Blogger Intellectual Freedom Committee

Representation: What Can Librarians Do?

To quote from my colleague Betsy Brainerd, an Early Literacy Librarian for the Arapahoe Libraries in Centennial, Colorado, and a fellow member of the ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC), in her ALSC IFC blog post from October 2016:

“And, given that cultural diversity encompasses more than race and ethnicity, it is likely that some types of diverse materials, such as those concerning gender identity, may have a harder time making it onto library shelves under the best of circumstances.”

“According to Our Voices, independent and self-published authors are producing quality, diverse materials, but, due to public and school libraries’ heavy reliance on established publishing companies, their work goes unnoticed.”

Photo courtesy of Katey on flickr
Photo courtesy of Katey on flickr

True diversity of collections include an important goal: to represent the local community in which the library resides. By represent, I mean represent the wishes and needs of the community, as well as the various populations of the community – I do want to be quick to add that collections should also represent much that is NOT within the wishes, needs, and statistical populations of that local community as well, but that is a related topic for another time.

In order to best accomplish this local representation, libraries cannot rely on a single vendor, no matter how well that vendor does its job. True diversity demands more vendors – as many as are practical. Given the current state of book publishing (as a model for other media), it is now true that the largest publishers and the self-publishing part of the market have the largest shares and are the fastest growing. Self-publishing is a problem, since many large vendors do not handle these materials, plus they are not reviewed as often. But they do represent a part of the community and should be a part of our collections. Concerning the smaller and independent publishers and presses: their share is currently dropping, but they need representation as well.   Self-publishing and the Big Five are crowding out everyone else: according to Nielsen’s data, from Q1 2014 to Q1 2015, self-published books have grown from 14% to 18% of the overall market. In that same period the Big Five’s share has grown from 28% to 37%. Meanwhile, the rest of the market — all the large, medium, and tiny publishers — have seen their share decrease from 58% to 45%.”

To support large, medium, and tiny publishers helps libraries, as well, by allowing them to represent the diversity of our communities, what can librarians do about these access and representation problems? I suggest a number of things, and I welcome others to add to this list:

  • Order through online portals that often carry a wider variety of materials than the usual library distributors. Since some government entities would rather not use Amazon, other options include Powell’s Books and AbeBooks. These portals offer many large, medium, and tiny publishers and independent press publications as well as some self-published materials and used and rare materials. And Powell’s, being a very large bookstore, has access to both new and used materials. Of course, there are problems with materials that have fewer reviews, but reviews are not always the last or only word. And, of course, ordering used materials can be problematic, but sometimes ordering used materials is worth the risk in order to offer true diversity in the collection.
  • Another useful ally for diversity is a local bookstore, if one is available. They can most
    Photo courtesy of spezz on flickr
    Photo courtesy of spezz on flickr

    easily help with purchasing small press publications, publications from local organizations and self-published materials, especially when local. And they can serve as the distributor or vendor that many governmental agencies require as the way materials can come into our collections. The financial relationship helps the library and supports the independent bookstore community as well. As a second choice, a larger bookseller may be willing and able to fill this need, even if it is not geographically local. It is worth asking.

  • And, lastly, generally speaking another important tool for diversity in collections is outreach and community connection: how else can one easily find out about new local publications and materials? Yes, by knowing your community and the people within it. Again, reading local newspapers and newsletters helps, both printed and online, but knowing people helps the most in this area.

In his updated article “10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing,”  Steven Piersanti, founder and president of San Francisco’s Berrett-Koehler Publishers, discusses the explosion of book publishing while the industry’s sales are stagnating. His Point #8, Most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities, is a reminder that relates to my comments on local representation:

“Everyone in the potential audiences for a book already knows of hundreds of interesting and useful books to read but has little time to read any. Therefore people are reading only books that their communities make important or even mandatory to read. There is no general audience for most nonfiction books, and chasing after such a mirage is usually far less effective than connecting with one’s communities.”

This is another reason that local representation requires a wide diversity of collection vendors and resources to assure a truly diverse collection.






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