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Monday, April 9, 2018

National Library Week Tough Love-- Call to Action: Curating and Promoting Diverse Collections Is Non-Negotiable-- Period, End of Discussion

Let's get this out of the way....Happy National Library Week.

Okay done.

Unlike others, I am not going to spend this week posting about how wonderful we are for two reasons--

  1. My job is not to coddle you all. You read my posts and hire me to train your staff because I give it to you straight. I identify what we are doing wrong and I try to help you all fix it. My entire professional life is dedicated to serving patrons better-- all patrons at every public library. Make no mistakes, I may be smiling and positive when I present training programs, but the content of those programs is driven by the mistakes we all make every single day.
  2. We are falling very short on on most basic duty-- crafting collections that represent our communities AND the world at large. And, to make matters worse, many of you out there think that's just fine. [By the way, it is NOT.]
Let me back up a bit. This is a post about how crafting and promoting diverse collections is your duty as a public library worker. I have written about this before many times and you can use the diversity tag to see my previous rants. I wish I could stop writing about it. But ignoring this problem it not an option for me, and I am going to keep on you all for as long as it takes. 

Just when I think things were getting better, we had a week like last week. I am not going to recap the entire situation but the short version is that black authors finally stopped their silence when it came to their horrible treatment within the Romance Writers of America. Over the weekend, NPR ran this story summarizing it for those who need to catch up. 

The realization that the RITA awards have a huge diversity problem was surprising, but unfortunately not shocking. Now some of you may have been shocked, especially since last year, romance novels by  authors of color from Alisha RaiAlyssa Cole, and Beverly Jenkins were among the most praised and critically acclaimed titles. But, me, unfortunately I am not shocked because well, people are racist-- even all of you who think you are not.

We are going to talk about all of you in a moment, but before you get mad at me, let me share a story of me confronting my own latent racism in the last few months and how good it felt to admit it and rise above it to make the right choice.

Last year I was asked to be on the Horror Writers Association's Life Time Achievement Awards Committee. I am not going to go through the entire process with you, but I will skip to the chase. The final ballot came down to two VERY deserving nominees. A "White Man" and a "Black Woman." As a group we voted to only give one award. Each of us [5 people] had an equal vote. I will tell you that I struggled with this choice. The old white male was very deserving. He was a name most people would recognize. His work is amazing. He deserved the award. But the black woman deserved it just as much. She is one of the best known and most award winning poets in speculative fiction, period. She had given back to the association and the community of all writers, but especially those of color. She was not as well known in the wider world, but in the world of HWA it would have been hard to argue she was not among the most deserving authors regardless of her race.

But, knowing her [heck, I was the one who threw her name in the ring] I still felt "wrong" voting for her over the best selling white man, at first. And then I asked myself why I felt this way. There is no denying that I am pre-programmed to think the white male deserves it more because, through no fault of his own, the publishing industry was behind him for years and year. Whereas, this woman grew up poor, fought to go to a top tier University [where she was a math major!] and went on to be one of the top voices of her generation of writers regardless of race. And she never stopped being positive and giving back.

If I was going to tell you all to consider diverse voices and come to terms with the fact that publishing is racist and we have to work to rise above it, how could I ignore the signs here. I knew that my vote would send a statement that authors of color are just as worthy, that despite the lack of institutional support they have been doing great work, and that if we don't start coming to terms with the latent racism inside all of us, we will never progress.

Voting to make Linda Addison the first African American winner of the HWA's Life Time Achievement Award was my proudest professional achievement. It required that I check myself and be true to my beliefs and not ruled by the status quo. I got to celebrate with Linda. I got to see the entire banquet praise her and honor her. I sat next to former LAA winner, Ramsey Campbell, an old white man, and I saw him silently, shed tears of joy watching her accept this honor, watching her join him in the "Pantheon" of genre greats.

But this is NOT enough. I am only one person. I am not telling you this story to praise myself. I am telling you this story because every single one of us needs to face the fact that institutional racism is a thing that touches all of us. Checking yourself is something we all have to do...All. The. Time. Even my POC friends have admitted to me that they often defer to white authors. All of us must confront this.

Last week, as the RWA stuff was blowing up and the conversation moved into the library world, I thought, finally, we can have an honest conversation about diversifying our collections, our displays, and our lists. But no. One of the most disappointing moments I had as a library worker trainer and advocate for diverse collections was to see librarians use this excuse---

"I try to add books by authors of color to my collections, but no one reads them, they don't circulate, etc... So I stopped."

I was following these threads on Twitter and literally holding myself back. I started writing this post last week because I was so angry, I knew I needed time to process this so that my post would be constructive and not reactionary.

So here is where I will begin. First, your duty as a public librarian is to have the widest possible collection for your patrons. The library is a place where people can explore the world through books, videos, databases, etc... No matter what the racial make up of your community is, you need a diverse collection. You are not only trying to have materials that reflect who lives in your community. The library has NEVER been about that. It has always been a place for people to learn and grow. We are a window to the world. We have always been this. Therefore, why would your leisure reading collections be any different?

