Librarians & #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Have you supported #WeNeedDiverseBooks yet? What started off as a virtual movement has now become a full-fledged force.  Their fundraising drive met their goal in less than a month. (but you should still donate if you can!) The best part of the fundraising is that it backs up concrete, measurable results which will ensure that diverse books get out to a more children and teens.  Among the many cool goals, I have to admit my favorite is the one about funding not just an award but a grant for new writers – both named after the legendary (and beloved by me) Walter Dean Myers.  THESE are the kind of actions that need to be taken if we want to open up and PUSH the conversation/sales/and attention of diverse titles AND authors!

In several Twitter chats and interactions, I’ve noticed that people who don’t work in libraries are curious about how to – or even if they should – approach their (mostly public) librarians about stocking more diverse titles. I thought it might be helpful to have some tips on the best way to do this if you, a library user, want to interact with your librarian about the diversity in your library.  Now, of course, I can’t speak to every situation and you should use, well … approach your librarian as if that person has good intentions.  Because, 99.9% of the time, trust me when I tell you we do.  Librarians want to support diverse books.  We see.  We know.  More than you can imagine, we see the impact books have on children, we understand what it means when they find themselves in text.  We do.  And we want more diverse books and more diverse collections – but we’re limited by time and budget and staffing and a thousand little things that pull apart our days and responsibilities. That’s the reality of working in a public library in these times when everything from budgets to “so, hey eBooks are putting you out of business, huh?” presses in on us every single day.  But we care.  We do. Before you have any conversation with your librarian about diversity: try very hard (outside any previous experience that has given you cause to doubt) to presume good intentions. What else can you do?

Get to know your librarian!

We live for your questions.  We want nothing more than to talk to you about books.  We want to hear what you’re reading.  We want to recommend favorites.  And, most of all, we want to hear about what YOU want to see/read at the library.  Go ahead and ask the person behind the desk in the children/teen department what THEY are reading.  And, yes, ask them about diverse books

  • Be specific: “I’m interested in some picture books with African-American characters.”
  • Use examples of titles/authors you like: “I love the Lulu books by Hilary McKay. Can you recommend some others like that?”
  • Talk about what you want IN ADDITION to diversity: “My daughter loves books with action and adventure.  Can you recommend some diverse titles that would fit in with that?”
Once you have started this conversation, it will be easier to approach your librarian about requests or gaps you see in the collection. And, side bonus, you’ll get good recommendations.  Now, your librarian might not be some kind of machine that can spit out recommendations at the drop of a hat but here’s what questions like this do: indicate to your librarian that there is patron interest in these kind of books and let your librarian know that these are the kind of books they should be familiar with/able to booktalk and recommend. Say you’ll come back while they have time to compile a list, give your librarian a chance to do some research.

Submit your requests!

Almost all libraries accept patron requests.  This doesn’t mean they will buy everything yoyu request.  Budgets just don’t make that possible and neither do each library’s individual collection development policies, which vary from library to library but SHOULD be available to any patron that asks to see them.  But the point is … you are not inventing the wheel by asking if you can submit purchase requests.  DO NOT feel nervous, pushy, hesitant, or ashamed about submitting purchase requests. We get asked this often for more stuff than you could possibly imagine. Your library probably has a purchase request form on their website.  Here’s a few random examples:

If you feel hesitant about talking to a librarian about this, you can get to most online forms with a little bit of Googling or digging around at their website.  You can also ask in person for a paper purchase request – yes, those still exist.  (Well, in MOST libraries, I guess.)  As far as I know, libraries don’t “prioritize” one over the other.  BUT don’t just go spamming libraries with purchase requests if you don’t live there/have never even been to their library.  Most libraries require your patron info any way, so we’d notice. (and it doesn’t make us kindly inclined to your suggestions, trust.)

Now, that stuff might seem pretty self-evident.  But here’s the reason you got to know your librarian!  You can approach your librarian about WHY you want to purchase these books.  Sometimes the forms have space for this – fill it it!  But other times they don’t – but, hey!  You got to know your librarian!

