How Diverse Are Our Books?

LJ’s 2019 Diverse Materials Survey reveals where efforts to build more representative and inclusive library collections are widespread, and where there are gaps.

LJ’s 2019 Diverse Materials Survey reveals where efforts to build more representative and inclusive library collections are widespread, and where there are gaps

American public libraries are working toward serving the needs of all patrons by offering diverse points of view, according to Library Journal’s Diverse Materials Survey, but major gaps remain. Kayla Hoskinson of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Cecil B. Moore Branch, gives an example of why it’s worth the effort. “I have received a lot of positive feedback from patrons about the improved selection and appearance of our shelves,” she tells LJ. “My branch is in a predominantly black neighborhood with a high concentration of Muslim Americans, and nearly everything I order reflects the community population. Children and teens have immediate access to books that appeal to them, and parents are relieved that our nonfiction collection is full of current, relevant materials and an array of biographies suitable for school projects.”

However, despite broad buy-in to the importance of the goal, the majority of respondents think more needs to be done. Together, slightly less than half of respondents self-appraised as serving the needs of diverse members of their community “very well” (8 percent) or “well” (40 percent). The largest segment, however, at 46 percent, feel their library is doing an only “adequate” job.

The survey, which closed on March 11, garnered 357 responses, and we appended the data with demographic information based on zip code. (Responses were weighted to reflect library breakdown by the population served.) Forty-two percent of the communities the respondents serve have had a change in demographics over the last five years. The more affluent, and urban, the community, the more likely it was to have seen demographic change. The large majority of respondents are responsible for ordering library materials themselves, as well as recommending them to patrons.

 

DIVERSITY AUDITS

Has your library ever conducted a community audit to determine its demographic makeup?

Yes

48.7%

No, never

22.5%

Don’t know

28.8%

SOURCE: LJ DIVERSE MATERIALS SURVEY 2019

 

WE BUY DIVERSE BOOKS

Virtually all of the U.S. public libraries represented in the survey make it a point to purchase diverse materials, at least to some degree. Generally speaking, the younger the median age of the patrons a library serves is, the more likely it is to stock diverse materials.

Notable differences, though, lie in which identities are represented.

ETHNICITY

Some 92 percent of respondents said they seek out materials with main characters who are black or African American for their library (that figure rises to 98 percent in urban areas). The lowest percentage, 60 percent, was given for materials with Arab or Middle Eastern subjects, rising to over 70 percent in suburban and urban centers and dipping to 44 percent in rural ones. Those in the least diverse areas were most likely to say they seek out materials about white/non-Hispanic subjects.

RELIGION

When it comes to religious-themed materials, Christianity led the pack by a fair margin at 82 percent, followed by Judaism at 74 percent. Forty-nine percent of respondents reported seeking out atheist materials—about the same amount as seek Buddhist and Hindu materials. Respondents in the South were most likely to look for religious-themed materials to add to their collections. Although that area of the U.S. is often known as the Christian “Bible Belt,” Muslim and Jewish materials were frequently sought after there as well.

SEXUAL ORIENTATION AND GENDER IDENTITY

In this category, differences tied to location were most distinct. Gay/lesbian/bisexual materials were sought out by 86 percent of respondents. However, urban libraries are more than 30 percent more likely to seek out materials with trans or gender nonconforming characters than rural libraries are. Libraries in areas where the median age is younger than 40 are more apt to seek materials representing a variety of sexual orientations and gender identities. “Teens express appreciation that we offer materials that address varying sexual issues,” reports Joyce Baker of Arizona’s Coolidge Public Library.

These are also often the areas that see the most challenges. Several respondents mentioned them, particularly around transgender characters in titles meant for children. (For more on diversity in children’s books, see School Library Journal’s Diverse Books Survey.) That controversy isn’t necessarily something to be avoided, though. “In my capacity overseeing collection development, I instruct my selectors not to shy away from picks that might prove controversial. In our area, pushback usually [results] from topics like gay marriage, transgender issues, and possibly religion,” said Sarah Kittrell of Wichita Public Library, KS.

 

INTENTIONAL DIVERSIFICATION

Is diversifying the library’s collection an intentional part of your collection development/selection goals?

 

LOCAL RACIAL DIVERSITY

  TOTAL% <60%
WHITE
60--75%
WHITE
76--89%
WHITE
90%+
WHITE

Diversity is a collection development
policy of my district/system

53.4 45.4 75.0 59.1 40.0

Diversity is a personal collection
development goal

73.2 73.9 59.8 75.4 77.7

Diversity is not stressed
when selecting

8.5 3.0 6.9 7.8 12.3

Don’t know

3.1 2.2 6.7 2.5 2.4

SOURCE: LJ DIVERSE MATERIALS SURVEY 2019

 

LANGUAGE

Some 80 percent of responding libraries purchase materials in languages other than English. Every single large library (those serving 500,000 or more people) does.

