Diversities: Curating and Sharing Books for Schools and School Libraries
Recently, our school’s SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity) and senior school GSA (gay-straight alliance) lead asked our K-12 library team, consisting of two teacher-librarians (including me) and a library technician, to share at and run a roundtable at a professional development day for our independent school association for other teacher-librarians and interested parties.
The focus of this event will be on finding, curating, and sharing diverse queer (LGBTQ2S+) content in our school libraries. Thinking about serving our diverse queer students and their allies also got me to thinking about how what we do in our library supports (or doesn’t) other types of diversity of marginalized people, such as diversity in ethnicity, ability/disabilty, and amongst racialized people. I don’t mean to give the topic of diversity short shrift by lumping various diversities together in this post, but since I struggle to write for this blog as is, I thought I’d better get out as much as I can while on a roll. Plus, there are a ton of people FAR more knowledgeable than I on these topics – best you look to them for depth. This blog is more of a place for me to reflect – if it happens to get you thinking too, or you find some other use for it, all the better.
First off, I’m not a big fan of tokenism, though I recognize the need for special events and days to recognize marginalized people (such as Coming Out Day), as it helps with awareness. But rather than just have a display the one time of the year, I rely on the help of our library technician to ensure that lots of books on various topics representing many groups of people are displayed all school-year long.
Secondly, and before I dive into the curation and sharing of diverse literature, we need to set the stage by creating a welcoming space to our entire student and staff population. School libraries have often been a place of refuge for students in need of it, as almost a third space (at least it can act as a third space some of the time), where students can gather. The library spaces at my school are not locked off, and though we have some restrictions, students are usually able to come and go as they please. I run low-key library clubs at lunch giving our students a legitimate place to hang out with their friends or make new friends playing games, participating in book clubs, and partaking in various other activities. The library also provides an opportunity for introverts and other students stressed by the social challenges of pre-teen/teen life (I work with grades 6-12) to recharge away from classroom crowds and concerns by tucking themselves in next to a quiet bookshelf to read.
How do we find diverse literature?
This is getting to be MUCH easier, as various educational organizations and publishers are increasingly prioritizing diversity, and the Internet can be an excellent portal to the blogs and websites of activists who round out the book lists of the former. Professional learning networks are still a thing. PLNs were quite the buzzword in education a decade ago, and despite the toxicity of some social media and the overall timesuck it is (I end up down so many rabbit holes), social media can still be a useful place to expand professionally provided you’re judicious in its use. In order to avoid overwhelm, I would pick a very few, but varied in perspective, social media handles and hashtags to follow. Alternatively, focus on a theme you’re wanting to become better at understanding each month (again, I’m not big on tokenism, but for professional development purposes, this might be a way to make a big subject manageable).
In terms of strategy, I personally don’t tend to go on focused shopping sprees where I only purchase for a specific genre or topic, although that happens on occasion when I discover, or have it pointed out to me that I’m a bit short in an area (e.g. recently my library technician let me know we’re short on fiction dealing with addiction, so I’ll make a concerted effort there). I do maintain a shopping list and attempt to be mindful that my purchases are varied enough.
Word-of-mouth via students and staff members is a key source of that shopping list. But, it’s also important to complete these suggestions with additional resources. In regards to diversities, students and staff may not be aware of all that’s out there, and each diverse “group” is not a monolith. Differing opinions, interests, and intersectionalities will result in different interests in literature and other resources. Further to this, it’s important not only to find resources specifically about marginalized people’s tribulations AND triumphs (for reasons of edification and bibliotherapy), but also to find books with diverse casts of characters just living their everyday lives, or saving the world from invading aliens, depending on the genre.
Here is a very small sampling of different types of sources, (additional to requests and recommendations of staff and students):
- International Association of School librarianship
- Canadian Library Association
- The School Librarian Workshop: most of the membership appears to be from the U.S., but there is some international presence and it is a very active place where educators support each other with ideas. During the height of the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer, many Black teacher-librarians regularly jumped in and shared their professional expertise – I learned a lot from this!
- BC Teacher-Librarians’ Association
- As an International Baccalaureate school with some university-level courses, I sometimes like to peruse the recent acquisitions of university library departments.
- The LM_Net Listserve – T-Ls around the world ask and answer questions using some old-school, but still useful, technology.
- EBSCO’s Novelist (requires a subscription): includes genres and various diversities such as LGBTQ2S+, as well as professional reviews and book lists/read alikes.
- Kirkus Reviews now explicitly describes the racialized physical characteristics of book characters.
- LitWorld – various lists (including diverse specific) from the organizers of World Read Aloud Day
- International Board on Books for Young People
- Young Adult Library Services Association has a variety of book lists.
- We Need Diverse Books
- School Library Journal: need a subscription to access much of it – if you have access to a database via your school district or public library system, try finding SLJ articles there.
- Booklist: again, access via databases if you don’t have a subscription.