How do libraries/librarians decide to buy books?  Well, it differs from library to library. But we all have (or should have) collection development policies.  These guide our purchasing decisions.  But so do other things.  Like budgets.  Like patron interest. (these elements can be built into collection development guidelines.) And, as you have no doubt heard countless times: libraries also use reviews and awards to help guide collection development.  That’s why those things matter, you see.

And that’s why you should use them to your advantage! Mention these lists.  Tell your librarian you’ll check out the award titles.  Award lists with patron interest?  Now that’s something a librarian can make a case for.  Not sure what lists to mention?  Luckily, I have some suggestions. For the most part, these are awards given by the American Library Association and its divisions (because this is, of course, the professional organization for librarians) but there are some others worth noting. Enjoy these handy direct direct links:

Coretta Scott King Award (lots of libraries carry these winners: but what about the Honor books?)
Schneider Family Book Award (for books that best embody the disability experience)
Pura Belpré Award (another good list to check on the Honor titles)
Stonewall Book Awards – Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award
Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature
American Indian Youth Literary Award
Amelia Bloomer List (feminist literature for ages 0-18)

Non-ALA Awards
Jane Addams Peace Association Book Award (promoting peace, social justice, equality)
Ezra Jack Keats Book Award (for, among other things, portraying the “multicultural nature of our world”)
Lambda Literary (category for Children’s/Young Adult)
Américas Award (for portraying Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the United States)
Sydney Taylor Book Award (awarded by the National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature)
NAACP Image Award for Literature (categories for Children & Teen)

>If you have a blogger or website that you think gives particularly insightful and comprehensive reviews, you should feel free to talk to your librarian about that source too.  Maybe they’re familiar with them, maybe they’re not and they can add a new review source. For example: Debbie Reese has recommended lists on Native Americans in Children’s Literature and Twinja Reviews had a ton of lists for Black Speculative Fiction Month, including smaller press stuff which can be hard to find reviews of.

What about donations? Self-published stuff?

First, thank you for thinking of your library!  Now give us money.  Haha, just kidding.  Sorta.

The real first thing is: gifts are not free. When you donate something to a library, we have to take staff time and our own materials to process it and catalog it so it can be added to the collection.  Someone also has to decide if it belongs in the library collection, which goes back to using our collection development guidelines. So, that takes time and money and it’s time and money some libraries don’t have, which is why they may not accept donations and why you should ask what your library’s policies and procedures for donations/gifts are first.

Next is the self-publishing issue.  There’s a great conversation about self-published books, how they get reviewed, and what that means for libraries at The Horn Book.  There’s many people saying smart and thoughtful things there, but I will give you a little bit of my librarian’s perspective.  First, we just can’t circulate paperback picture books or easy readers.  They fall apart and they are not worth staff time processing them. If you want us to buy/add a picture book or easy reader?  It’ll have to be hardcover. Second, I have run the numbers.  In my library, I have STATISTICALLY seen that overall, the self-published books that were donated and then added to our collection circulate less than traditionally published books.  That is absolutely going to be a factor in my decision about adding titles. Does this mean we would never add self-published books?  No, of course not.  We have and will again – but it does mean that they are held to a higher standard. I don’t mean for this post to be THE ULTIMATE GUIDE ON HOW TO GET YOUR SELF-PUBLISHED BOOK IN LIBRARIES!!1 I don’t think that exists, for one thing, and every library will have a different set of guidelines and standards about this – because this is a new field and because every community is different. There’s also the issue of where libraries will be able to obtain your self-published title from and if their purchasing guidelines allow for them to buy from those services. And you know what that leaves you with, should you be wishing to urge a librarian to buy your self-published book/donate it?  It leads you right back to step #1: get to know your librarian!

And there you go!  Those are some ways you can really interact with your librarian (and your library shelves) when it comes to finding out about new diverse material AND requesting your library’s shelves grow even more diverse.  Just as we should speak up to the publishing world and let them know that, yes, we will buy and promote and be excited about diverse titles, that we want more to share with children and teens, so should we talk to librarians about this – and I mean this if you’re a library user or if you’re a fellow librarian reading this now.

