My Fellow Librarians, We Need Diverse Books…So Don’t Chicken Out! And Other Thoughts About Collection Building

Because librarians are, for some inexplicable reason, not given infinite budgets. We can’t buy everything, so we have to make choices about what we buy. For me, that means buying books about rhetoric and faculty favorites. There are few bookish things I like than books waiting on the shelves for a reader to come along; I prefer to buy books that will be read. Consequently, I don’t buy experimental weird favorites like Ibid, by Mark Dunn, because my faculty haven’t discovered him yet*.

While I shy away from buying the more bizarre books I’ve read or read about because I suspect they’ll be wall (shelf) flowers, I don’t shy away from award winners and critical favorites because of their content…unlike some of the librarians recently surveyed for School Library Journal. Kara Yorio reported that a minority (13%) of respondents said they would not purchase a book “with diverse character(s) because of the potential for a book challenge.” When I saw this article retweeted on my feed, I got very angry. My first response was not unusual, judging by the comments on SLJ’s original tweet. At least the majority of respondents and a lot of angry librarians on Twitter will not let this stand, not on their watch.

It would be tempting to dismiss this story. After all, only 13% of librarians said they wouldn’t buy a book because it might cause a challenge. The other 87% would totally buy those books. This is what stops me from comforting myself that way is the idea expressed in this tweet by @ZREllor:

We readers “read to know we are not alone” (attrib. to a surprising number of people). Sure, we read to get into other people’s heads and visit new places, but we also read to find characters who are like ourselves. There are few things that make me feel less like a weirdo when I come across a character who has a hard time not sharing all the trivia stored in their heads, or who would prefer to stay in and read instead of going out and (horror!) talk to people we’ve never met. When a character like that is a hero, well, what’s better than that? This is why, I think, there are so many authors and readers who talk about getting the right book at the right time from the library or say they were rescued by the library.

But when we can’t find characters who are like is, we may end up feeling like even bigger weirdos. We can see this with visual media: how many women feel ugly or fat or undesirable when we see one idealized kind of beauty everywhere? (That’s another rant.) Worse, as ZREllor points out, what if the lack of characters like us, in all our diversity, makes us feel ashamed of ourselves for being different? Speaking for myself, if I buy a book for my library in which a reader can find someone who is the same kind of different as they are** in its pages, I would be ridiculously pleased.

So, my fellow librarians, be bold! Don’t worry about future challenges! Remember the people who are the kind of different that puts them in the minority who are looking for themselves on the shelves, who want to see someone like them be the hero for once. Buy books for them.

* I’ve been working on people lately. I may have to buy a copy for my library because I can’t let these readers my kindle copy.
** Apologies to the authors of Same Kind of Different as Me for adapting their title.

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