3 Ways Diversity is More Than A Buzzword At The Library
“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Popularized by Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Networks, these choice words have recently been given new life in the push for media representation. Perhaps you’ve heard about advocates such as Geena Davis (actress and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media) or the founders of We Need Diverse Books, Ellen Oh and Dhonielle Clayton, rising up to push back against their respective industries and make their message known: Visibility matters.
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Here in libraries, we also play a part. Our key roles in communities mean that we can amplify efforts to promote underrepresented creators and content. And for the vast majority of librarians, that translates into a mission to diversify our collections. According to recent research from School Library Journal, 81% of librarians surveyed think it is “very important” to have books featuring protagonists and experiences that reflect a wide array of ethnicities, cultural or religious backgrounds, disabilities, gender identities, and LGBTQIA+ orientations.
I stand with librarians who take this step and then one further; building inclusive collections and making the intentional choices that will ultimately put these books in more hands. Choices as small and subtle as displays that don’t limit the celebration of diversity to heritage months, or as big and flashy as a program series on girl empowerment spotlighting women in tech.
If you’re wondering where to start looking for diverse stories at your library, or would like to request that more be featured, here are some ways the library can be a place to challenge biases and reflect the wider world.
Storytime selections — Along with nursery rhymes and the Hokey Pokey, storytime is also about learning about the world around us. Picture books can affirm that there are other families that look like ours, no one way to be a boy or a girl, and a wide array of career paths to consider no matter what you look like.
By placing diverse characters in everyday settings, these books act as a mirror and a window for non-white and white storytime goers of all genders. Some send more than one message at the same time. Just last year saw books like Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love, Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal, and Mommy’s Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow.
Real-world examples that show and tell future possibilities — Library activities can make an effective showcase for interests and professions kids and teens may not see anywhere else. Marine biology with a side of slimy sea slugs? Why not? Graphic design served up through an anime workshop? Yes, please!
The connection between a special guest and a possible career path can also be made more direct. Some librarians work with partners like local businesses or guidance counselors to spotlight different occupations and skill sets. Where I work, for instance, there are teen-targeted panels on everything from working in the video game industry to becoming a counselor or therapist with the sessions also released as podcasts for those who can’t make it in person. Not only do forums like this provide exposure to real-world examples, but also a chance to highlight the library resources like resume builders and online occupational exam study guides that can help teens and young adults get from here to there.
Librarians are book recommendation engines! With brains! So we can put thought into infusing diverse options across age groups and genre. In other words, we can work to provide diversity within the diversity and go beyond standard historical narratives. Books that center on complex characters of color, strong characters across the gender spectrum, and the points where those Venn diagrams overlap.
Are you a YA fantasy fan with a taste for suspense? We can point you towards Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper, the story of Sierra Santiago, a young artist who comes to find the fate of her family and their centuries-old magic in her hands. Looking for realistic middle-grade fiction with a tone like Wonder? Front Desk by Kelly Yang is set at a family run motel and just as charming and honest about issues ranging from racism to poverty to self-esteem in fifth grade. There were many stories I happily sunk into as young tween reader with a soft spot for quirky female characters. But among the ones I absorbed the most was Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself, Judy Blume’s semi-autobiographical tale of a nervous Jewish fifth grader with an overactive imagination. Is it a coincidence that this was one of the few stories centered on a recognizably Jewish character that didn’t forefront the Holocaust? I don’t think so, and I don’t think I’m alone.
Good non-fiction recommendations also go beyond assignments for Black or Latinx or Women’s History Month. Librarians serve up true tales of trailblazers and “hidden figures” from history any time of year. Books and films that can spark inspiration and tie extracurricular interests to professional careers. Early activists can see themselves in Marley Dias Gets it Done: And So Can You (a how-to guide written by the 13 year-old behind the #1000blackgirlbooks campaign,) while a fourth grader with an unconventional interest might take solace in Proud: Living my American Dream, the autobiography of fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim American to medal in the Olympics.
Librarians can also set you on your way if you want to explore on your own and come back with titles you’d like us to find. Start with the resources on We Need Diverse Books or Everyday Diversity or ask your librarian for more options.
While libraries alone can’t break down all the barriers and biases that limit marginalized groups in our country, we do have it in our power to promote media and models that place them as heroes of their own stories.