What are YOU doing, fellow librarians, to make patrons aware of your diverse collection? What are you doing to EXPAND your collection? 

Do you make it easy for patrons to figure out how they can request titles, are you forms easily accessible? Do you do displays with the books face out for cultural heritage months?  Do you include diverse titles on your best books for fifth grade! recommended reading lists or your staff favorites?  Do you put your diverse titles face-out where patrons can find them browsing?  Do you booktalk diverse titles on school visits or when asked for recs?  Do you talk to your child/teen patrons about why this issue is important and impacts them?  Are you making a conscious effort to expand the doors and windows in your collection, to address gaps, to make sure your collection is diverse and TRUE to?

This is now in OUR hands.  Let’s do something about it.

If you have any questions – or even better suggestions – about how diversity in library collections and what you can/should do about it as a library user OR a librarian, I’d love to continue the conversation!  You can leave a comment here or talk to me on Twitter.  Let’s keep this momentum and this movement going – we owe to our patrons.

6 Responses to “Librarians & #WeNeedDiverseBooks”

  1. Mary

    As a librarian and an advocate for diverse books, I love everything about this post! So well-written – thank you so much!

  2. Andrea S.

    It seems there are no awards that recognize disability as an important form of diversity– or at least, I see none listed here, and am not aware of any from my other sources of information. This seems to create a situation where books representing disabled characters are at an automatic disadvantage, since there is no systematic approach to recognizing the best books with disabled characters. This in addition to the fact that even many of the people who talk about the importance of diversity still forget the importance of disability representation.

    Would librarians be likely to listen to reviews from a blog like Since this is the only place I know of that is focused exclusively on disability in young adult literature, and that relies completely on reviewers who share the same disability (or at least a similar one) to the disability of the main character? (I know of none like it for other kinds of literature, only young adult. I’ve occasionally seen some places trying to be inclusive of all diversity include a category for disability, but it’s not always clear to me if the people deciding which books are best actually are people with disabilities themselves or just well-intentioned non-disabled people. Because non-disabled people, even with the best of intentions, do sometimes praise some really problematic books as being “authentic” because they seem consistent with the non-disabled person’s ideas of what they THINK it must be like to have that disability. “The curious incident of the dog in the night time” is a perfect example of this — non-disabled people praise it as a book that includes an autistic character, but many autistic adults I know in the Autistic community really hate it because they feel it is very inaccurate and stereotyping.

    Also, since librarians are more likely to buy books recognized by some award … any thoughts or tips on how to get a prominent award started for recognizing books with disabled characters? Not that I’m in a position to do anything about it, but to get me (or others) thinking about the issue. It would have to be a disability-led initiative, meaning the selections should be made by people with disabilities themselves–or else, many people with disabilities wouldn’t trust it.

  3. Nic

    Great post! Especially the advice about using awards lists when approaching librarians about adding books. Smart and helpful!

    I’m a teen services librarian, and I love putting diverse books on our display racks. I also include them in readalikes brochures for popular books (“If You Like The Hunger Games, Try . . .”). There are a lot on our websites Recommended Teen Reads page, too.

    I usually talk about these books in terms of their universal appeal factors – whatever will get the broadest audience to read them. This may not be a perfect way to handle it, because I don’t want to deny the importance of the race-specific (or orientation-specific, etc.) experiences of the characters, but it seems to work well in our community. This is why I especially love books that feature people of color/queer couples/etc. on the covers. It’s great to be able to say, “And here’s an awesome thriller/dystopia/fantasy/romance/whatever,” and have readers just SEE that those categories can include stories about all kinds of people.

  4. Susan

    Thank you for this! This list of awards is a great resource. Our library has diverse collection, but I’m not very sophisticated about accessing it. I just browse and pick up things that look interesting. Award lists are very helpful for getting acquainted with books I would not otherwise read.