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How to Gain Support for & Navigate Challenges to Diversifying Your Library’s Collection

Photo Credit: Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

In October, we launched our free, online Collection Analysis Tool (CAT) -- funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services -- to help librarians across the nation diversify their bookshelves. A recent survey done by School Library Journal indicates that the majority of librarians feel it is "very important" to have a racially and culturally diverse collection. But many, if not most, don’t know where to start.

Our CAT tool is a great place to start!

The tool makes it possible to get a snapshot of which racial/cultural groups are represented -- and more importantly, how those racial/cultural groups are represented -- identifying the strengths and gaps in any particular picture book collection. It also directly links to our Search Tool so that finding books to fill any identified gaps in a collection is a lot easier. Furthermore, to help evaluate the quality of a book, on each individual book page, we link to professional book reviews through the Bates library catalog, and to #ownvoices reviews when a book has been flagged as problematic, and we offer exclusive author/illustrator interviews when available. Finally, the report links to U.S. Census demographic data for each user's district.

However, even if a librarian has successfully...

  • determined WHO (which racial/cultural groups) is represented and HOW they are represented on their shelves;
  • found racially/culturally diverse books to ensure that the messages about Black and Indigenous people and People of Color (BIPOC) in a collection include an authentic, wide, and balanced range of books;
  • assessed the quality of those books;
  • and ensured that a collection is representative of the racial/cultural demographics of those served by a particular library/school district.

...none of that is at all useful if there is a lack of support for, or even active resistance to, diversifying your collection or using our Collection Analysis Tool (CAT).

Librarians serving any particular public or school district may -- and often do -- find themselves up against a number of institutional or systemic barriers, and/or a general lack of support for diversifying their collection. So, on the heels of launching our new CAT, we interviewed two experienced librarians to share tips for how to negotiate these particular challenges.

Our Experts

Andrea Jamison

Andrea Jamison is a Library Fellow and Lecturer at Valparaiso University. She holds an MA in Teaching from Concordia University and an MLIS from Dominican University School of Library and Information Science. She is currently completing doctoral work in Information Studies at Dominican. Her research examines the marginalization of African Americans in children's literature. Andrea has over 17 years of experience working in schools and libraries. She speaks internationally on issues related to creating inclusive learning spaces for youth and the interplay of race, power, and privilege in children's books. She is a library ambassador for Lee & Low Books, the vice-chair and chair-elect of the American Library Association's (ALA) Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Roundtable, an ALA councilor, racial healing facilitator, and member of ALA's Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services' (ODLOS) Advisory Committee.

Luis Chavez-Brumell

Luis Chavez-Brumell serves as an Advisory Council member for the Diverse BookFinder. He is proud to work in his hometown, where he manages the Courtland S. Wilson Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, which serves as a resource for a diverse neighborhood. He has also previously managed the NHFPL's Young Minds and Family Learning Department. He is passionate in the belief that stories can be used to increase our understanding of the world. This belief has led him to some great opportunities ranging from documentary film work, AmeriCorps program management, and public libraries.

What are some of the challenges to diversifying your collection you have faced in the past?

Andrea J.: I've encountered situations where libraries did not have sustained funding for maintaining diverse collections. In some cases, I have managed small budgets that were earmarked specifically for multicultural books. However, as diversity is often viewed as something separate and apart from the standard collection, these budgets often emerged from temporary initiatives. Once funds had been exhausted, ongoing support wasn't prioritized until another initiative emerged. This trend was especially challenging at libraries where policies would drive acquisition decisions, but fail to include diversity as a focus. In such cases, I found myself pressured to order recommended books from specific journals or book awards that did not offer much inclusion.

Luis: Sometimes there is lack of available content via our usual vendor, which requires us to look to other sources.

How have you navigated these challenges?

Andrea J.: At one school, I applied for and received a grant from the Laura Bush Foundation for American Libraries. Suffice it to say, I became proficient at writing grants and soliciting donor support.

Luis: Another way we have addressed the lack of available content is to support local authors who create diverse books by buying the books for our collection and hosting book talks.

Have you ever received support or alternatively, faced active resistance from directors, supervisors, or those in administrative positions to do this work?

Andrea J.: I have had a significant number of instances where I received noncommittal support. I've had administrators cosign efforts I made towards increasing diversity in collections but not put it in writing. I've engaged in countless dialogues where administrators entertained and empathized with my concerns but were not moved into action. Subsequently, I learned to be very strategic about how I solicited support. Instead of just voicing a need, I would also propose a plan of action to address that need or concern. My proposal would always include my request for everything, but then I would have a secondary suggestion on standby that would offer ways to work towards the bigger goal incrementally.

Luis: I have been lucky in that I have not faced resistance, as my supervisors have been supportive. Also, I am in a privileged position as a supervisor who can work to ensure a diverse collection. It also helps that I work for an organization that tries to put the community first and is mindful of diverse communities.

Do you have different tips for addressing a lack of support vs. active resistance?

Andrea J.: Lack of support, in my opinion, is easier to address than active resistance. With a lack of support, you can seek external partnerships or outside assistance to fill resource deficits. The ALA's Programming Librarian is an excellent website for ideas and tips on how to build alliances and implement services that involve the wider community. When it comes to active resistance, a librarian will need to engage in a little more advocacy work to build alliances as a first step. When active resistance is present, issues of fear and trust will need to be addressed before the pushing of any agendas. In this case, I recommend that librarians spend a little more time cultivating relationships through mutually respectful dialogues that seek first to understand the position of others. Librarians will also need to view resistance as an opportunity for growth, one that forces us to re-evaluate our own position in contrast to opposing viewpoints. If issues of class or race fuel the resistance, then I'd highly recommend seeking the help of someone trained in fostering positive inter/intra-cultural relationships.

Luis: Always communicate the value of the work in a holistic sense. Youth Services are about preparing youth for the world. If you are not providing them with diverse perspectives you are not doing your job. As demographics change across the country and the world, which happens to coincide with persistent global problems, it is more important than ever to have work which reaffirms each other’s humanity in order to live and work together.

What resources exist for librarians invested in equity, diversity & inclusion (EDI) in their collection, and more broadly in their work as advocates?

Andrea J.: The Diverse BookFinder’s Collection Analysis Tool (CAT) is a much-needed resource for librarians interested in a multidimensional evaluation of their collection that will drive meaningful conversations about the quality of diverse books on library shelves. Also, I would defer to professional organizations that are vested in diversity work within libraries. The American Library Association (ALA) has many different roundtables and divisions that address EDI at various levels. The Ethnic and Multicultural Exchange Roundtable is a great place to start if you are seeking resources, networking, or advocacy support that will further commitments to inclusion. Lee & Low Books, the Junior Library Guild, and Candlewick Press are also great places to begin looking for diverse narratives for youth.

Luis: I would recommend ALA and state library affinity/diversity groups as a resource. The community where you live/work is another resource. The specific populations you wish to highlight in the collection are a resource, even if they are not necessarily reflected in your immediate surroundings. It is worthwhile to reach out. I would say the most important thing is to engage with your colleagues and respective communities and communicate why EDI is important to you from a collection/services standpoint. Too often things are seen as theoretical vs. practical. It is a way to create buy-in and support if you let those closest to you know why you value EDI.

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