The growing conversation surrounding the need for diversity in teen literature is wonderful—it is essential, it is long overdue, but it is only a starting point. Wait, what? Yes, a starting point. If we are not using those diverse collections in our library promotions, programming, and reader’s advisory with all students, we are diluting their influence. Furthermore, if diverse collections are housed in libraries that are not inclusive and welcoming to all youth, then we are negating the power of those collections.

“Diversity is not ‘praiseworthy’: it is reality.” Malinda Lo’s recent statement  can serve to remind librarians that focusing on diversity is not an extra facet of our job. It is central to what we do. Consider these facts:

  • In the 2014-2015 school year, youth of color were projected to make up the majority of students attending American public schools (not just urban public schools, but ALL public schools)
  • Approximately 9.1% of students attending America’s schools are English Language Learners
  • Approximately 10% of the general youth population in the United States identifies as LGBTQ+
  • One in 45 youth experience homelessness in America each year [references for all of these statistics can be found here]

YALSA’s The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action details even further the significant shift in the demographics of teens. To paraphrase Ernest Morrell (2015), our multicultural America is in our libraries no matter where we are.

Library collections obviously need to reflect the diversity of our nation. But that is just the beginning. Public and school libraries must be inclusive. Inclusive libraries are staffed by librarians who are culturally competent, use their diverse collections with all teens, identify and remove barriers, and have an expanded definition of ‘the library as a safe space’. In this two-part blog post, we will briefly examine these components. Our goal is broaden the conversation about the needs of diverse youth beyond diverse literature, and to highlight the need for librarians to engage in discussions about equity and inclusivity.

The Culturally Competent Librarian

What is a culturally competent librarian? Cultural competence is defined by Patricia Montiel Overall (2009) as “the ability to recognize the significance of culture in ones’ own life and in the lives of others…and to fully integrate the culture of diverse groups into services, work, and institutions.”  What does this look like in practice? It involves creating more equitable environments, establishing relationships with diverse communities, and approaching youth and their families from an asset-driven perspective.  It means understanding the racial and ethnic identity development of youth of color. It entails utilizing teaching strategies like those discussed in an Introduction to Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom. It also includes recognizing the structural inequalities that exist across institutions in the US—including within our educational system. Beverly Tatum’s book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race deals with these topics.

Research shows that cultural competency leads to responsive practice, improved services, and an increase in library use. More importantly, it leads to improved academic achievement, resiliency, expanded educational opportunities, and equitable life outcomes for youth of color, youth who identify as LGBT, youth experiencing homelessness, and youth who are incarcerated (Hanley & Noblit, 2009; GLSEN, 2014).

A primary step in becoming culturally competent is being aware of the biases we bring to our work. Implicit biases and privilege are real and yes, they can be manifested in our libraries. Harvard has a series of enlightening on-line tests to measure implicit biases across a wide range of topics. Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack explores the advantages afforded to those who belong to the dominant culture. The Show Me Librarian’s blog post Selection is Privilege  and Malinda Lo’s blog post Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews discuss literature-related examples of implicit bias and privilege.

Cultural competence is critical to supporting the needs of all youth; however, ALA must also continue to expand its efforts to diversify the LIS workforce. As an LIS community, we must work to increase the number of professionals and staff who reflect the demographics of the diverse communities we’re trying to reach.

Using Diverse Collections

Libraries that are inclusive don’t just feature diverse titles in February or promote diverse titles only to diverse youth. In inclusive libraries, diverse books are promoted year round with all teens—just like the other books in our libraries. Every display—whether fantasy, graphic novels, anything!—includes books with diverse characters. If we’re having trouble doing that, then this might be a sign that our collections aren’t deep enough.

In creating diverse collections, we must look beyond award winning titles, historical fiction, social issue books, and biographies. If all the diverse titles in our collection fall into one of these four categories, this is problematic. We must  keep Malinda Lo’s words in mind: “Even though we need books that talk about race and racism, we also need books where characters of color can simply have the same kind of plot-driven adventures that white characters have all the time.” In creating diverse collections we can utilize a wide-range of tools including:  

As our knowledge of diverse titles grows, we must be intentional in our efforts to incorporate these titles into our reader’s advisory—with all teens. Fantasy-lovers? Let’s give them Ash. Shadowshaper. Otherbound. A Hunger Games fan? Booktalk Killer of Enemies. Post-apocalyptic titles more their style? Recommend The Living and Orleans. Young teens graduating from the Wimpy Kid years? Offer The Great Greene Heist.

In addition to using diverse titles in individual reader’s advisory, we must also incorporate them into book clubs, summer reading lists, classroom book talks, and library programming in meaningful ways. School librarians must collaborate with teachers to incorporate diverse literature across the curriculum— a first step in implementing culturally relevant pedagogy. Oakland Public Library’s #BlackLivesMatter Resource Series contains a host of ways we can use diverse books with teens, including using them to engage teens in discussions about issues related to equity. As librarians, we’re perfectly situated to do this as YA literature offers a way to open up this dialogue with teens.

Finally, school librarians must also remember to provide tools to help school staff understand diverse students’ culture and how to capitalize on it. Lots of resources are out there, but Teaching Tolerance magazine and Rethinking Schools are two “must have” resources for educators who see diversity as a strength. Books by Alfred Tatum, Lisa Delpit, Pedro A. Noguera, Beverly Tatum, and A. Wade Boykin are must-reads. We also need to introduce staff to the writing of individuals like Jose Vilson, Rafranz Davis, and Meeno Rami  who write about, among other things, diversity in K-12 education.

Julie Stivers (@BespokeLib) is a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science and works with teens at the Durham County Youth Home and at a local public school.

Sandra Hughes-Hassell (@bridge2lit)is a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science where her research focuses on social justice and libraries.

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