Second, I will address the side argument/complaint that there isn't enough money to buy all the popular white people books and all of the good POC books. Nope, not having it with this argument. There isn't enough money to buy all the books in general. There never will be. It is our job as professionals to curate our collections. It is not easy. I know. I did it for 15 years. But it is what many of us are hired to do. You may have to look a little harder for more diverse titles, but if you are doing collection development, you are required to curate a collection that is as diverse as possible. Think you can't. I think you are unwilling to confront your own racism as I was forced to in my story above. Think about every purchase you make. It is easy to look at each choice in a vacuum, but you cannot. Each single choice is part for he larger collection you are building. If you cannot curate a collection that represents all voices so that your community can access the world through your collections, then I think you need another job.

And if your job doesn't involve selection, you are still not off the hook. You can be a thorn in the selector's side. Beat the drum for adding more diverse titles. Be a pain. Badger them. Badger their bosses, badger the administration. You are in the right here. Tell them I made you if you worried about getting in trouble. Be strong. They will eventually be forced to give in. If they don't let me know and I will publicly shame them. I'm not kidding. I have nothing to lose and only better libraries everywhere to gain. This is a hill I an willing to die on because I know in the end, I will be standing tall.

Third, there are plenty of books by white people that don't circulate. In fact, since your collection probably has way more white authors than not, I would bet actual money that there are way MORE books [in pure numbers] by white people that don't circulate than those by POC that don't. You gonna weed those too? This argument holds no weight. It is lazy, racist and dumb. Yes, I called some of you dumb. Feel free to stop reading my blog if you are offended.

Fourth, you need to put books by POC on display so people can find them. Some of you claim to have done this and that they still don't circulate. To this I ask, did you only put them on display as "diverse authors?" For example, was your display, "Black Authors To Try," "Voices from Around the World" or the like. Because this sucks. You need to promote all authors together. So in your "Fantasy" display of ALL fantasy titles worth a read you have titles representing all people and cultures. You should never have an ALL white displays about anything because the world is not all white. It never has been. Our displays need to reflect the WORLD as a whole. Again, the library's role has always been to educate and enlighten the public.

There are black authors who write about things other than slavery, native authors who write about more than life on the reservation, hispanic authors who write about more than illegal immigration. I have merely given you one choice with each of those links in the previous sentence, Authors of color write books about everything, just like white authors. Their books can be added to any display. This should not be shocking. Stopped being shocked by it. Stop making excuses. Just stop and start doing this. The books will be checked out if you promote them as the good reads they are. I promise.

A side argument here has always been, "But my white readers are confused by the ethic and racial differences in these stories." Again, this is dumb. Take me, a middle aged white lady, who was raised Jewish. Guess what, my whole life I grew up reading books where Christian allusions were implied in everything. I figured it out. Imagine what all the POC readers have had to do reading about white culture in most of the books we have offered for their whole lives. Did anyone question that they "didn't get it?" It's not that hard to read about people different than yourself. Sorry. it just isn't. I have done it my whole life and I make a living out of it now. In fact, it's fun.

Fifth, readalike lists for white authors should not only contain white people. But also, readalike lists for POC authors should not only contain POC people. I already wrote about this topic regarding Stephen King and Luis Alberto Urrea-- click on their names to see each post. This is one of the largest examples of how we fail in promoting as diverse a list of titles as possible. And it is the most ubiquitous racist thing we all do--- all the time.

I think this is enough for now. You get my point. It is our job and responsibility to offer diverse choices to all readers. We must make it easier for them to find good stories...period! We must check ourselves and our own racism-- you can call it checking our privilege but I think that hiding behind "privilege" does not make us account for our part in the problem. Calling it racism does because that is what it is.

I also want to be clear that I am calling out every single one of us, myself included. If you cannot see yourself and your negative actions in this post and you do not think you can do better, than I am telling you, look harder. Right now.

I promise not to be negative all week, but it would betray my professional self and my commitment to serving all of you if I did not take this opportunity to firmly, but kindly remind us all that we have to do better.

Thank you for your time and have a wonderful National Library Week.

For past Call to Action posts, click here.


Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for this post. I am a librarian of color and coincidentally brought up some of your talking points at a meeting earlier today. I was firmly put in my place because I am a reference librarian and don't work in the collections department. I decided to look over your blog so I could get out of my own head and came across this post. Thank you. I needed to read this today, and I hope others take the time to examine what we can all do to do better.

Becky said...

I am so glad I could help you. I wish that your co workers could learn too. Please email me if you want to talk about this further and maybe I can help you to talk to them.

Anonymous said...

Tough love for the win. I appreciate this post and will share it with my colleagues.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I sent you an email.