Intellectual Freedom

Ensuring a Diverse Collection: Promoting Equity of Access and Free Expression

The library community recognizes that diverse authors and diverse content have been limited for too long. Recent national protests have moved concern for racial equity to the forefront: you see it in messages from ALA, in the marketing from publishers, and coworkers who are reexamining their collections. This lack of diversity means that a large percentage of the U.S. population has grown up reading books that do not include characters that resemble them or the lives they lead. But just as all children should see themselves reflected in a book,  they should also be able to step into great stories that allow them to experience how life is for others- other races, other genders, other ethnicities, to name just a few.

“Library workers have a professional and ethical responsibility to be proactively inclusive in collection development…”

“Diverse Collections: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights”, American Library Association, July 26, 2006.

Equity of access

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows a 34% increase in books by diverse authors between 2017 and 2018, but those books represent about 15% of the total number of children’s/YA books received at CCBC, in a country where more than 39% of the population is non-white, and where white children no longer make up a majority in their age group. There are an increasing number of diverse titles to choose from and we look forward to many more. [1]  Youth and YA departments and school libraries need to not only choose books with diverse content (and choose the best ones that give accurate portrayals), but help all children find them, experience them, learn through them. So how are we to make the best selection choices?

An essential component of information literacy comes from reading diverse material that portrays and explains the multicultural nature of the United States and the world. We do not select diverse material just so that children can find characters in books that resemble them, although that is very important. All children need to read stories about people whose lives are very different from their own, whether because of the historical setting or because the protagonist is part of a different cultural group. White children especially need to read such stories because the vast majority of children’s books portray the white experience. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) children have been reading that literature their entire lives because it is so predominant in collections. White children need to step outside their comfort zone by reading diverse material if we are to be a nation that recognizes the worth of all its members.

Selecting a diverse collection

As librarians, we can help to provide children with these opportunities for growth. So how do we choose diverse material? The best inclusive books give accurate portrayals. And that is how selectors should examine materials, by asking: does this material accurately portray this race and culture? Does it create realistic characters, and avoid stereotypes?

So how do we know what books accurately portray diverse lives? No matter what your race, you cannot claim to be an expert on another’s experience. We must all recognize our cultural biases. We must be humble and ask. Yes, one can potentially ask colleagues and friends of diverse backgrounds what stories accurately portray their cultural experiences, depending on individual relationships, but the burden of education cannot fall on already-marginalized people.

There is a wealth of resources that can help us develop our skills in recognizing culturally authentic work.  Diverse Book Finder is a good place to start. We can also look to publishing houses that specialize in diverse titles and authors: Lee & Low and Lantana. Selectors can consult these resources for reviews and information: The Brown Bookshelf, We Need Diverse Books, American Indians in Children’s Literature, and Reading While White. There are many recently created lists: Booklist Antiracism Titles, 50 Board Books Diverse Faces, and Black Lives Matter Graphic Novels.

When we provide materials that truthfully reflect the diversity of our nation and the world, we are advocating for intellectual freedom as defined by equity of access and free expression.  If we ignore or underrepresent a whole segment of publishing (diverse authors, diverse topics) we the librarians are censoring. This is especially important in rural communities that are largely white, where “this book won’t be popular with my patrons” is often used as an excuse to ignore imbalanced collections and avoid books that could be perceived as controversial. In those cases, the need to address collection gaps in the form of a lack of diverse materials is even more vital.  The recently revised Diverse Collections interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights can provide guidance and context.

Children’s librarians can play a part in addressing the United States’ social unrest and inequity. We choose story time books to present and promote books when patrons request our expertise. We ourselves need to read those materials and know our collection. Web Junction provides a useful discussion of building collections that promote racial equity : Racial Equity in the Library Part 2 We are marketers of literature and people value our opinions. We can make a difference in combating racism. We can embrace that transformation for this generation and help our country move into a future that celebrates all our citizens.

This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competency:  Knowledge, Curation, and Management of Materials.

Julia A. Nephew is a Children Services Librarian at Addison Public Library in Addison, Illinois and a member of the ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee. Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

[1] Data on books by and about people of color and from First/Native Nations published for children and teens compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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