Tag Archives: collection development

#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.

Thoughts on Weeding

As much as I enjoy the technology-focused projects I work on as an emerging technologies librarian, I also don’t spend as much time as I might like with our print collection. Since I am also a our psychology liaison, I do have collection development responsibilities which require a better familiarity with relevant areas of the collection. I see the books quite a bit while roaming around the library or helping students locate materials during reference and instruction interactions, but I don’t always have regular occasions to just browse our stacks. This means it was a rare treat for me to spend about an hour of quality time in my liaison area’s reference section this morning.

My time with the books was not all fun and games. Due to space constraints and collection reorganization within the library, we need to reduce the size of our physical reference collection. Which means – that’s right! – I was weeding.

Weeding (or “deselection”) can be controversial and anxiety provoking. But it’s also a necessary reality for academic librarians who manage an infinitely growing body of information while faced with limited resources (time, money, space, etc.) to manage such information and a mission to curate collections that are useful and relevant within the context of our institutions.

As I was working with this subsection within our larger reference collection, I realized there are several reasons why weeding may be a particularly important learning activity for new librarians.

You learn what is in the collection.

Of course, there may be half-a-dozen other ways to learn what is in your collection. Simple browsing may be one way. Another may be discovering gems during other routine duties. And through my reference and instruction activities this semester I’ve certainly spent time looking for books on particular topics and gained a greater sense of some of our more popular materials. However, I find that picking up each book in turn and evaluating its place within the context of the rest of the collection gives me a much more intimate connection to the the collection as a unit.

You learn what you don’t have.

During a recent lunch discussion, one of my colleagues referred to weeding as “pruning.” I like this analogy, because weeding can lead to growing and strengthening the collection. Although I was looking to remove items, I also learned which topics are covered in the collection but need updated or more balanced information, and I found areas which should be completely revamped. For instance, I chose to pull an older volume on human intelligence. However, as I moved through the rest of the section and later checked our catalog for e-reference sources, I discovered this item was the only reference work about intelligence available in the collection. Given that “intelligence” could be a topic in several different courses across our social science curriculum, it’s an important gap to fill. Knowing this, I can seek out alternatives for replacement.

You learn to identify good places for new resources.

Since, as discussed above, I found myself needing to replace items removed to the collection, weeding led to a search for new material. Although I remember learning about finding quality, authoritative materials in graduate school courses on reference services and collection development, it was definitely no substitute for real-world librarian-esque shopping. Particularly in the reference collection, where cost of materials can be significantly higher than materials for the general collection, learning where and how to find the best materials is a vital skill for new librarians learning to curate useful and authoritative collections.

You learn from your colleagues across the library.

For me, weeding led to a lot of questions. Of course, there are questions about how to evaluate materials and what type of information should be used in making deselection decisions. There are then additional questions about the process for physical removing items for the collection. And there are questions about selecting and purchasing new materials. These questions have been great conversation starters to learn from more experienced colleagues, and are a significant reason to talk to people in several different departments (reference and instruction, technical services, etc.).


Since I was working with a relatively small subsection of the reference collection to begin with, I did not remove more than a handful of books. And several of those will be moved to the stacks or are available electronically, so the net change in the collection is relatively small. But, in just an hour or two, I gained a greater understanding of the types of reference materials available within my liaison area, as well as the areas which need more attention in the future. I learned more about collection development at my library and enjoyed several conversations with my colleagues regarding the state of our collection and the complexities of deselection. Although it is a bit daunting, particularly as a new librarian, to be responsible for deselection decisions, I’m inspired to continue investigating further collection development and analysis projects within the general collection.