on subjects including race, class, sexual orientation, and ethnicity, written by diverse authors. The aim of the collection is to shift the normative story by centering the voices and perspectives that are often marginalized in society. This library is amazing in theory; however, issues have come up from library staff and students. For example, the cultural center is not staffed the same number of hours as the main library. As such, the books are kept locked within the cultural center. If a student wants a book from the cultural center, the main library staff has to walk over and unlock the cases to get the item(s). This is frustrating because the idea of the separate collection was to have a space where students could look for books on sensitive subjects without having to draw attention to themselves or the item(s) they were looking for. Now, rather than having all the books in one library, they have been removed to a separate building that has limited hours. Additionally, while some of the items transferred to the cultural center were duplicates, a lot of the items that made the main library’s collection diverse is gone, creating disproportionate collections. Whereas the university had one diverse collection, now it has one extremely diverse collection and one that appears to lack diversity all together. Is creating a separate collection the answer? How do we make our libraries diverse and yet accessible, as well as welcoming environments for students and patrons from every demographic? Are we on the right track?


About Us. (2016, September 28). We Need Diverse Books. Retrieved September 29, 2017, from http://weneeddiversebooks.org/mission-statement/

ALA. (2017, July 18). Defining Diversity. Retrieved September 29, 2017, from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/diversity

ALA. (2017, July 18). Frequently Challenged Books. Retrieved September 29, 2017, from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks

Allen Ginsberg Library. (2017). Retrieved September 29, 2017, from http://www.naropa.edu/academics/ginsberg-library/

Book Challenges Suppress Diversity. (2014, September 18). Retrieved September 29, 2017, from http://www.diversityinya.com/2014/09/book-challenges-suppress-diversity/

Chason, R. (2017, September 28). ‘Racist propaganda’: Librarian rejects Melania Trump’s gift of Dr. Seuss books. Retrieved September 29, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/education/wp/2017/09/28/racist-propaganda- librarian-rejects-melania-trumps-gift-of-dr-seuss-books/?utm_term=.4160bf48fbee

Jamieson, A. (2017, January 25). Roxane Gay pulls book from Simon & Schuster over Milo Yiannopoulos deal. Retrieved September 29, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/25/roxane-gay-simon-schuster-milo- yiannopoulos

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