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The Associated Press recently reported that, although whites remain the largest racial group in the US, their share of the population has fallen by 6% over the past decade. According to the 2020 census results, the US population is becoming more diverse, particularly when it comes to the burgeoning Asian and Hispanic populations. There are a few reasons why this is the case. Attitudes about what it even means to be white are changing—more people now identify as multiracial. Also, the 2020 census updated its data collection methodologies to include more options for identifying race.
Diversity will continue to increase with time, and appears to be accelerating. What does this mean for US society, as well as all the institutions and policies that make up our infrastructure? One institution where diversity remains a crucial topic is the public library. Libraries are intended primarily to serve the needs of their communities, and as those communities evolve and diversify, library staff should be responding to those changes through their library’s services, resources, and policies.
“Diversity,” like other social justice type terms, is not a straightforward concept that everyone agrees upon. Many different definitions exist depending on who you ask. Diversity is generally used nowadays as a shorthand for referring to minority/marginalized groups – people who are not:
- Straight; and/or
I.e, anyone other than the “normalized” majority. (It is worth noting that we should be cautious of lumping “everyone else” together under the banner of “diversity” in that it can contribute to othering those who don’t fit what is normalized For information on writing about different groups of people, check out the online diversity style guide and the conscious style guide.)
The meaning of diversity seems to be deepening as “Western” culture responds to historical moments and widespread pressure for positive change. It might be better to ask, what does diversity entail now? Diversity today is more than just a description of differences in a given population. It implies the acceptance, or even celebration of differences such as gender identity and race/ethnicity. Diversity initiatives often seek to leverage the skills of different types of people, implying that a variety of unique perspectives benefit and strengthen the whole community.
Although it is often mentioned alongside inclusion and equity, the diversity of a population alone does not signify whether marginalized/minority groups experience inclusion or equity. There may be a significant population of immigrants of color in a community, but that population may not feel at all like it belongs or is included in the community. A community or an organization may be diverse, but that doesn’t automatically mean all its people have access to the same quality of life without barriers – in fact, the opposite is often true. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are all interrelated and co-dependent facets of social justice.
Libraries and Library Staff
Libraries exist to improve everyone’s quality of life by providing access to resources. One way a library can help meet the needs of a diverse community is to ensure that its staff represent the community it serves. Guaranteeing that patrons can see themselves represented in the staff is just one way of improving access to library services for all. Librarianship always has been and still remains overwhelmingly white, despite a long standing realization of a lack of diverse representation, not to mention the many diversity initiatives that libraries and associations have attempted in recent decades.
Library workers have an obligation to select, maintain, and support access to content on subjects by diverse authors and creators that meets—as closely as possible—the needs, interests, and abilities of all the people the library serves. This means acquiring materials to address popular demand and direct community input, as well as addressing collection gaps and unexpressed information needs. Library workers have a professional and ethical responsibility to be proactively inclusive in collection development and in the provision of interlibrary loan where offered.
Another way that diversity comes into play in libraries is with the materials themselves. Generally, our collections are not tremendously diverse: they do not always contain works written by people of color, for example, or enough of those works to be truly representational. Responding to this realization, it is becoming increasingly commonplace in libraries, archives, and museums to conduct diversity audits. What is a diversity audit? This is a project undertaken by staff to get a sense of how representational their materials are. Having hard data on the diversity of your collection (or lack thereof) can be really useful for future collection development and is also a means of practicing what we preach when we advocate for access.
For example, you conduct an audit on the racial make-up of the authors in your collection. You have researched your community’s demographics and concluded that the representation of black authors is much lower than it should be. Obviously, this is an area to focus on when buying books in the future. Having the data clearly showing this deficit can be a powerful means of securing the organizational support needed for improving the collection in this manner.
The findings can be a springboard for later projects and attaining long-term leadership buy-in and/or funding. As a side note, your community’s demographics is just one element to consider (since there are clear benefits to more homogeneous communities accessing diverse material), but demographic statistics can nevertheless be a helpful indicator.
Beginning Your Audit
The scope of a diversity audit is self-determined and dependent on numerous factors, including the size of your collection and the resources (time, effort, and funds) that workers are afforded. Gathering data can be a long and laborious process, so if you are dealing with large collections, sampling might be a good first step. Perhaps you have a good-sized collection of children’s books – this would be an excellent place to begin, but you could also focus elsewhere.
Before starting, write down what exactly it is you are trying to find out in the form of a purpose statement. Here you can clearly define your desired outcomes. You might want to ask yourself some of the following questions:
- What is the purpose of auditing this collection?
- What data am I trying to obtain?
- How will I use this data?
Then, set some specific data-driven goals. The beauty of conducting your own audit is that you can start however small you like and allow yourself to be as thorough as possible. You could even get started with focusing on just one or two of these sample goals:
- Gather data on authors. Note authors who depart from the typical demographics that dominate publishing (white, cisgender men and women).
- Identify major themes in books.
- Identify books that are written by authors whose identities match their protagonists/subjects.
- Identify the representation of major characters (if fiction) or subjects (if nonfiction).
- Input the data into an easily retrievable format.
- Create a report on the audit, utilizing data visualizations.
Then, for the best part. Once you have identified any weaknesses in your collection, find new books!