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Libraries Need Diverse Books

by Nicole Overton on April 15, 2016

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of Public Libraries.

Guest contributor NICOLE OVERTON is a team member at We Need Diverse Books, and also a freelance writer and copy editor. Contact Nicole at nicoleoverton@gmail.com. Nicole is currently reading The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

As much as I love my local library, it has become predictable in its timing and placement of diverse books. In February, I can always count on seeing a large selection of books promoting Black History Month. Many of these titles I’ve never seen throughout the year, but because it’s Black History Month, there they all are, standing proud, front and center. The same is true for National Hispanic Month from mid-September to mid-October, Asian Pacific American month in May, and American Indian Heritage month in November. For the other eight months of the year, the displays are filled with the usual books featuring white characters or happy-friendly animals.

My question, which I admit I have never asked my local librarian, is why are the diverse books only publicized during their respected heritage month? Why not all year round? I wonder if librarians are setting out these particular books during these specific months without thought, because that’s the way it’s always been done. Maybe, but I’m also curious if they see the word “diversity” as taboo, and subconsciously believe that these diverse books are unappealing to the particular community in which they serve.

The word “diversity” encompasses acceptance and respect. Diversity is understanding that each individual is unique and recognizing our individual differences in regards to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, physical abilities, religion, and political beliefs. It’s about moving past just being tolerant and actually embracing and celebrating the richness of each individual. The library has long been recognized as the most trusted environment in which discovery and exploration of these differences should take place.

When patrons walk into the library, they should immediately see and be able to connect to the larger world around them. Books, materials, resources, and programs that introduce cultural exploration, foster global understanding, and facilitate language learning should be showcased throughout. Libraries should not confine this sharing of rich culture to just specific heritage months; it should always be on display.

Displaying diverse books throughout the year helps children discover who they are and where they fit in the world. It is crucial that children gain an understanding of their own culture and the cultures of other people, in order to create a global respect for each other’s differences. The library is the main source in helping patrons make cross-cultural connections and develop the tools and skills necessary to function in a diverse society.

If a Caucasian child sees a book display featuring an African American character, alongside a book highlighting an Asian character, that child may develop a sense of familiarity with diversity, whereas featuring diversity only at certain times promotes the idea of “the other.”

In the same regard, if an African American, Asian, or Hispanic child only sees their particular culture highlighted once a year, then they will form the notion that perhaps they aren’t good enough to be studied or talked about throughout the year. This invisibility can be harmful to self-image. A child’s self-esteem is heavily influenced by the way the child and society views the cultural group in which the child belongs. All children want to see images that reflect them and engage in stories that resonate with them personally. Diverse books allow children to appreciate the beauty of their culture and the cultures of others. Children need to see and hear more than one story once a year about a particular cultural group.

Seeing diverse books on display every day, all year long, prompts discussions about race and ethnicity. Diverse books can help dismiss stereotypes and prejudice, foster compassion and empathy, and inspire children to imagine even more—especially when they see that they can be the face of their own story.

Children’s books should serve two purposes: to act as (1) a mirror reflecting a child’s own life and culture; and (2) a window allowing children to see into the lives of others and recognize the diversity of their world. For that reason, the library is, and should be, filled with mirrors and windows.

The library was designed to enhance patrons’ quality of life by providing opportunities for lifelong learning; connecting and engaging individuals in a space that is welcoming and respectful; and fostering a love for reading. The fundamental goal and mission of the library is to provide quality materials and services that fulfill educational, informational, cultural, and recreational needs of the community in which it serves.

So regardless of whether a community is predominately one race, the fundamental goal and mission should not change based upon the month. It’s problematic if a library doesn’t promote a book that features a minority protagonist simply on the basis that there aren’t many readers of that minority group who use that particular library. All diverse books should be represented throughout the year, no matter how small the percentage of the minority race is within that community. Librarians should not decide against displaying certain books throughout the year in fear that they won’t circulate or be well-received by the majority simply because they feature a character of a different race. For a librarian to entertain or act on that very thought is bias, bordering on censorship.

If library patrons don’t want to read a particular book, then that’s their choice, but they should definitely be presented with the option. To say, for example, that Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming or Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover are only for the black youth or that Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street can only be understood by poor urban people who rely on soup kitchens and public transportation is absurd.

To not encourage a young reader to be inspired by Malala Yousafzai’s memoir I Am Malala because she divulges so much about her Pashtun/Muslim customs, culture, and history or, worst of all, because it mentions the Taliban is short-sighted. This type of thinking implies that diverse books are essentially less-than and that the experiences of other races have no relevance or meaning to any other race.

Librarians who proudly showcase diverse books throughout the year are saying that they trust the readers they serve. They believe that their patrons, both young and old, are able to handle, relate to, and understand experiences that don’t mirror their own. Choosing to display and promote diverse books reveals that the librarian has dismissed his or her own bias and is allowing the reader to freely choose these stories.

Library staff should always cultivate an environment in which adults and children can achieve a global understanding and respect for other people from diverse backgrounds. If children in particular are exposed to the lives and cultures of others around the world, they will enjoy the opportunity to learn how to adapt and function in a diverse world.

A library that is fully engaged in promoting cultural awareness provides countless opportunities for children and adults to learn about new cultures. Displaying books daily that highlight different languages and traditions, and feature diverse characters, give children and adults the opportunity to develop a bridge of understanding. It also emphasizes the library’s commitment to serving everyone no matter their backgrounds.

Diverse books should be welcomed, displayed, and encouraged at the library. It is the primary job of a librarian to, in a sense, sell any great diverse book to any reader. To say that a book featuring a diverse protagonist just doesn’t circulate or only circulates during their respected heritage month, offers an even better reason for the librarian to promote it. Librarians are the champions of all books, regardless of who’s featured on the cover. A great book is a great book and the librarian should be able to sell the story and not the character’s skin color or orientation.

If a patron is interested in poetry, Brown Girl Dreaming is an excellent memoir-in-verse that’s graceful and rhythmic. If a child is interested in sports, Crossover is vivid, energetic, and easily relatable to a teen’s life. Last Stop on Market Street, while it does take place in an urban environment, embraces the fullness of the word “diversity” itself. I Am Malala can easily be recommended to inspire any woman or young girl on what it means to have fierce determination and bravery.

Librarians have been given the honor to influence not only what their patrons read but also what they have access to in the first place. Have faith in your patrons and aid them in the process of learning and stepping outside their comfort zones. Librarians, I implore you to not just promote, but really celebrate and encourage diverse books. Allow your library to empower patrons to read and explore and achieve all they can to understand the world we live in.

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