In 2004, I had the opportunity to start a high school library from scratch. This was my first full-time librarian position since getting my M.L.I.S. in 2001 – I was pumped. Everything I learned from David Loertscher’s Collection Development class came back to me as I stocked the library with award winners, classics, and well-reviewed books.
School Library Journal and VOYA became my best friends; H.W. Wilson’s Senior High School Core Collection my seasoned mentor; and YALSA’s book awards my hip little sister. I balanced those sources with patron need, curricular support, and mission supportive books.
A diverse collection with authors and content containing a broad range of races, genders, sexual orientations, classes, and abilities was not an explicit goal. But being a good liberal at a liberal school in a liberal city, I prioritized non-fiction about social issues and bought all of Toni Morrison’s novels.
Five years into building this new library, I began the humbling and life-long process of both learning about racism and unlearning my own racism in 2008.
Earlier this year I took a deeper look at the collection looking for whose voices and perspectives are missing. Since I was the only person that had ever added books to this collection, I was curious what kinds of unconscious biases might have crept into my collection.
My first stop: American poetry
I downloaded a list of the 122 poets from 811.54 & 811.6 and researched their race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and ability using Google, Wikipedia, Poetry Foundation, and poets.org.
By following what sociologist Allan G. Johnson calls the “path of least resistance”, I chose a poetry collection that was 68% white and 63% male. The result of following the best practices of collection development.
This makes sense. We live in a white supremacist society created by white people, for white people. White male poets have historically had access to resources to attend elite universities (and make strategic connections), secure a literary agent, get reviewed, and win awards. They are the bestsellers, the award winners, the classics, the canon.
Not only were most of the poets white and male but also Christian, middle/upper class, able-bodied, and heterosexual.
Luckily, I’m a ruthless weeder.
I weeded twenty white male poets and two white female poets. I examined circulation statistics, their similarity to other poets, and their life experience. I cross referenced their name in the American poetry anthologies in the collection – almost all of them were anthologized – which actually made me feel a little better about weeding them (ok, so I’m not as ruthless as I thought).
At times, this type of weeding felt clinical and reductive. Why does one socially-constructed aspect of a person’s identity have to sum up their entire existence? Precise attention to race though is the only way to ensure my collection is not majority-white even if the process is clunky and uncomfortable.
Other times I noticed myself despising these ubiquitous white male poets. Oh, of course, there’s another WASP poet. I frequently paused to remind myself that WASP poets are human beings with lives and loves and tragedies and triumphs. Rachel! Your San Francisco library collection would be at a deficit without the Beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg; your students need the accessible playfulness of Billy Collins and the unconventional charm of E.E. Cummings. Getting on my “good white person” high horse only makes me feel separate from people, a painful symptom of white supremacy. Those reminders helped me stay connected to my humanity.
After weeding came purchasing. Every librarian’s favorite part! I added fifty-five poets, many of them in the 811.6s including Ryka Aoki, Latasha N. Nevada Diggs, Natalie Diaz, and Laurie Ann Guerrero.
I searched Google for “latino poets“; I browsed Wikipedia’s helpful categories like “Native American Poets”; I followed the bread trail provided by the “Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed” feature on Amazon; I also considered the poet’s accessibility to teenagers and relation to our curriculum.
After all that weeding and purchasing, the American poetry collection is now 37% white and 56% female.*
Publishers employ a staggering number of white people, particularly white women. All the way down the line from executives to editors to marketers to book reviewers, white people are the decision makers, the arbiters of what should exist in print.
When we blindly follow the path of least resistance, we end up with a mostly white collection. It can be clunky but we can make sure our collections have a variety of voices and perspectives. That will only happen if the white librarians who have agency over their collections put diversity and inclusion on the front burner.
Next steps in my quest for a more inclusive collection:
- art (709.2), American painters (759.13), and photographers (779.092)
- history: How many history books are authored by historians from that country?
*I focus on race in this post, but I also purchased books written by poets from other non-dominant groups.