Is our library collection diverse?

November 21, 2021

As we come to the end of November, which is National Native American Heritage Month (see image to right) and are in the mode of thinking about how to honor the heritage of the historically underrepresented groups in the United States, I wanted to give you, the community of Greene, an update on our progress towards diversifying our collection to include the experiences and voices of more of our students. This has been an ongoing task for me since I was first hired here in 2015.

My first challenge was figuring out the weaknesses of our existing collection. Some areas of need presented themselves almost immediately. In my second year here, one of our Pacific Islander students asked me if we had any books about Pacific Islanders. As of the 2020-21 school year, 1.4%, or about a dozen of our students, were Pacific Islanders, so I expected to be able to say yes and provide at least one book out of our 17,000+ book collection. The answer was no — there were no books about the Pacific Islands, nor any about Pacific Islanders, either fictional or nonfiction. And when I went looking in my reliable library purchasing vendors, I was only able to find one middle school appropriate book. It was about a Hawaiian surfer though, and most of our Pacific Islander students are from Tonga and Samoa.
I kept looking, and just this year I finally stumbled across a vendor out of New Zealand who specialized in books by and about Pacific Islanders, including Tonga and Samoa. I was able to purchase six new books for our collection (see image on left), and after getting shipped from New Zealand and cataloged, they are finally ready to check out!
Another area of need presented itself as I was weeding the fiction section and going through the books one by one to decide which ones to keep. I kept noticing that the majority of the books that we had in the collection with Black characters were written by White authors, and were found in the historical fiction section, specifically set in the eras of slavery and the civil rights movement. While these are both important parts of the American story, the story of Black people in the United States does not end in the 1960s. We needed more books that would show our students the experiences of young Black people now, that would reflect the wide diversity of Blackness in America and the world, and especially that were written by Black authors.
Since 2015, I have purchased 83 books by and about Black youth, the majority of which feature contemporary characters. The books have spanned a huge variety of genres, including biographies, fantasy, realistic fiction, horror & suspense, supernatural, science fiction and dystopias, adventure, graphic novels, and mysteries. This was made possible in part by the publishing industry, which has in the last six years begun publishing far more novels written by Black authors for young people. With these #ownstories books I hope to greatly expand the ways in which our young Black students see themselves reflected in the literature included in the library. I also hope expand the view of Black people that many of our White students hold that have been limited by years of reading books where the only Black characters were either enslaved or living under Jim Crow.
Other areas of focus for me in purchasing to try to better fit the needs of our students to see themselves in our books have included books about Asian American characters and history (Greene is 28% Asian American, including students from South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia), books about LGBTQIA+ characters and history (especially featuring racially and ethnically diverse LGBTQ experiences and transgender characters), books about Indigenous Americans set in the modern day and written by Indigenous American authors, books about Muslim and other non-Christian Americans, and books whose characters are dealing with learning and other disabilities.
This year has also seen a district-wide effort in all PAUSD libraries to more consciously work towards diversifying our collection, starting with an audit of our current collection. Auditing the collection means looking at every single title and analyzing it for content, bias & stereotyping. As you can imagine, this is a herculean task. To make it more manageable to begin with, each school has started with our Biography section, looking closely at whose stories we choose to honor and how. You can see the results of my audit of the Greene Biography collection here. This audit does not include the new biographies I have purchased this year, nor does it reflect the large quantity of books that I decided to get rid of subsequent to doing this audit, such as the biography of George Washington that only mentioned slavery once in a single paragraph at the end of the book. I hope to be able to repeat this audit next year and see a marked improvement.
Last, but not least, one of the key results of this work over the last few years here at Greene has been the creation of genre collections in our library catalog where students can go to find the experience and voices of the different groups in our community. If you would like to check them out for yourself, you can find them here: