Literature is a fulcrum— it provides a balance of entertainment and information to readers around the world who are in search of ways to better understand everything from history, to technology, to the cultural communities and spaces that are different from their own. Every day new authors emerge who share their stories and the stories of others through non-fiction books, novels, articles, personal narratives, and other forms of writing.
Bookstores and libraries are known for working with their communities to create collections of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) literature that reflect cultural narratives, historic pursuits of constitutional equality, promote visibility and inclusivity and reflect their community and its politics. Leaders in the book world know that diverse literature is a necessity for anyone seeking information on how to better understand the world around them. This is especially true during times of social and racial injustice, as many non-People of Color communities are either not familiar or not comfortable with speaking about minority communities or lack access to minority-owned spaces. Diverse literature cultivates a neutral environment for readers to explore specific cultural and racial intersections, spectrums of gender and sexual identity, and various narratives.
While bookstores, libraries, and similar learning environments are community staples with safe spaces for everyone, many readers continue to struggle to utilize the appropriate language, rhetoric, and insight to reflect authentic solidarity. Writers of color and their narratives provide important perspectives for readers to interpret the everyday life, struggles, and growth of communities different from their own. The balance of entertainment and information truly takes readers anywhere they wish to go.
Cultural movements like Black Lives Matter, the importance of Hispanic and Latino visibility, and the increasing representation of Asian authors on best-selling book lists are a progressive reflection of cultural community inclusion. Conversely, a lack of library representation, literary inclusion, and visibility are some of the three least observed components of diversity in literature.
More diverse librarians
True change comes from within— you do not find it in the world, you share it with the world. Recently, there has been a great increase of readers seeking diverse stories and books due to bouts of isolation as well as racial and social tension. Diverse literature provides people with the opportunity to explore and address personal reservations, prejudices, and subconscious contributions to discriminatory practices and thinking.
Libraries are typically a neutral environment where people can learn and challenge their biases but social distancing due to COVID-19 has limited many from entering a library and properly exploring cultural narratives. Proper representation conserves neutral spaces for readers and patrons. Library and librarian representation provides authentic lifelines and bridges to communities that are often underserved.
Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) representation is a priority in any profession, yet libraries across the US reflect a dimmer picture of inclusion. According to ALA’s Diversity Counts 2007 revised report, 89 percent of credentialed librarians were white, while five percent of credentialed librarians were African American, and only three percent Latino. This lack of representation and reduced access to libraries during social distancing makes it even more difficult for people to access diverse writing.
Gabrielle Montaño, a New Mexican law librarian, knows first hand how important diverse representation can be. While discussing the various resources diverse literature often must provide, Montaño shared her experience working with a mother-daughter pair and their need for a different resource medium. “The resource itself wasn’t unique but how we came to it was,” she said. In order to provide the mother and daughter with the resource they needed, Montaño turned to an interpreter. “We had to use an official interpreter because communication is important and very often important legal terms aren’t translated correctly. When someone isn’t available to interpret, we have other accessible resources.”
Montaño also shared her insight about representation in librarianship. “Even though the profession itself might not reflect the population, I do believe librarians, regardless of race or ethnicity, are able to provide services, resources, and programs for their community by seeking help and information from people different from them.” Montaño feels certain that while more diverse librarians and booksellers will create a more diverse world of books, any leader in books can help direct people to the right resources for the diverse perspective they are searching for.
Kelly S. Williams, technical services supervisor/academic librarian in Texas, says that one of her favorite parts of being a librarian is creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable.
“The most essential aspect is to ensure that every patron can walk into your library and find something that they can relate to or that represents them. I did not have books that represented me in my local library growing up. I had to seek them out. I do not want patrons to feel the same lack of validation or representation that I felt.”
Williams says that in order to create these kinds of environments with adequate representation, you have to provide essential, non-biased support to patrons seeking literature about People of Color. Providing unbiased support further encourages a reader’s exploration and usage of literature.
“I try to find literature that does not enforce negative stereotypes about people of color— or has [main characters who are] People of Color ” she continued, “I make sure to display these books on our new bookshelf, so our patrons know they are readily available.”
However, some librarians worry about displaying this kind of literature for fear of being offensive. Frederick Cox, reference librarian at a special library in the Fulton County Public Library System, says that you can’t worry about that anymore.
“The truth of the matter is we cannot refrain from selecting an item because it offends a specific person or group of people. There was a time when communities were having a problem with Harry Potter books — some parents were complaining about these books glorifying witchcraft and other parents had no problem with it. Eventually, the latter group won out. So, you can never be discriminatory.”
Both Williams and Cox are examples of leaders in the book world who are giving people access to more diverse books. The more that librarians and booksellers just like them curate collections of diverse perspectives, the easier it will be for people to access writers and narratives that challenge them to think outside of their own worldview.
Many readers and scholars gravitate to literature to better understand the world, culture, and communities around them. Readers seeking insight and information on BIPOC narratives and communities may not know how to locate literature that authentically reflects POC narratives. A great way to increase a reader’s attraction to diverse books is intriguing and inspiring book covers and art that illustrate Black, Brown, and other People of Color.
Cox shared his insight about how to properly accommodate readers seeking literature during any racial and social injustice. “The first thing is to know your patrons. Find out their interests. Surveys and questionnaires can help with this,” he said. “What we call a reference interview is really a dialogue. When a patron comes in to seek literature about a subject of interest, the librarian has to ask questions.” Those questions can lead to the right book for that patron, and it can help the librarian determine what other patrons might want to see.
Lack of diversification encourages xenophobia, biased environments, and arguments that do not cultivate neutral learning spaces or progressive conversations. In order to diversify literature, libraries, booksellers, other spaces of learning, and even scholastic exploration must maintain a neutral surrounding for readers to explore without judgment, bias, or interference.
Proper library representation, visibility, and inclusion are essential to bridging communities and literature together. Craft a great book list, conduct your research with appropriate resources, and continue to read. As the fulcrum of entertainment and knowledge, literature is one of the most powerful resources for discovering and understanding the diverse world around you.