- Articles from news agencies such as CBC’s “16 Books for Kids and Teens by Canadian LGBTQ Writers to Read for Pride Month”
- Blogs such as Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children’s Literature: note that she covers books about Indigenous Peoples from all over North America.
- An article from Shondaland: 11 Must-Read LGBTQ+ Young Adult Books That Prove Intersectionality Matters.
Note that there are organizations and companies such as I Dream Library which provide consulting services including book lists, diversity audits, and curriculum development. It is not enough for us to rely solely on the goodwill, time, and energy (emotional and otherwise) of people’s lived experiences to teach us how to be more aware of and sensitive to the issues marginalized people face. Where possible, invest in at least some of such services if you don’t have enough willing faculty-based expertise available.
Cataloguing and representing these resources in the school library:
Though I come with my own set of opinions regarding how to integrate diverse books and other resources into our library, it’s advisable to discuss this with others. I did talk to our SOGI lead who had been discussing this with the students in the GSA club. My personal belief is that there shouldn’t be a separate section for e.g. LGBTQ2S+, but rather that it should live amongst all the other books on the shelves – I’m a big believer in serendipitous discovery, and I was worried some students who would otherwise discover a fabulous queer book might avoid it if it was on “that” shelf, as we have a ways to go yet before variety amongst humans is celebrated. That said, I wanted to ensure queer students and their allies could easily find those books. I offered to add a queer-specific sticker to the spine, but though the GSA students shared my belief that queer lit should be interspersed with everything else, they didn’t necessarily want to “out” someone who might be exploring, or have students avoid books very visibly labelled with a queer designation. Unfortunately, that is still an issue in terms of peer and family pressure. By the way, I find this is also an issue for e.g. some neurodiverse students, not all of whom are “out” to their peers as they fear the stigma associated with e.g. autism spectrum disorder.
In lieu of an identifying genre sticker, there are plenty of ways to create lists so students can still easily find books which speak to them. Our library uses Follett Destiny and takes advantage of both the Resource Lists and the newer Collections feature – just some quick clicks and resources in your catalogue are added to these shareable lists. In the case of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) books, I do include books written by BIPOC authors which may not actually have BIPOC main characters, because such authors have traditionally lacked representation by publishers and I feel this is a way to support them. Additionally, a BIPOC teaching-colleague of mine made the point that BIPOC authors also bring their own perspectives to non-BIPOC focused stories. I do make it clear in the description of my ethnical groups/racialized peoples list that this is my practice.
I share out through social media such as Instagram and Twitter by e.g. adding pictures of books I have recently purchased. Admittedly I’ve been pretty slack on this. I think the pandemic has worn me out a bit, plus I’m not sure what I’d have to sacrifice in order to find the time. Just writing this though (a good reason to blog, if any) is a reminder to me to get on this.
It’s important to keep all staff, especially new staff, aware of library offerings as they in turn can help get the word out to students. Asides from social media (with which people are inundated and so messaging can be lost), newsletters and physical flyers can be put in the staffroom or on people’s desks as well as displayed around the school – these are more likely to be spotted. I once read somewhere a long while back (I can’t remember the source) the suggestion to put marketing posters in the school bathrooms where people can’t help but stare at it when they’re doing their business. It’s also great if you can share out in staff meetings or department meetings. Our library team will often pass new queer literature to faculty directly participating in the GSA clubs, as I know they’re cataloguing, in their brains, reads they can recommend to our students.
Additionally, our library technician is heavily involved with our school’s SOGI/GSA groups. She hefts piles of books covering a variety of diversities to the GSA club meetings to give book talks to the students.
Participation in school committees
Teacher-librarians often feel invisible, and marketing oneself and library programming seems to be a hedge against perceived obsolescence. There is also a temptation to attend every meeting out there in order to be seen as useful. I push back against this temptation, and I’m here to talk you out of jumping in to do too much in this regard because it’s often not the most effective way to use your time or support a project. I do belong to a couple of committees, such as our Future of Education group. I don’t usually participate in SOGI or Diversity of Education meetings, but I do provide support. Here is why:
- I can only spread myself so thin and still be effective.
- I believe the Future of Education includes groups such as SOGI and Diversity in Education – doing a better job of being inclusive, personalizing learning, and attending to the well-being of our community are important components of our educational future.
- I support those groups by working to be an (albeit imperfect) ally and then behind the scenes through e.g. resource purchases – if I spend my time in too many meetings, I don’t have time to research relevant books and purchase them. In my situation, more meetings can mean more talk rather than decisive action, and I think the latter is a better way for me to be supportive.
- I once wrote a book chapter on teacher-librarian collaboration with faculty (starting on p. 86 of the digital version of the book – sorry – it’s not set up to take you directly to my chapter). I discovered through my research that a key way to develop professional collaboration is the building of relationships and trust. This can be done, and may be more effective, through more casual conversations rather than just through meetings. I learn so much from my colleagues this way too.
Anyway, all that said, an added bonus to diversifying our collection – more great books piling up on my desk, waiting to be read!
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