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What Does a Diverse Collection Look Like?

Laura Beals D’Elia is the Library Teacher at the Armstrong Elementary School in Westborough, MA. She has been an elementary library teacher since 2002. She has a BA in English and Children’s Literature from Framingham State University and a MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has presented at various state and national conferences on such topics as 1:1 iPads in an elementary school library and technology program, digital storytelling, and guided inquiry. She presented an EdTalk on “Razing Readers'' at the MTA Summer Conference in 2013. She was also a co-organizer of Edcamp Boston for seven years, the Massachusetts School Library Association’s Professional Learning Committee Co-Chair for two years, and a recipient of the 2017 MSLA Service Award. She was honored to represent AASL at the Sharjah International Library Conference in the United Arab Emirates in the fall of 2019. Her most recent professional undertaking is as an Advisory Council member for the Diverse BookFinder.

In 2018, School Library Journal released the results of its diversity survey and confirmed that 81% of school librarians surveyed felt that it was “very important to have a book collection representing different points of view.” Since then, many school librarians have gone through the process of auditing their collections. Some used tools like the Diverse BookFinder’s Collection Analysis Tool (CAT) to analyze their picture books while some went through the arduous process of auditing their entire collection by hand. Now that they have the results of their audits, I am beginning to see my colleagues ask the tough question, “What does a diverse collection look like?”

photo by Laura Beals D’Elia

The Definition of Diverse

I would like to clarify that when we use the word “diverse,” we must use it to describe the collection and not individual titles. Oxford Languages defines “diverse” as “showing a great deal of variety;” therefore it is not accurate to describe a single item as diverse. It is incorrect when we say, “We should include this book in our collection because it is diverse.” What we mean to say is that that title includes characters and/or topics that fill a hole in our collections and will help it to become more diverse by way of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, family types, etc.

How Much Should Be Diverse?

A common question I see online is, “How much of my collection should be diverse?” School librarians are amazing educators and although I know this question is asked with the absolute best intention, I feel that the question is not the right question.

For instance, many responses to this question look like this: “If 13% of your student population is Black, then 13% of your collection should have Black characters.” This response assumes that a diverse collection should statistically match a school’s population. So, if the school population is not diverse then your collection never will be (and whose school population is truly diverse?) With this thinking, schools that have no Native American students will not need to include Native American titles? That’s not right. That thinking means that all of your non-Native American students are missing out on a window opportunity.

A diverse collection should be balanced in all areas of diversity regardless of student population.  The question we should be asking is, “How do I create a collection that is diverse and balanced?”

photo by Laura Beals D’Elia

If My Collection Were Only 100 Books

To further my point about a balanced collection, let’s look at the statistics from the review of my own picture book collection. I used the CAT, including only the titles from my “E” Everybody picture books neighborhood, which represents 1253 titles. To keep it simple, I did not include nonfiction picture books nor picture book biographies. Though there are many other entry points that we can analyze, I will look only at race/culture here. Again, to keep it simple.

Mirroring the “If the World Were Only 100 People” model and using the categories found in the CAT, here is what my picture book collection looks like if it were only 100 books:

Representation by Race/Culture# of titlesRepresentation by Race/Culture# of titles
White*50Nonhuman Characters*27
Black/African/African American8Latinx/Hispanic/Latin American2
Asian/Pacific Islander/Asian American4Middle Eastern/North African/Arab.2
Bi/Multiracial/Mixed Race1Multi-Racial Cast of Characters2
First/Native Nations/American Indian/Indigenous1Brown-Skinned and/or Race Unclear5

*The Collection Analysis Tool does not analyze titles with white or nonhuman characters so I used the percentages represented in the 2018 “Diversity in Children’s Books” by The Cooperative Children’s Book Center to fill in those gaps.

In this collection, a white child has a 50% chance of finding a mirror book and a 24% chance of finding a window book. A Black child has an 8% chance of finding a mirror book and a 66% chance of finding a window book. This is not a balanced collection and does not provide equal opportunities for my students.

Instead of focusing on matching your percentages with your student population (which changes from year to year), I recommend you find a balance based on the number of books in your collection. 

Imagine if my picture book collection looked like this:

Representation by Race/Culture# of titlesRepresentation by Race/Culture# of titles
White*10Nonhuman Characters*10
Black/African/African American10Latinx/Hispanic/Latin American10
Asian/Pacific Islander/Asian American10Middle Eastern/North African/Arab10
Bi/Multiracial/Mixed Race10Multi-Racial Cast of Characters10
First/Native Nations/American Indian/Indigenous10Brown-Skinned and/or Race Unclear10

The Importance of Mirrors AND Windows

We agree that providing opportunities for students to find mirrors and windows in our collections is important. What I am worrying about is that in this goal of making sure all of our BIPOC students can find mirrors in our collections, we are neglecting the just-as-important need for our white students to find windows. In a truly diverse collection, a collection that is balanced, it will not matter if the percentage of Black titles matches the percentage of Black students. What will matter is if one Black child has the same opportunity of finding a mirror book as one white child does.

Just as important, and I cannot stress this enough, is that our collections must provide our white students more opportunities of finding windows books than mirrors. If we truly agree that providing windows books for white students is one of the most effective ways to encourage empathy and develop unbiased attitudes, then having a collection whose majority of books include white characters (regardless of percentage of white students in your population) is not achieving that objective. 

So What Do I Do Now?

Here are my recommendations for your next steps towards achieving a diverse and balanced collection:

  1. Audit your collection: Instead of tackling your whole collection at once, start with one section. If you have a picture book collection, use the Diverse BookFinder’s CAT to generate your report. Then, you’ll have a better grasp on how to move forward with the rest of your collection.
  2. Look at the Who and the How: In addition to analyzing your collection for race, gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, etc. also consider using the Diverse BookFinder’s Categories to make sure that your collection represents various experiences. If you use the CAT, it will include these categories in your analysis. Not all of your books with Black/African American/African characters should be about slavery or civil rights. Remember Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s warning about The Danger of a Single Story and strive for diversity in the “who” as well as the “how.”
  3. Weed and Declutter: One of the fastest ways that you can increase the balance of your collection is to decrease the number of titles with white and nonhuman characters. Keep the books of merit, the popular titles, and the titles used by classroom teachers (while continuing to encourage them to include more representative titles in their lessons). Take a close look at how many of those titles are actually getting checked out on a regular basis and then weed them! When you declutter the collection you will make it easier for all of your students to find those mirror and window books while at the same time increasing the percentage of nonwhite titles.
  4. Purchasing Standards: I have to admit when I started this journey of creating a more diverse collection a few years back, I was very choosy about what I purchased. Dare I say even a bit snobbish. It was easy to be that way because there were so many titles with white characters from which to choose.  If a white character title didn’t receive raving accolades, it was not going into my collection.
    Unfortunately, I applied those same standards when purchasing non-white character titles and I now realize that that mindset created an obstacle towards building a diverse collection. When your choices are so few, you can’t apply the same standards.
    I still follow my acquisitions policy and make sure I am not purchasing poorly-reviewed or problematic titles but I have allowed myself to be okay with purchasing titles that are okay to pretty good. In other words, it is more important to put as many good books as I can into my students’ hands than to make sure that every book is great. Honestly, there are many white-character titles in our collections right now that are just okay according to our librarian standards, yet our students love them. 

By changing our focus away from the percentage of student population as a measure of a diverse collection to an overall balance of representation, we can build truly diverse collections that have great benefit for every student in our buildings. So the next time our colleagues ask, “How much of my collection should be diverse?,” our answer should be, “All of it.”

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