Diversity continues to be a huge topic in the media. Each year seems to spark new debates about everything from the racial makeup of award nominee lists, to the people who are allowed into different countries. The wave of popularity surrounding this subject impacts upon every sphere of life and culture, including books and libraries.
Campaigns have sprung up like #WeNeedDiverseBooks, aiming to highlight a perceived lack of diverse books—books that reflect a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, including class, race, culture, sexuality, ability, etc. or that are written by people from these backgrounds—currently being published. Many of these campaigns also discuss the ways in which people can get hold of diverse books through bookshops, schools, e-stores, and through libraries.
In the last few months I’ve spoken to over 100 UK school librarians for a research project. The project aimed to establish the value of diverse books for young people, the impact their presence in libraries can have, and the barriers librarians face when they want to stock these books.
The value of diverse books
There is plenty of academic evidence, both research-based and anecdotal, to support the importance of diverse books, but the best illustration I found came from an interview I conducted with a secondary school librarian, who told me how she introduced one student to a book about a young, black girl.
I remember two years ago…there was this girl, she came with an English teacher in language skills, and she had to read but she didn’t really want to. And I found this book and she loved it…I was so pleased because I’ve found a way of showing [her] that books could be fantastic, and sometimes teenagers need to identify, so why not start with these sorts of books?
This was echoed by other school librarians. One respondent talked about a student from an Irish background who liked the Irish authors in the library, and also mentioned that a girl whose brother has autism had thanked her for stocking books about disabled characters.
Of 106 people who responded to a survey I conducted, 77% said they always or often considered whether the books they selected for their library represented diverse groups. Many of those that only sometimes or rarely considered diversity when selecting books, cited barriers including lack of appropriate material, and limited time, and budget.
The impact of diverse books in libraries
As authoritative, trusted, respectable establishments, libraries are an important venue for featuring diverse books. When libraries include diverse books on their shelves and promote these books to their members, they are doing three very important things.
First, they are giving visibility to diverse books and the communities they represent, something that academics like Vygotsky agree can positively influence people’s self-identity or perceptions of others, especially while they’re young.
Second, as the American Library Association explains, they can give legitimacy by including substantial collections of material about different cultures, which helps to frame discussions, provides a basis for factually accurate debates, and demonstrates that diverse groups are complex and influential within society.
“Librarians still struggle to find the range, quality, and availability of books they want.”
Third, libraries make books accessible to all people, including those who might not normally be able to read, but would benefit from diverse literature. This expands the demographic that can be exposed to diverse books, and to the benefits of education and legitimacy mentioned above.
The barriers facing librarians
The idea of having a wide range of diverse books available in every library, especially in light of the positive impacts they can have, is a desirable one, but it is also easier said than done.
The first barrier is finding diverse books. One librarian showed me a list of diverse books that a student had requested, and said: “It was really hard. I have not got everything on this list from my supplier…They just didn’t have them.”
In the past, publishing in this area was very limited, and although this has improved recently with the popularity of authors like Juno Dawson and Malorie Blackman, librarians still struggle to find the range, quality, and availability of books they want. This hasn’t been helped by recent cases of diverse books failing to gain recognition in the prestigious prize lists that librarians often rely on when choosing stock.
Interference and complaints
The second barrier is the perception of these books by gatekeepers like parents and governing bodies. 11% of school librarians surveyed, reported complaints about books from staff members or parents. A popular response was to debate with complainers, and to refer them to selection policies. Having robust policies in place, especially when approved by school governors, provides a solid point of defense, and gives an official backing to any stance on selection.
Issues with interference are less easily solvable. A couple of librarians reported books being stolen from their libraries, or defaced. One pointed out that this “may mean that a student who does not want to openly borrow these books has found them useful, but it would be useful to be able to quantify this.” When viewed from this perspective, books disappearing may not be a wholly negative thing; however it does impact on budget, especially if titles need repeated replacement. None of the respondents had found a solution to this issue.
Budget and time
The third barrier facing librarians is constraint of time and budget, which only exacerbates the above problems. When books are difficult to find, librarians may not have time to hunt them down, and if books are defaced or stolen, money that could have been spent expanding the collection is spent replacing them. Some librarians also mentioned that lack of time to read books in their entirety led to incorrect categorization and complaints, and others simply wished they had more time to run events promoting the books.
These constraints aren’t specific to diverse books, but since these books are already underrepresented, and need more work and support, the constraints have a proportionally greater adverse effect. With other books and resources to devote time and money to, there’s a delicate balancing act between the many worthwhile things going on within library walls.
It’s difficult to know where to start tackling these various problems. There are websites and bits of advice scattered across the internet, and plenty of organisations run schemes and campaigns to get more diverse books into libraries, but that can only help so much.
The only thing that’s clear is that having diverse books in libraries helps to expand horizons, educate people, and promote more positive perceptions of diverse groups. CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) says: “Librarians have one of the best possible tools to educate and inform young people: books! But unless diverse books are published, purchased by library services and promoted to young people, this is not going to happen.”
This statement applies not just to young people, but to everyone. Books don’t exist in a vacuum; they have an impact on the world around them; they shape lives. The question is, how can the expanding sphere of diverse literature be brought into libraries, and how can it be ensured that everyone knows they’re there? How can they be effectively supported, promoted, and championed on a budget and under time-pressure? I don’t know the answer, I’m not sure anyone does. I think it’s something for everyone—publishers, librarians, and readers—to work out together.
Featured image Credit: “Library” by Stewart Butterfield. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.