Spanish is far and away the leader, but French, Mandarin, Korean, and Russian also make strong showings. “Patrons are excited about our foreign language materials,” shared Deena Casell of New Jersey’s Cherry Hill Public Library. “We recently launched a series of ESL classes that draw a very diverse set of participants, and they appreciate our collection. We also have received positive feedback for our bilingual and foreign language materials in our early reader and picture book collections.” Eleven languages besides Spanish were mentioned by respondents as being part of their collections.

But these collections can be complex. “Population statistics do not tell the entire story and do not really show us what diverse populations want,” said Kristi Lanzotti of Toledo Lucas County Public Library, OH. “Just because someone speaks Spanish doesn’t necessarily mean they want to read books for pleasure in Spanish. The materials we buy in other languages besides English are rarely checked out, so we struggle knowing if we are not buying the correct items or if there is really not a need for those materials.” Material for recent immigrants/English language learners scored high, however, at 75 percent, and are particularly popular in suburban libraries.

NEURODIVERSITY AND DISABILITY

Materials about neurodiverse characters (those with dyslexia, ADHD, or Tourette Syndrome, or those on the autistic spectrum) and those those with chronic physical ailments saw widespread adoption at 83 and 79 percent respectively. Neurodiverse are most easily found in suburban libraries; Small town libraries are the most likely to buy materials depicting chronic illness or disabilities.

OWN VOICES

When it comes to “own voices” materials (those that not only feature characters or subjects who are members of a particular group, but are authored by a member of that same group) only 58 percent of respondents are aware of the term. It’s better known to those in larger libraries and urban and suburban areas—practically all respondents in libraries serving more than 500,000 people are aware of the term. Of those who know the term and make buying recommendations or decisions, 62 percent intentionally seek own voices titles for their collections (84 percent of the largest libraries). Areas with a younger population are more likely to make an effort to find own voices titles (70 percent where the median age is under 40, 49 percent where it is over 40).

DIVERSE SOURCES

To find the diverse titles they seek, respondents get their ideas from a wide variety of sources. Library Journal, named by 83 percent of respondents, nudged out Booklist at 79 percent and beat Amazon by 21 percentage points. Word of mouth from patrons (73 percent) and colleagues (69 percent) were also popular. Other resources cited by individual respondents include Book Riot, We Need Diverse Books, Mighty Girl, The Root, Brown Girl Reading, Goodreads lists, Publishers Weekly, and Bookpage. Despite this range of options, “Many of the diverse materials available are not being reviewed (example: contemporary poetry from diverse racial/cultural/sexual voices),” says Laurie Handshu of Nashville Public Library, TN. “We have found that responsiveness to patron requests is very valuable to increasing diversity in the collection.” When it comes time to buy those newly discovered materials, Baker & Taylor is the go-to choice, followed by Amazon and Ingram. Only 18 percent buy direct from publishers, 17 percent from local booksellers, 15 percent direct from authors, and 5 percent use specialty online booksellers such as Multicultural Books and Videos. Those who find it difficult to find diverse materials are more likely to buy direct from publishers.

Print books and DVDs/Blu-rays are by far the most popular formats. Libraries serving populations that are more than 75 percent white circulate print books over ebooks to a slightly greater extent than other libraries. Audiobooks surpass ebooks everywhere except in libraries serving populations over 100,000. “It is easier to provide diverse materials in e-formats,” says Handshu.

Several respondents mentioned the importance of including less obvious sources, such as small presses and social media personalities. “My selectors use lists provided by vendors, [along with] our ‘suggest an item’ form, and will look for ‘best of’ lists published by librarians and bloggers on specific topics [around] racial representation,” added Kittrell.

Only 12 percent of respondents noted it was “very difficult” or “difficult” to find diverse titles. That said, though, some genres prove harder than others. “Yes, we have some representation of diversity in general fiction, but try finding true diversity in adventure, suspense, or cozy mysteries,” noted Thais Rousseau of Capital Area District Library in Lansing, MI. “We can say ‘Oh, we have this author or that.’ But it is few authors in a very large collection. If you try to match to population diversity at our most diverse locations, it’s actually impossible.”

Several respondents mentioned partnering with community members and diversity groups to inform their collections and pinpoint the materials patrons really want. While it can sometimes be frustrating to find the most-needed diverse materials, Rousseau sees a bright spot. “There is definitely more available than a few years ago, and we are more aware of going out to look for inclusive materials.”

 

DIVERSE CHARACTERS AND SUBJECTS COLLECTED

Does your library make an effort to purchase books or media with main characters or subjects represented by any of the following?

ETHNICITY %   SEXUAL ORIENTATION AND GENDER IDENTITY %
Black or African American 92.0   Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual 86.3

Hispanic/Latinx

86.5   Straight/Heterosexual 77.6

Biracial/Multiracial

80.0   Trans 66.8

Asian, East Asian, Southeast Asian

67.8   Gender nonconforming 59.9

White/Non-Hispanic

66.5   Cisgender 46.9

Native or Indigenous peoples, First Nations

65.2   Asexual 33.6

Arab or Middle Eastern

60.4   Intersex 32.8
         

RELIGION/SPIRITUALITY

%   OTHER FACTORS %

Christian

82.1   Neurodiverse 82.7
Jewish 74.3   Chronic illnesses or disabiities 78.9
Muslim 70.8   Recent immigrants / English Language Learners 75.2
Buddhist 54.9      
Hindu 53.2   SOURCE: LJ DIVERSE MATERIALS SURVEY 2019  
Atheist 48.2      

NOT YET AN INSTITUTIONAL GOAL

Ensuring a diverse library collection is a personal goal of 73 percent of respondents across urban, suburban, small town, and rural libraries alike—but it’s a formal policy for only 53 percent.

