Diversity in libraries

I subscribed to the recent ALA Reference and User Services CODES (collection development and evaluation section) conversation on diversity. I think of myself as someone who is concerned about all kinds of equality, and is aware of my privilege as a white middle class professional. Certainly I’ve championed libraries as egalitarian outposts in an increasingly divided society. I get that “we need diverse books.” And that even my very white state has become much more diverse in the last ten years.

What I hadn’t thought about is the bias in the way I’m marketed to, as a collection development librarian. Yes, I primarily make my purchasing decisions based on reviews in professional journals, but those journals are written and edited by, and feature books published by, people who are mostly very much like me, demographically. Some of the participants in the conversation online noted that it’s hard to even find reviews of books by diverse authors in genre fiction, like sci-fi or mysteries.

Andrea Gough of Seattle Public Library wondered if librarians are even biased in the way we think about diversity. She noted, “perhaps because we’re a largely white field, or because our culture normalizes a white viewpoint as a ‘neutral’ viewpoint, when we talk about diversity it’s often presumed the direction is from white to POC.” In other words, the entire conversation about diversity starts with making libraries and their collections less white. But that oversimplifies diversity and overlooks the complexity of contemporary American society.

As I read I made a mental list of some of the non-racial diversity in the community I serve: homeless people, former inmates, addicts, people with less than the average amount of education for our area, immigrants, transgender people, gay or lesbian or bisexual people, various religious minorities, and a wide range of people who are differently abled, physically or mentally, just to name a few. Yes, it’s important to consider the whiteness of publishing, and of the library profession, but that doesn’t mean we should overlook the other types of diversity in our communities.

Another fascinating point in the conversation was that it’s too over-simplified, and frankly, biased, for collection developers to simply purchase more “diverse” materials. One person told a story of a new library branch in an African American neighborhood where the music buyer had purchased a wide selection of rap and hip-hop. One of the first questions at the desk was whether there were any opera CD’s. Someone else pointed out the reverse is true as well — people in more homogeneous communities assume library patrons won’t want to read books with protagonists of a different race, religion, ethnicity, or cultural background and yet that there is no evidence of that, and it’s often just plain untrue. Think of novels like Things Fall Apart or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime or The Kite Runner and of nonfiction such as Between the World and Me or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. All enjoyed a wide audience.

One of the best things about books, of course, is that they take us into lives we’ll never live. And with that in mind, one of the contributors pointed out that the goal of a good library collection is not only to meet the existing needs of the library’s patrons but also to present materials that will affirm our common humanity and expand patrons’ experience beyond the walls of the library or the boundaries of a town.

This issue is obviously too vast to be covered in a blog post, but I intend to keep considering diversity and the ways my own “frames” need to be expanded or even better, abandoned, in order to best serve every person who comes through the library’s doors.







Giving thanks for perspective

In a recent New York Times column, Alan Draper suggests that Europeans might have better luck with multiculturalism if they looked to New York’s alternate side parking suspension calendar as a model of diversity. For non-city folks, that’s a schedule of holidays on which New Yorkers don’t have to move their cars for street-sweepers.

I was fascinated by this diverse list of holidays. And by Draper’s point: the municipal government’s inclusion of such a variety of celebrations from many faiths helps to “normalize the idea of diversity.”   But not all days are equal. On widely observed holidays, city offices are closed. Successful multiculturalism, Draper argues, must embrace both “what divides and binds a community together.”

With Thanksgiving approaching, I’m grateful for this perspective, especially when the news is full of what divides us. In the spirit of examining difference and commonality, it’s a good time to consider Native American views of the holiday. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian has an excellent resource guide called “American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving.”

Draper’s column and my son’s recent descriptions of Guy Fawkes Night in northern England also inspired me to find out more about other cultures’ holidays. Two reference stand-bys, CultureGrams and InfoPlease, cover world holidays. The BBC has a well organized summary of world religions.

In Anna Gavalda’s novel French Leave, the narrator describes an uncomfortable moment when her host at an extended family dinner begins to rant about minorities and people on public assistance and no one speaks up to counter him. We’ve probably all been in a similar situation, or may be over the holidays. Draper’s column helps me see that if someone refers to a subset of people as “they” or “them” in a way that divides, gently pointing out what we share, such as the everyday headaches of parking or the joys of having a day off, might provide perspective.