#WeNeedDiverseBooks in Academic Libraries

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from AJ Robinson, Islamic Studies & South Asian Studies Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Some people don’t expect to see themselves in the library.” This comment from Vivek Shraya, 2015 recipient of the South Asia Book Award, was a moment of clarity at the Conference on South Asia in Madison. The conversation among book award authors addressed #WeNeedDiverseBooks, an online campaign that has highlighted issues of exclusion in mainstream literature industries. “Diverse books” generally feature characters of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBTQIA identities, and/or varying abilities. Many libraries with a strong focus on serving young readers have embraced the campaign with displays, booktalks, and new collection development strategies. There has yet to be significant traction for this campaign in academic libraries, so as academic librarians we must ask ourselves: do our users see themselves in the stacks?

Despite the influx of university diversity and inclusion programs, minority students at many schools continue to report feeling like outsiders. The topic of diverse books exposed a critical gap for supporting my students—a visible collection that explicitly recognizes their presence. Making diverse books prominent in academic libraries is a necessary component for welcoming all users.

At my library, I started expanding the Popular Literature (PopLit) collection with novels and other non-scholarly titles representing authors, protagonists, and themes related to South Asia. PopLit is located on the main floor next to study spaces and arranged by genre for browsability. I also noticed other gaps in the collection, including a need for representation of my other subject specialty, Islamic Studies. Working with PopLit had the benefit of collaborating with other bibliographers, reducing strain on subject-specific collection budgets, and (most importantly) placed the books on shelves more accessible for casual browsing.

The push for diversity in books speaks to wider issues in systematic exclusion, including standard selection tools such as mainstream publishers and reviewers. Booklists such as the South Asia Book Awards and blogs like Arabic Literature (in English) have been instrumental in building a core collection. I also sought out alternative publishers such as Arsenal Pulp Press, Other Press, and Seven Stories Press. In selecting books, I prioritized finding authors who speak directly from personal experiences to balance popular journalist, travel writer, or ghost-writer accounts. I also sought materials with a wide variety of genres and formats, such as graphic novels and poetry.

To reach a wider spectrum of genres, my most useful tool were lists on GoodReads. Lists like “Desi Chick Lit,” “South Asians in Contemporary YA,” “Fiction featuring Muslim Women,” and “Queer Islam,” among others, were useful for identifying novels appropriate for pleasure reading, and the user-submitted reviews helped evaluate literary and content quality. Although GoodReads is now owned by Amazon, it’s possible to change the interface to easily check availability through BetterWorldBooks or IndieBound.

In processing new titles, student workers curate books for display on the centrally located New Books Shelf. The YA novels have eye-catching covers that draw interest to the shelves even from a distance. I also found an opportunity to promote the books through collaboration with the campus Center for Diversity and Inclusion, which is housed on the second floor of the library. We arranged to display a monthly book exhibit related to their programs. New PopLit titles complemented and balanced relevant academic texts. Books circulated from the exhibit each month, and several students expressed appreciation for the display.

If students immediately recognize that the library is intended for them, they are far more likely to see the rest of the services we provide. As librarians we must be deliberate and proactive to “meet users where they are.” Building and promoting the collection has challenged perceptions of the library to open conversations and outreach on campus. While a book collection alone cannot address the deep inequalities embedded in higher education, it is an important opportunity to show users that we see and value them in the library.

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