Perhaps the most surprising finding was that of the libraries that serve the most diverse populations, only 45 percent say a diverse collection is a goal. A mere two percent of respondents report that a specific percentage of their materials budget is earmarked for diverse selections. In those cases, that budget share is, on average, around 16 percent.

Creating truly diverse library offerings that fully serve the needs of the whole community can’t be done without knowing where the gaps are. But only nine percent of respondents reported that their library had ever conducted a diverse materials audit (five percent of the smallest libraries to 13 percent of the largest). Another 14 percent are making plans for one, and others are coming up with alternative ways to assess the diversity of their collections.

“With a collection of more than 400K materials, we can’t audit everything,” noted Elizabeth Bird of Evanston Public Library in Evanston, IL. “[Neighboring] Skokie Public Library, however, has a novel solution. They closely monitor the books in their displays and used with their programming and track the use of inclusive collections that way. Going forward, we’re going to follow this model.” (For more on Skokie’s methods, see “Measuring Diversity in the Collection,” by Annabelle Mortensen).

Skokie is not alone in its programming focus: when developing programs for patrons, inclusivity is considered “always” or “often” by 68 percent of respondents who are involved in program development. (70 percent routinely consider diverse material for displays, though this dips to about 50 percent of those in rural and small libraries.) Interestingly, suburban respondents were slightly more likely than their urban counterparts to say they “always” take diversity into account when planning programming (32 vs. 29 percent), while those who worked in libraries serving a large non-white population chose “always” less often than expected (40 percent).

DIVERSITY AUDITS

Has your library ever conducted a diversity audit of its adult book collection,
a portion of it, or your outgoing book orders to identify the baseline or evaluate the current situation with respect to diversity present in your library’s collection?

   

Yes

5.5%

No, but we are planning to

12.2%

No, and no plans

52.2%

Don’t know

30.0%

SOURCE: LJ DIVERSE MATERIALS SURVEY 2019

 

REQUESTS AND RECEPTION

Of those respondents who conduct readers’ advisory, 38 percent report that patrons “sometimes” specifically ask for materials with characters or subject matter that match their backgrounds, with an even split between patrons who request them “often” and “rarely.” Large libraries and those serving diverse populations, as one might expect, get more such requests.

Reponses revealed that urban and suburban library-goers express the most interest in reading about those unlike themselves; rural patrons, the least. Not a single survey respondent, though, said patrons were “never” responsive to suggested materials that didn’t match their backgrounds. “I find that most of the time individuals want good books and are more interested in plot than if the characters happen to look like them,” observed Sheryl Thomas of Erie County Public Library in Erie, PA. “Readers matching, or not, the ethnicity or characteristics of the character rarely, if ever, comes up.”

READERS’ ADVISORY AND DIVERSITY

When conducting readers’ advisory, how often...

  ALWAYS OFTEN SOMETIMES RARELY NEVER

Do patrons specifically ask for materials with characters or subjects that match their own backgrounds?

2% 30% 38% 27% 3%

Are patrons responsive to material suggestions with characters or subjects differing from their own background?

2% 33% 55% 10% 0%

SOURCE: LJ DIVERSE MATERIALS SURVEY 2019

 

GETTING THE WORD OUT

Promotion of diverse materials comes primarily through physical displays in the library (85 percent) and readers’ advisory (60 percent). ·The library catalog plays the biggest role in large libraries and those that serve a highly diverse community. Programming is a bigger factor in urban and large libraries, at 70 percent and 92 percent respectively. Communities that are less than 60 percent white rely on word of mouth much less than average: 38 percent vs. 54 percent.

“Our staff receives training on representation and are encouraged to create displays that represent a diverse cross-section of individuals,” reported Mary Kinser of Whatcom County Library System in Bellingham, WA. “Our display signs and other materials support and celebrate diversity.”


METHODOLOGY

A survey invite was emailed to U.S. public libraries on February 15, 2019 with a reminder on February 22. In addition, a survey link was advertised via LJ enewsletters and social media. The survey closed on March 11, 2019 with 357 responses from U.S. libraries only.

The public library diverse materials survey was developed, hosted, and tabulated in-house. Responses have been weighted to better reflect the breakdown of public libraries in the United States by population served.

Demographic information including household income, racial diversity, and median age of residents based on zip code was collected from CDX Technologies and appended to the sample.


Christina Vercelletto, former News Editor at School Library Journal, writes for Education Dive, Family Circle, Trip Advisor, and NY Metro Parents

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