Doing a YA Diversity Audit: Answering some follow up questions, including “What about the Conservatives?”
On posts, in tweets, and in my mailbox, one of the questions we – TLT – get asked a lot is “What about the conservatives?” Because we post regularly about GLBTQAI+ literature, talk about advocacy, etc., some are left with the impression that we do not care about meeting the needs of the more conservative parts of our population, which is in no way true. This question came up multiple times regarding my recent series of posts on doing a collection diversity audit.
To begin, some background, both personal and professional: I have worked in libraries for 24 years. 4 different library systems in two different states. Personally, I am in fact a Christian. I have an undergraduate degree in Youth Ministry from a conservative Christian college. I live and work in conservative towns. I can assure you, the conservative view point is in no way under represented. In fact, doing a collection audit will help you have the factual information you need to help address these concerns.
Also, I want to address the question of what does it mean when someone says that libraries are liberal and don’t respect conservatives. By definition, public libraries should be inclusive which means they should have books on their shelves representing every point of view. That makes us default liberal, I suppose. But what do people mean when they ask about the conservative viewpoint? They could mean politically conservative, fiscally conservative, dealing with religious beliefs, or just wanting what is commonly referred to as “clean reads”. Often they mean from a Christian or political point of view, but even in non-Christian religions there are both more progressive and conservative points of view. When we talk about religion in the public library, it is vitally important that we stop operating from a Christian point of view.
Because I work with teens, I have found they are most frequently talking about 1) this concept of “clean reads” and 2) the inclusion of GLBTQAI+ literature. I’m not going to debate the basic humanity of any marginalized people, so the inclusion of GLBTQAI+ literature in a library isn’t up for debate. An individual can choose to read or not read, but a public library can not choose to buy or not buy.
I find the concept of “clean reads” to be troublesome because 1) it’s very personal, 2) it implies that other types of books are by definition dirty or less than and 3) unless a person has read every single book in their collection (and no librarian ever has or ever will), this can be a very difficult question to answer. So, what I find to be a “clean read” might be different than what the person I am talking to considers to be a clean, or let’s use the word appropriate because what they are in fact looking for is a book that is appropriate for them or their child. Doing an extensive RA interview can help answer this question, but it’s not foolproof. So I always try to add caveats and give the person I am talking to tools to do further research themselves. This includes teaching them how to use the online catalog and subject headings, finding reviews, etc.
So from the get go, the idea of how do public libraries serve and include the conservative point of view isn’t as straightforward as it is presented. Another issue with the question is that the conservative point of view often works from the standpoint that non-conservative points of view shouldn’t be in our public libraries at all, which is by the mission and definition of a public library an incorrect point of view. Many conservatives, and I know this as a member of the conservative Christian community, believe that any point of view that is contrary to their own should not be permitted because it is offensive. The public library is not there to represent only a portion of the population, it is there to serve and represent the whole, although I would argue that there are in fact some exceptions. For example, works that advocate against the basic humanity and safety of any population group would be considered hate speech and should not be purchased because they put a segment of the population at harm. My POC or GLBTQAI+ teens should be able to come safely into the public library and not have their very existence threatened by the books in my collection.
The reality is that the very thing many conservatives fear is the answer to the question of how are they being served: inclusive collections. Inclusive collections mean that conservatives, whether they be politically or religious conservatives or just readers wanting the appropriate book for them, are best served by truly inclusive collections.
The library that I currently work at, The Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County, has a large, dedicated Amish fiction collection. This is, of course, in part because we serve a large Amish and conservative population. We understand our local community and work hard to meet its needs in inclusive ways. I have worked at other libraries with large Chinese and Vietnamese collections because there was a large, local Chinese and Vietnamese population. Every library works to understand and serve their local communities in a variety of ways.
I would argue, however, that building inclusive (or diverse) collections, is part of that service. For one, even if it represents a small percentage of your local population, that small percentage still deserves to be represented respectfully in their local library. Their existence is not up for debate, their worth and their rights aren’t either. Secondly, reading diversely is part of the educational value of a public library, the whole “walking in another person’s shoes” and developing compassion for your fellow human beings. We fail our local communities in that aspect of service if we don’t actively build inclusive collections. Even if you serve a local community that is 99% white and conservative, building inclusive collections is part of your mission statement, or at least it should be, because reading outside of one’s own experience is part of a holistic education experience. We are not helping our local communities become educated citizens if we neglect the reality that we live in a diverse world.
We must also never forget that what a person reads ultimately comes down to personal choice. However, our patrons can’t make choices to read diversely if we don’t provide them access to diverse collections. What they ultimately choose to read is on them, but what we provide them access to is on us. If we take away their choices because we presume to know what they want because of a set of very specific and local statistics, then we are failing our local communities.
That’s what inclusive collections are about: ACCESS and CHOICE. That is also why librarians make the statement that if you don’t find something offensive in your local public library, then they are doing it wrong. Take politics out of the mix for a moment and let’s examine another topic: baby care. Not everyone agrees on the topic of baby care. If you have had a baby or listened to people who have tried to raise babies, you will recognize the truth of this statement. Should you let a baby cry it out and sleep train or should you respond to a baby’s every cry and practice kangaroo care? You can find people who will advocate, and quite passionately, for both sides of this coin. And you should be able to find books in your local public library that represent both of these arguments. The person who bought those books might have an opinion on the matter – I certainly do – but that personal opinion doesn’t matter when building a public library collection. We buy authoritative, well reviewed books to represent all points of views. If you walk up to your religion and politics collections, you should find the same: a well balanced collection of titles that represents multiple points of view on a variety of controversial topics.
The truth is, when libraries start doing the work of actively building inclusive collections, it can seem to the majority groups that marginalized groups are taking over. This is part of the fear that comes in equality because those groups that have historically held a position of power are being asked to give up that power in the name of equality, and they almost never want to. For example, men, white cishet Christian men in particular, have historically made up the bulk of the publishing world and there has been a real push of late for publishing to include more diversity and for libraries to build more inclusive collections. And I hear the men saying, well we don’t get to have a voice any more. Which is still statistically not true. I do a diversity audit of my monthly book orders and I can categorically with facts and data prove that this is not true. And even with a very targeted attempt to build a more inclusive YA collection, a thorough audit of my YA collection also reveals that this is not true. Even with targeted, intentional purchasing, my collection is still over 70% white and over 93% straight.
One of the questions I get asked repeatedly when I talk about my collection audit and the journey I have taken to build a more intentional and purposeful YA collection is about community push back. I have worked in two fairly conservative communities and have experienced book challenges in both. This is where it’s important that we have up to date collection development policies and make sure that we have trained our staff, and trained them well, to talk about the role of the public library and the value of inclusive collections to our patrons. And if we truly have built inclusive collections, then we should be able to say, “this book may not have been for you, but we have others in our collections that may fit your needs, let me help you find those.”
The truth is, building inclusive collections isn’t about excluding anyone, it’s about including everyone.
Filed under: Professional Development
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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