This was a question that Virginia Kay Williams and Nancy Deyoe explored in their recent peer-reviewed article "Diverse Population, Diverse Collection? Youth Collections in the United States" in
Technical Services Quarterly (2014). Looking at over 5000 academic, school and public library services across the US that held collections of children's or young adult fiction, they assessed how many titles
each library held, where central characters in these titles:
- Were from ethnic or racial minorities, specifically African America, Hispanic, Latino, Asian or American Indian, and Pacific Islander.
- Had a disability;
- Identified as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Queer / Questioning (LGBTQ).
Instigated by casual conversations which indicated a recurring opinion that children's books in library collections were often "middle class, white, straight" and lacking in strong disabled characters, they set
out to investigate whether these biases actually existed, focusing on the above three populations.
Some of their findings were perhaps unsurprising:
- Public libraries' collections held more titles representing these minorities than school or academic (p. 115);
- Public libraries held more of these titles in the Northeast of the US than public libraries in other regions (p. 116);
- Libraries with bigger budgets held more of these titles (p. 116).
However, of the libraries spending over $100,000 per year on materials, over one third of them did not sufficiently stock titles with representations of ethnic/racial diversity or disability, and half did not hold adequate levels of titles representing LGBTQ themes.(p. 116). Furthermore, over 700 of the 5002 libraries - 15% - held zero titles from the LGBTQ checklist (where only 3 libraries held no titles from the racial/ethnicity checklist, and 48 from the disability titles).
Why is this important? Williams and Deyoe quote the ALA's Freedom to Read Statement as a guiding principle in promoting diversity through libraries whereby "It is in the public interest for publishers and
librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox, unpopular or considered dangerous by the majority" (para. 8).
They also observed that 36% of the population of the United States were members of racial or ethnic minorities, but less than 10% of children's or YA books published in the US were by or about these minorities. (p. 99) They assert, quite rightly, that literature containing these characters "reaffirms young people's sense of self and the value of their culture whilst providing opportunities to expand their awareness and understanding of other viewpoints and cultures". (p. 98)
So, why is this happening? Firstly, issues of sexuality, racism, prejudice and disability - or, indeed any literature that engages and empowers readers of a social minority - could be considered by some to be controversial or transgressive. At the same time, it is refreshing to see titles such as John Green's "The Fault in our Stars" receiving widespread popularity, where the central characters have varying levels of disability and illness, yet they are not defined or ruled by them. The literary world could definitely benefit from seeing more positive and healthy representations of minorities in the community.
How can we work to ensure that we have a diverse collection? This paper lists a number of awards and lists that recognise and celebrate diversity in children's and YA literature, including:
- The Coretta Scott King Award (African American culture)
- The Pura Belpre Award (Latino culture)
- The Asian Pacific American Library Association awards
- The American Indian Library Association (AILA) Youth Literature Awards
- Schneider Family Book Award (experience of disability)
- The Rainbow List (LGBTQ)
His article revealed to me some hard evidence to show that more needs to be done to actively and consciously devlop collections that represent and speak to the minoritis that live in our community, and thos is something that all library professionals should be considering when developing collections.
American Library Association & Association of American Publishers. (2004). The Freedom to Read Statement. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/statementspols/freedomreadstatement
Green, J. (2012). The Fault in Our Stars. Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin Books.
Williams, V. K., & Deyoe, N. (2014). Diverse Population, Diverse Collection? Youth Collections in the United States. Technical Services Quarterly, 31, 97-121. doi:10.1080/07317131.2014.875373