The library is an institution whose purpose is to serve the needs of its community. To ensure the library is effectively representing and including all members of the community (both the local and global community all humans are a part of), we must be continuously evaluating the library’s practices, programs, policies, collections, and more. We must continually re-evaluate and interrogate the traditions and past practices libraries have long held to, to determine whether those are truly allowing for all community members to be welcome, included, and represented. In this blog post, I’ll share some of the things I discovered we can (and must) look out for and change in our libraries to ensure the space, collection, and programs are inclusive and representative of diverse voices and experiences. Regardless of how well we think we’re already doing in developing an inclusive library experience, there’s always room for improvement.
Table of Contents
The Books (Physical, eBooks, and Audiobooks)
One of the important aspects of the library to evaluate for representation and diversity is the book collections. We want to ensure the collection as a whole is representative but also that smaller subsections are also inclusive in representation. For example, if you audit your collection and find that 20% of the books feature Black main characters, that’s a good sign! But it is important to delve further to ensure that all of the representation of Black main characters isn’t being found in just one genre, or isn’t reflective of just one specific type of experience. If most of your library’s books featuring Black main characters are found within just the “realistic fiction” genre, that’s not reflective of an inclusive collection, because it means your fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, graphic novel, etc., subsections aren’t as representative of Black main characters. And if most of those books feature Black main characters experiencing trauma, oppression, or adversity, that, too, is not a good sign.
We need to have a balance of representation across genres, ages, genders, gender identities, LGBTQIA+ identities, body types, socioeconomic status, etc. And there must be balance in having books that feature BIPOC characters where they aren’t always only facing trauma, but also experiencing joy. Or battling dragons. Or saving humanity from Dystopian regimes. Or solving mysteries. Or defeating ghosts and monsters. Even if you are not genre-fied, it’s still important to ensure that diverse and intersectional representation is present across genres, formats, etc.
Ditching Dewey (Or at Least Adapting It)
Let’s talk about Dewey. If we are serious about developing and providing both a library collection and library experience that is equitable, anti-racist, and inclusive, then we cannot ignore the issues with the Dewey Decimal System (DDC). The smallest amount of research into the DDC makes it clear that it is inherently problematic in terms of embedded racism, sexism, and its Christian-centric, Euro-Centric viewpoint. Invented in the 1800s by a man who is a confirmed racist, antisemite, and serial sexual harasser, this system is full of flaws that make it problematic at best and despicable at worst.
If you’re not certain there are issues embedded into DDC, merely take a quick glance at the allocation of the categories in the 200s and you’ll note that Christian topics are allocated an excessive amount of categories and that any religion not of the Abrahamic religions are squeezed into just 10 numbers, most in just one number category. Similar issues are easily spotted in the 400s and 800s as well, though these issues truly are embedded deeply across the entire system. Although there is a committee responsible for issuing updates to DDC, many of the egregious injustices in the system simply have not been addressed, even though we’ve had about 150 years to do so as a profession.
Even if you aren’t able to completely ditch the DDC, I do encourage librarians to reflect on these issues and spend time exploring your nonfiction section. Look at what books are shelved near each other. Ask yourself if any of the groupings seem off, wrong, biased, or harmful to you. And if they do, I encourage you to consider at least triaging those areas by making some smaller scale changes to how those books are categorized in your library.
The Signage & Artwork
When selecting signage or artwork (or other décor) for the library, be sure to evaluate those choices for inclusion and (good) representation. Take note of whether your clipart or other imagery represents diversity in body type, disability, race, religion, ethnicity, gender identity, and more. Ensure the imagery you select challenges traditional gender norms and other stereotypes. Whether it’s the signage, posters, artwork, handouts, bookmarks, or whatever, this is something that is important to audit within your libraries. And if there is room for improvement (hint: there’s always room for improvement), maybe it’s time to make some changes. This goes for both physical artwork/signage AND digital. So also consider evaluating any imagery you use in the digital realm such as in bitmoji libraries, graphic buttons, digital fliers, video thumbnails, etc.
Displays & Voices Highlighted
It is important to ensure that your displays and bulletin boards also are full of good representation—every display, every bulletin board, every time. Ensure displays and bulletin boards don’t only feature people of color or LGBTQIA+ people during specific months, like Black History Month, Pride Month, Indigenous People’s Day, etc. We need to make sure that every display and every bulletin board is full of diverse representation. Every single display. Every single time. All year long.
One more aspect of this to consider is when you feature famous quotes on your social media, on bookmarks, on displays, and the like, it is important to audit the quotes (or poems, song lyrics, etc.) you are using to make sure that they are correctly attributed and that you are not only choosing quotes from a homogenous group. If the only Black person who you share quotes from is Martin Luther King, and all the rest are pretty much from white people, it might be a good opportunity to start expanding your repertoire. Following diverse groups and people on social media is one great way to find new material to highlight.
The Book Lists
Another thing that is important to be auditing and diversifying constantly and in an ongoing manner are your booklists. I mean everything from summer reading, books for book-talking, books shared on social media, resource lists, “what to read next” posters, and others. Any time you compile any kind of list of grouping of books to spotlight, recommend, or reference for any reason, you should be auditing that list to ensure it is full of diverse and inclusive representation.
While you are working hard to ensure your library collections and programs are representative and inclusive, make sure you are not taking this as an opportunity to label books with things that indicate the race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, or other identity information of the characters or authors. Books should not be outfitted with physical labels stating things like LGBT, Multicultural, Diverse Reads, etc., or any labels similar to that. We must purchase, recommend, and highlight books featuring diverse representation without “othering” those books or indicating that they are somehow different than books featuring white, straight, cis, neurotypical, or physically abled characters. By labeling them we would be indicating that white, straight, cis, neurotypical, nondisabled characters are the “norm,” which would not require a label, and that everything with a label is somehow “othered” from the “norm.” You would never put a label on a book to indicate that the main character or author is white, or straight, or cis, right? In order to build a truly inclusive collection, we need to ensure the collection is not segregated by shelving or labeling according to character or author identity information.
Does your library have a theme? Does that theme cause you to focus almost exclusively on a specific author or book? Such a narrow and specific theme could be preventing you from highlighting or celebrating or acknowledging other authors or books to the same extent. Consider whether there is a more broad-reaching and inclusive theme that might better serve your students.
This is a good time to take a hard look at your programming. Is your programming demonstrating inclusion and representation? Do you have author visits and if so, are the authors all white? Or all male? Or all cis? Or all straight? What could you do to change that homogeneity? Do you have other speakers or guests come in to run programs or events? Are they all white? Or all male? Or all cis? Or all straight? What could you do to change that?
Finally, you might elect to take a look at the celebrations you are recognizing, hosting, or spotlighting in the library. Are you celebrating certain authors? Which ones and why those? Are you celebrating certain religious events in the library? If so, which ones and why those? Which authors, events, holidays, etc., are you celebrating, and which are you not celebrating? What messages do you think these choices send to your community? What things might you change in order to ensure more inclusivity and sensitivity, and to ensure the library isn’t making a habit of amplifying or celebrating a narrow voice, perspective, experience, culture, or group?
Concluding for Now
These are just some of the different aspects of the library’s collection, program, and environment that I’ve been working on auditing and evaluating for diverse representation and inclusion over the last year or two. Reflecting on these things and striving to continue to learn more has meant I’ve had to make a lot of changes to the way things “have always been.” And not all of those changes are easy or comfortable for me. But they are necessary.